Last semester, I was lucky enough to be one of only four people accepted on to Yale’s slam poetry team, with the goal of attending the National College Poetry Slam at UT Austin in April. Unfortunately we weren’t able to go to the national competition due to finance issues, but we did get to practice every Sunday night, the utterly badass Alysia Harris. However, these practices were held at night in her apartment a solid few minutes from campus, which meant that I was often walking through new Haven at 10 or 11 PM. These were never scary walks by any means, but one in particular was rather eye opening.
On the night in question, I happened to pass by a young woman walking in the other direction. Given that it was a brutally cold night in the middle of March and I was happy to see another human being on the road, I smiled at her. To my surprise, though, instead of returning the smile she hunched her shoulders and hurried past me. It wasn’t until I got home and had time to think about her reaction to me that I realized how threatening I must have looked. In the middle of the night on an empty street far from campus, It wouldn’t be at all odd to regard a bundled up male walking toward you and smiling at you with some suspicion. After all, similar situations have led to heartbreaking events all too often in the past. With that realization came an unwelcome and troubling question: Am I someone’s bogeyman?
It’s a question that, as much as I might want to, I can’t dismiss because the answer is probably yes. I am someone’s bogeyman, and likely more than one someone’s. In too many stories where the protagonist is a young woman, someone who looks like me becomes the antagonist when they can’t take no for an answer. Too many young women have plenty of reason to fear men who look like me.
Is this to say that some nefarious haters of young white men is trying to turn the culture against people like me, or that I’m destined to commit the acts some mothers are afraid I will? No, of course not. Just becasue other people like me have done terrible things does not mean that I will do terrible things. But at the same time, people will always try to protect their children or siblings or friends, and when those people are young women going into college, one sensible way to protect them is to warn them about young, brash, privileged white men, far too many of whom act as if they are entitled to the attentions and affections of young women, with heartbreaking results.
This is far from unique to young men in college, however, and plenty of people endure something far, far worse than the awkward moments I do. I am often given the benefit of the doubt, and even when I’m not the consequences are never dire. For others, being someone’s bogeyman is an instant judgment that can lead to a life harder and, in the worst cases, far shorter than it was mean to be. This fear of those who look like people who’ve scared us in the past is understandable, but it’s something that, even if we can understand it, we need to guard against. For our sake and for the sake of others.