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Rob Jenkins - Racism, prejudice, and big scary me

You might not know it from reading this column, but I'm a pretty scary dude.

Yeah, it surprises me, too. But there I was, rounding a corner in the library to find a woman I know waiting alone for an elevator. She glanced up and literally jumped, then put her hand to her chest as she recognized me.

"You scared me to death," she said.

Admittedly, I'm not a small guy - about 6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds, or roughly the same size as Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington, who sadly is not a scary dude, at least to opposing defenses.

Interestingly, the woman in this anecdote is black. I mention that because much is made of the fact that white women are afraid of big strange black men, and what that says about our presumably racist society.

I don't doubt that many white women are indeed afraid of big strange black men. However, I would like to add that many white women are probably afraid of big strange white men, too, and that apparently some black women are afraid of big strange white men (like me) and perhaps even big strange black men.

So maybe the operative words are really "big," "strange," and "men." Which would make sense: most violence against women is perpetrated by men.

That's not to say racism, or discrimination based on skin color, isn't alive and well. But it does suggest that behaviors we traditionally attribute to racism may sometimes arise from less hateful forms of prejudice.

After all, "prejudice" simply means to pre-judge. We all do this, jumping to conclusions based on the way people look or dress or talk. Many of those conclusions are irrational, and we know it even as we jump.

But not all pre-judgments are irrational. Say I'm walking through the city and encounter a group of black youths in baggy jeans and hoodies. I'm probably going to cross the street. Prejudice? Sure. Those kids could be coming home from a chess club meeting, for all I know. But is it racism?

Consider another scenario. Say I'm driving cross-country with my family and we stop at a roadside diner. Once inside, we find the place filled with burly, tattooed bikers in black leather. I'm probably going to put my family back in the SUV and head down the road to Cracker Barrel.

Why? Because even though not all guys who dress like outlaw bikers really are outlaw bikers, nearly all outlaw bikers dress like outlaw bikers. Likewise, not all kids who dress like gangbangers actually are gangbangers, but virtually all gangbangers look the part.

So crossing the street or leaving the restaurant is really just a sensible form of self-preservation. Similarly, my friend was probably wise to be a little afraid until she saw who I was.

And if she'd known about all my library fines, I'm sure she would've been terrified.