Social Anxiety Masquerading as Prejudice

About those times my odd behavior looked discriminatory…

In January 2017, I was even more anxious and aloof than usual. I was spending a couple of days with my parents, who live in a mostly white town in New Jersey, during a traumatic period of my life.

One cold morning, with a throbbing migraine, I went out for a walk alone in the nearby cemetary. I didn’t expect anyone to be there: precisely the reason I’d chosen that location for a walk.

However, there was a woman of color also taking a walk in the cemetary, and we were walking towards each other on the same path. I happen to be white, but I had been living in ethnically diverse Queens for the past several years, so in spite of coming from a pretty homogenous town, I was more accustomed to working and living in places where white people were the minority. I have no hangups about race.

On the other hand, I am not known for gregariousness. As a general rule, I do not make verbal contact with strangers, even to ask for directions. I am guilty of sometimes taking the long way to avoid passing people who know me, just to avoid conversation. I know that may sound cold and unfriendly to some, but for those who’ve experienced social anxiety disorder, it’s a familiar part of life. Since I was a child, I’ve always been somewhat afraid of people. I stopped having birthday parties at age seven because I could not tolerate being around so many people. Even when I want to speak to someone, I may be too timid to do so. Only people who I’ve really warmed up to can coax me out of my shell, all others will have to catch me on a really freakin’ good day.

Photo by Fernando Maté on Unsplash

In short, if this woman was expecting any sort of cheerful morning greeting from me, she was about to be sorely disappointed. I would not have opened my mouth even had I walked by someone cloned from my DNA.

Instead, I shuffled along with my eyes cast downwards as if she wasn’t there — I wanted to be invisible. Being traumatized, sleep deprived, and suffering a foul headache, I probably had resting bitch face for days.

As I was about to pass her, she said loudly, almost reproachfully, “Good MORNING!”

I said it back, trying to fake a pleasant attitude. I’m not a hateful person, and I think most everyone deserves to have a good morning. It’s just so hard to say it. I rarely even said to my own family when living with them. Whether a person is black or white makes literally zero difference, though I wonderered if that’s what she thought.

It did cross my mind what an unusual sight it was to see her in my melanin-lacking hometown. I wondered how she was treated by everyone else. I hoped she hadn’t encountered any racists. I wondered if she thought I was one. That was all very concerning to me.

I know it’s not really her fault if she thought I was ignoring her because of the color of her skin. She’d be wrong, but I’d done nothing to convincingly demonstrate otherwise. Later, she called out and asked if I was okay, perhaps after noticing me walking around in circles in a daze. I wasn’t about to give a Powerpoint presentation about all that was not okay with my life at that very moment, but at least took the opportunity to tell her I had a killer headache. I hope it reassured her there were no prejudicial feelings behind my silence.

I guess I kind of admire people like her, who can walk around and chirp “Good morning!” to total strangers. Maybe she was naturally gifted with a sense of hospitality, and not cursed with social anxiety, or maybe she was anxious too and just managed to fight it better than I could. Important to realize, I do not know for certain what she was thinking, so there’s a chance that she never thought I was racist at all. It could have been all in my head. Social anxiety puts all kinds of scary ideas in there. The preceding story is really just one example of experiences that I’ve had too often to count.

When you encounter people like me with our social anxiety and our headaches and our resting bitch faces, please don’t be put off by our “odd” behavior. I don’t want to look mean, prejudiced, or racist, yet I understand why it may come off that way, given the color of my skin and the long history of racial tension in the United States. If you’ve encountered people who’ve acted the same way I described, it might be that they really meant no harm and they were wishing you a good morning anyway — just more silently.

Henry is an avid reader, writer, composer, and consumer of documentary films. He supports dialogue about mental health, race relations, and the LGBTQ community.

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