As a black person, you get used to people clutching a lot of things at the sight of you: subway riders securing their phones as you board the train, police officers placing their hands on their holsters as you walk by them, senior citizens preparing to use whatever they’re gripping in their pockets when they find themselves alone on a dark street with you. But those moments aren’t nearly as rife in the black experience as the phenomenon of women clutching their purses.

It happened to me so often in 2017 that I spent the following year documenting every time I noticed it. I wanted to know how often it happened and, most importantly, why? What triggered it? Was it something I was wearing? The time of day? Certain locations? I recorded the encounters with as much detail as possible, along with personal epiphanies, questions and notes. I logged only those moments in which, based on timing and details, it felt beyond a reasonable doubt that the purse clutching was in reaction to my presence, proximity or movement, and unlikely by coincidence. By the end of the year, I counted at least nine times that women, of various races and ages, had suddenly felt the need to secure their valuables after I turned a corner, made eye contact with them, or walked by.

The major takeaway from my experiment was this: The custom of purse clutching is more nuanced than being simply “racial profiling.” It has many roles. Different women, of various backgrounds, use the tactic for different reasons and under different circumstances. Some do it impulsively, others nonchalantly, others to send a deliberate, albeit passive, message. For some, it appears to be a status marker.

I learned that, ultimately, the practice is rooted in one major concept: society’s distorted image of the black man. Comedian and social commentator D.L. Hughley once said that “the most dangerous place for black people to live is in a white person’s imagination.” While provocative, countless studies back him up. Endless research shows that American culture has historically tainted the image of black men, women, and even children, to the point that people, including black people themselves, associate criminality and deviance with blackness, sometimes without even realizing it (what scholars call “implicit bias”). A series of Stanford University studies, for instance,  showed that people see black men as being larger and more threatening than white men of the same size. Another study showed white people “superhumanize” black people, believing black people are stronger and “mystical,” thus having higher thresholds for pain.

Perceptions of black people are so warped that they have dire, sometimes deadly, consequences. Studies show that police officers see black boys as less innocent than white boys, making black boys more likely to encounter physical force during interactions with police. Teachers have been shown to anticipate bad behavior from black students compared to white students in as early as preschool, leading to higher expulsion and suspension rates for black students by high school. Studies show that some medical professionals believe black people have thicker skin and feel less pain, which is a possible contributor to higher rates of black infant mortality and death rates among black expecting mothers. Black men are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes or receive harsher punishments for the same crimes as white people for appearing more aggressive and violent to jurors, judges and prosecutors. Even in death, studies show, criminality is often used to posthumously “de-victimize” and justify the killings of black men by police officers, even if the black victims were unarmed when killed.

With such a twisted and deformed mental picture of black people, particularly of black men, it’s no surprise some people are easily frightened by or leery of their proximity.

Of the nine instances of purse clutching I documented in 2018, several involved women reacting in what appeared to be sheer, impulsive panic, sometimes irrationally. On February 18, 2018, a senior-aged white woman was occupying one of the first pair of seats on a New Jersey Transit bus. The bus was suburban-style, meaning all the seats were in pairs and facing the same way, like a Greyhound or charter bus. I was sitting toward the back. Once the bus reached the final stop, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the woman waited with her purse and some shopping bags in the seat next to her as an aisle of passengers slowly passed by her to deboard. As I approached, about two seats away, the woman took a good look at me and secured the purse sitting next to her. Even though it would have been difficult for me to take it and run off the bus, whose door was being blocked by the crowd of people getting off, the woman seemed to envision otherwise. The timing of her actions makes it hard to believe it was a coincidence. It’s also not the only time I’ve seen it happen. In fact, the rhythm, to which she did not skip a beat, fit a familiar pattern.

Another time I had just finished grocery shopping one night in October and was making my way out the store. Both my hands were full, gripping bags. A middle-aged white woman and a man were sitting on a bench on the sidewalk outside the store. There was a backpack on the woman’s right, the side closest to me. As I began walking in their direction, the woman noticed me and stared for bit. Once it was clear that I’d be walking past them and the bench (instead of turning toward the parking lot) the woman turned around and casually put one arm through one of the backpack straps.

It would have been unlikely for me to have been able to grab the woman’s backpack with shopping bags in my hands, but it looked as if she were reacting “just in case,” having watched me to see how close I’d get before deciding it was best not to leave her backpack unattended. I wrote in my notes that the process felt too familiar: I’d end up making eye contact with a woman, who’d give a quick expression of thought, and would immediately grab her bag or purse, as if my presence served as a reminder to stay alert, even if I was not a plausible threat. Neither the woman at the grocery store nor the woman on the bus had cared about their bags sitting next to them, until they saw me (and more importantly, saw that I had noticed them), even as other people passed around.

Other times, the clutching was less of a reaction and more of a warning. When I was in Chicago for a conference, I made a run to a local Whole Foods and then to a second grocery store. As I was coming out of an aisle, a young white woman had just come into the store. Once she saw me she quickly grabbed the strap of the purse hanging on her shoulder as if startled, but kept her hand there as I passed, staring at me as if sending a message. It didn’t matter that I was in the store before her, or was carrying a Whole Foods bag, it was late and she was alone and seemed to feel the need to communicate to me that she was being vigilant.

Having lived in Chicago, a culturally segregated town with a public image issue regarding crime, this did not surprise me. It was in this very neighborhood, the upscale River North, around 2014 that on my way home from working the late shift as a web producer at the Chicago Tribune I found myself walking behind a young white man. For at least three or four blocks the man made deliberate efforts to look over his shoulder and make eye contact with me repeatedly–just to let me know he was aware I was behind him. When I lived in the predominantly white Chicago neighborhood of Lakeview, on a couple occasions, older people who noticed me walking behind them would step to side, place their hands in their pockets (grabbing who knows what) and let me pass in front of them before feeling comfortable enough to continue walking.

That’s exactly what happened to me on October 21, 2018 on my way to the same grocery store where I encountered the woman with the backpack. It was late at night and I found myself behind a middle-aged black woman walking alone. I tried coughing and making noise as not to startle her, but she didn’t look back. Eventually she did turn around and suddenly slowed her pace and stepped to the side to let me pass. I was not surprised. It was late and she was walking alone, but I wondered if she’d have done the same if I were a young white guy, or how often young white men even experience such a thing.

The Log (edited version of notes)

Some women defend clutching, with pride. When I was an undergrad student in 2010 I posted on Facebook how a recent uptick in campus crime reports led to my noticing female students clutching their purses at night. One of my friends responded to the post with:  “Honestly, I do that when I see any lone male approaching me anymore, regardless of race. With all the recent crimes on campus, I can’t be too paranoid.”

Women face a certain vulnerability and fear that I will never be able to understand. Many employ passive-aggressive defenses for their own safety and survival. At the start of my purse clutching experiment I bookmarked a viral Facebook post that argued that women sometimes use rudeness to protect themselves from men who could potentially prey on their kindness. This sentiment is echoed in tweets and blog posts exposing the great lengths to which women have to go in order to ensure their safety, opting for a “better safe than sorry” approach to dealing with strange men. Unfortunately, purse clutching and an intentional expression of fear seems to be one of these tactics.

I witnessed this technique firsthand once. A friend and I were waiting outside the Booth Theatre one December day in 2017 waiting to snag rush tickets. A seemingly homeless man approached us. His ramblings to us appeared harmless at first, but he suddenly became more animated, banging rolled-up paper for emphasis on the metal barricade behind us. My friend became visibly uncomfortable, but the man wouldn’t leave. My friend then slowly and dramatically reached for her purse, which was sitting on the barricade behind us, not just to secure it, but to communicate and demonstrate to the man that she was uncomfortable and wanted him to leave.

Exploiting racial and power dynamics can become a defense mechanism. I accidentally stepped on a woman’s shoe once while riding a transit bus. I looked at the woman and apologized. She did not respond, so I apologized again just in case she didn’t hear me the first time and would think I was being rude. The second time, however, she looked at me, adjusted her bag and held it in place, as if to say “I heard you, but want you to leave me alone.” For some women, this strategy appears to be a means for survival and safety. It is unclear, though, what this means for the pain it causes men who are dinged in some women’s “better him than me” approach to avoiding a theoretical pain of their own.

Most times, it is hard to know exactly what is triggering a woman’s sudden need to adjust her purse strap, pick up the bag sitting next to her or start rummaging through it when I appear. I often wonder if it’s a coincidence, or if she is being cautious, or didn’t want to hit me with it as we passed by, perhaps. There is a paranoia that develops. There were plenty of suspicious incidents that didn’t make my log.

But one thing is clear: Many people, indeed, set an invisible anti-black boundary around themselves. When it’s crossed, they react. As long as you don’t look at them, move too close to them, or walk on the same street or in the same neighborhood, you’re fine. Many of the women I encountered did not react until we happened to make eye contact, I happened to walk in their direction, or both. On March 24 I was making my way down the stairs of a shop on the Upper West Side and a very elderly white woman was standing on the landing in between the flights of stairs. Once she saw me coming down and made brief eye contact, she casually began to “adjust” her purse as if my presence reminded her to check for something inside. The notion that I must bow my head and keep a safe distance, lest I make women feel threatened, appears several times in my notes.

“Many people, indeed, set an invisible anti-black boundary around themselves…As long as you don’t look at them, move too close to them or walk on the same street or in the same neighborhood, you’re fine. “

This is not something only women do. In early February of this year, after the project, I was coming up the escalator to the second level of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. A group of people, two men and one woman (neither white), passed by the escalator as I was coming up. One of the men glanced over his shoulder as I was exiting the escalator and turning to walk behind them. They were about 12 feet in front of me when the guy looked at me again. Even though there were a dozen or so other people walking in the same direction, he seemed fixated on me, but I didn’t think much of it. As my stride was faster, I ended up catching up with the group and walking around them. Once in front of them I heard the man who had been eyeing me mutter “don’t cross over me. I don’t like when people cross over me like that.” I turned around to look at him and, louder, he said “yeah you. I don’t like when people cross over me like that.” It was infuriating to hear someone tell me to watch where I walk in their presence–that I as a black man had to be careful as not to “cross over” or walk behind anyone, in a crowded public space, no less.

Though no one has ever verbalized it to me the way this man had, I have seen this very reaction before–people being startled or uncomfortable with me simply walking in their direction or being “too close” to them, no matter how normal such a circumstance would be in a crowded, public place such as the New York Port Authority, a sidewalk, or, as a countless viral videos have shown, pretty much anywhere (a Starbucks, a college lounge, an upscale apartment building, etc.). I am just minding my business and going about my day and suddenly I am being profiled, called out either verbally or passive aggressively for crossing an invisible boundary.

Brushing these things off  and normalizing ignorance is part of the black experience and essential to survival. We must simply get used to being immediately feared, doubted, underestimated, or judged until people have reassured themselves that our blackness is safe. We must always look on the bright side of these things and sweep the microagressions under the rug. When people ask me how my trip to Spain was in 2017, for instance, I honestly say it was great, despite the fact that European tourists clutching their purses or shopkeepers shamelessly following me around stores were fixtures in my experience there.

Some black people take pride in challenging the ignorance and proving people wrong. In Barcelona, two shopkeepers at a small grocery store near our hotel were so blatant in their surveillance of me and my friend that I refused to buy anything from the store. My friend, on the other hand, bought fruit, later arguing that leaving without buying anything could have justified the storekeepers’ prejudices.

But people, of all races, must learn to check their biases on their own. The burden should not always fall on victims of racial profiling to prove that they deserve to be treated as normal human beings and not as threatening monsters that feel no pain and seek to cause it. It’s true that people, especially women, have the right to do whatever they feel necessary to protect themselves and feel safe, but perhaps there are ways of going about it that do not promote other forms of oppression.  Throughout my experiment I occasionally jotted down some ways that might help people triggered by the presence or proximity of black men to think twice about reacting in fear:

Ways to Avoid Racial Profiling (for men and women of all backgrounds):

  • Ask yourself, is this person actually doing something odd, suspicious or alarming, or are they just black? That is, is there a reason to be scared, or is this just a “fight or flight” response to their blackness?
  • Think: Would you feel this way if the person were white, and everything else about the situation were the same?
  • Consider if what you’re afraid of is even humanly possible (i.e. make sure the person of which you are leery isn’t holding grocery bags or on a bus full of people with no escape before envisioning them harming or robbing you).
  • Get into the habit of being aware of your surroundings, and keeping your valuables, such as your purse or cellphone, secured at all times. Don’t wait until black people come around to suddenly become cautious. That is to say, don’t pick and choose when to be vigilant, because chances are your bias and prejudice will dictate your decision.
  • Come up with better ways to express discomfort or to keep people at bay. Don’t use racism as a shield, crutch or power play. Be above weaponizing racist stereotypes for a sense of personal safety or comfort, especially when the “threat” is totally imaginary or hypothetical.
  • Finally, get over yourself. Chances are you’re a nobody to the person you’re afraid of, who is likely a normal person going about their day just as you are (an equal). Their presence is likely a bigger deal to you than yours is to them. Nobody wants your purse, your obsolete Android, or the imaginary money you think they think you must have. And if they did, chances are there’d be enough context clues for someone who is behavior profiling and not racially profiling (please see tips 1-3).