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© 1976/2009 by H.B. Koplowitz

I first used the term Afrophobia and described some of its characteristics in a column I wrote in 1976 as a college student for the SIU Daily Egyptian. I made up the word by modifying another term that was floating around, "homophobia." I can't claim to have coined the term, since it has yet to be coined -- like honkeyphobia, the word is seldom used or discussed, perhaps because the phenomenon is rare, or because people prefer not to acknowledge its existence. Below is the column.

Let's not beat around the bush. We are talking about white people who have an irrational fear of black people.

The Afrophobic finds the everyday chance encounter with a black person an unsettling experience: Just passing a black person on the street or standing next to one in a bar can bring on vertigo, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, even paralysis. But the anxiety of passive proximity is miniscule compared to the Afrophobic's terror of an actual collision where, say, a tall, well-groomed, black, proud and beautiful person asks for a match.

Afrophobia is a sub-category of a set of phobias, call them social phobias, where someone is unjustifiably afraid of members of a particular social or ethnic group. There is upper-class phobia, lower-class phobia, sexy-girl phobia, handicapped-phobia, and, of course, homophobia.

Afrophobics aren't racist in the conventional sense. They hold no grudge, carry no bias, display no malice. Just a blind, irrational and uncontrollable terror when in the vicinity of black people.

To deal with the fright, an Afrophobic will use a variety of defense mechanisms. Avoidance is one of the most common. So is transference, whereby the fear is transferred to an emotion easier to cope with -- namely, hatred.

There are other reactions that are less obvious. What one is most afraid of can also become an object of awe and fascination. And some Afrophobics will seek out the company of blacks as friends or lovers out of masochism or guilt rather than compatibility or genuine desire.

Most blacks will cut the Afrophobic some slack. But some will seize upon the weakness and use it to their own malevolent ends, which only reinforces the phobia.

Whether an Afrophobic hates blacks or not, however, Afrophobia is racist in the fundamental sense that the personality disorder disrupts communications and upsets relations between members of different races: An Afrophobic just can't help viewing a black person as some sort of "fright object" rather than as a human being. Therefore, each Afrophobic should attempt to find a solution that works for him or her. The technique suggested below may not be for everyone and it doesn't come with a guarantee. But it is relatively simple and shouldn't get you in trouble.

Neither avoid blacks nor take one to lunch. Don't make a cause out of it. Just go about your normal life, and when you encounter a black person, become aware of your body -- the pitter-patter of your heart, the unevenness of your breathing, the shaking in your hands. Try to control that nervous laugh, and meet the other person's eyes as long as you can. Don't project bravado you don't feet. Be cool, be bland, try to relax.

It may take one encounter or a thousand, but somewhere along the way, you should develop better control over those nervous gestures. And looking calm is halfway to actually being calm. The appearance of calm usually makes social interaction less intense, which should add to your confidence. And who knows, maybe one day you'll arrive at that magic moment when you step back from a conversation and realize that you are actually relating and have forgotten about the color barrier.

Until that day arrives, however, just do the best you can. Don't feel guilty, don't decide it's easier to hate than fear. Don't force it.

And if you happen to be on the other side of the racial divide, just try not to laugh. Give the goof a break.


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Carbondale After Dark
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