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A black box with question mark, a certain "fear of the unknown," July 9, 2016. (http://socialcapitalmarkets.net).

A black box with question mark, a certain “fear of the unknown,” July 9, 2016. (http://socialcapitalmarkets.net).

The phrases “fear of the unknown” or “fear of the other” has been something that I’ve been familiar with as long as I’ve been in the classroom. So many essays, so many discussions, so many presentations where these stock phrases have greeted me in my capacity as instructor, professor, facilitator, administrator, and public speaker. Ultimately, the use of these all-too-often used phrases reflects the inability of the people who speak and write them to see other people as Homo sapiens, thus diminishing their humanity in the process.

The first time I seriously encountered either phrase, though, was in my second semester of teaching History of American Education in the College of Education at Duquesne University for MAT students. It was the fall of 1998, and I was teaching a required education foundations course (I was also doing Multicultural Education that semester). To be sure, there were a couple of veteran teachers who didn’t like having a twenty-eight year-old Black man telling them about the marbled history of their profession and the institutions for which they served as K-12 teachers. Some of their bigoted evaluation responses disclosed as much.

It was the week I lectured on the Southern and Eastern European immigrant experience in America’s emerging public school systems between roughly 1880 and 1930. In going through the efforts of educators to literally beat out of these children the language of their mother countries (e.g., Italian, Yiddish, Greek, Polish, etc.) while sorting them into lower intellectual tracks within public schools, I noted the anti-immigrant xenophobia among WASPs at that time. One of my students during discussion tried to explain it away as a WASP “fear of the unknown.” I asked, “What was the unknown? Were these immigrants aliens?” — in this case, I meant “extraterrestrials.”

Data Mining/Fear of the Unknown cartoon, Adam Zyglis, Buffalo News, July 6, 2013. (http://adamzyglis.buffalonews.com/2013/07/06/data-mining/).

Data Mining/Fear of the Unknown cartoon, Adam Zyglis, Buffalo News, July 6, 2013. (http://adamzyglis.buffalonews.com/2013/07/06/data-mining/).

The student didn’t really answer my question, as if “fear of the unknown” needed no explanation. But on the paper related to the experiences of the children of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, Black migrants, and working-class women, over and over again, the phrase “fear of the unknown” kept showing up. What made this use of phrase even more disappointing was an even more sobering Western Pennsylvanian reality. Most of my students were the descendants of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, some of whom were old enough to have had contact with grandparents who must have recounted their experiences with xenophobia in public education. That these students couldn’t possibly see the inhumanity of the phrase “fear of the unknown” made me question whether these current and future teachers should be in a classroom at all.

Luckily, I did manage to reach a few of my more skeptical students around these sorts of issues as this course progressed. After all, most teachers really do want to help their students. A couple even wrote me notes after slamming me in their evaluations about how my History of American Education course had opened their eyes to inequality and social reproduction in K-12 education.

Since then, I have remained keenly aware of when students, colleagues, public speakers, and fellow administrators (specifically in the context of the nonprofit world) have said or written the “fear of the unknown” or “fear of others” phrases. Mostly, it’s not in the context of White ethnics from an era in which “White” mostly meant “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.” Over the past fifteen years, I’ve seen and heard “fear of the unknown” in reference to Blacks, Latinos viewed only as free-loading immigrants, and Arab-Muslim Americans as US-hating terrorists. There have been students who have justified the race riots of the not-so-recent past (the ones where White mobs stormed into Black neighborhoods and burned them out while maiming and killing Black men, women, and children) with the phrase “fear of the unknown.” Or co-workers who’ve explained away their xenophobia or homophobia as a natural “fear of the other.” Or public speakers who’ve explained Islam as if it were a magical black box that churns out terrorists the way Detroit used to turn out automobiles.

Caravaggio's Narcissus (1594-96) , May 15, 2011. (Masur via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Caravaggio’s Narcissus (1594-96) , May 15, 2011. (Masur via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Stop it. Just stop it. What does “fear of the unknown” really mean? That you didn’t know that Black Americans were human beings with a need for work, education, housing, sleep, air to breathe, and food to eat? That you couldn’t conceive of Latinos as a group of folks who’ve been part of the American landscape (specifically Texas and the southwestern US) for far longer than there has been a US? That you can’t contemplate the idea that Arab Muslims have just as much right to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion, and assembly as any “red-blooded American?”

Using the phrase “fear of the unknown” says more about the people using it than it does about the “others” they attempt to describe as “unknowns.” All anyone really needs to know is that the so-called others are human beings. To say “unknown” or “other” means than you think you are superior to these “unknowns.” Or, conversely, that these “other” humans are not “normal,” that they are defective or not quite your equals. When groups of humans attempt to justify inequality or their fear with phrases like “fear of the unknown” or “fear of the other,” it means they have little or no empathy for the “unknown” or “other.” And when we as humans can cut ourselves off from other humans in this way, doesn’t that make us less humane, more “other” because we believe ourselves to be normal, even special, and therefore, better, than these “unknown others?”

Of course, there are tremendous psychological and material advantages to seeing other humans as “unknowns” and “others.” This week of #AltonSterling, #PhiladoCastile, and #Dallas has been proof positive of the value of some lives versus “unknown others.” The truth is, no Homo sapiens live in black holes. Unless those with the power to cut off empathy to their psychological and material advantage make a mental home for us there.