The scary image of a black man [l’omo nero] has been in my imaginary since I was a little child. Somehow the fault reside in the subtle racism of Italian mothers. In the late seventies, the best way to frighten a child, in Italy, was to tell them that a black man would have come in the night, and would have taken you away. So, be quiet and sleep. Or the black man will come!
And then, at age forty, I met the black man. He was hiding in the darkness, and yes, I got fucking scared. Everything started when I forgot to pick up my cloths from the laundromat, in the basement of our apartment building. It was almost midnight, and I said: “Oh, I forgot our stuff downstairs in the drying machine. I will go and pick it up!”
The dark and silent room
There I was, walking down the stairs, then crossing the corridor in the basement, and finally reaching the laundromat room at the end of the underground labyrinth. The laundromat door was closed (they close it at 22.00), so I had to use my key. When I entered, and the door closed behind my back, it was so dark that I could not see anything. I walked few steps in the silent room, waving my hands to turn on the automatic lights. But nothing happened. I reached my pocket to take out the mobile — so to have some light — but apparently I forgot to take it. I felt a bit uneasy, but I walked further. The laundromat room consists actually of three separate rooms, and a corridor. I walked few steps, and turned left to enter the main room, where the dryers are located. Suddenly I stopped. A feeling of fear penetrated my mind and my body. “Don’t be stupid, nothing can happen” — I was repeating to myself. Still, in the darkness and in the absolute silence I felt like that little child, scared to take a step forward.
In a second, I was out. I opened the door, and started to walk very fast back to the stairs. And then up to our apartment. “I will take the mobile with me, and have some light”, I told to myself. I was feeling quite stupid. A forty year old man, scared of a dark room. It did not happened before, and I could not explain it. I also had the idea to bring some “weapon” with me. It has been just a second, but in that moment I thought that — maybe — to have a frying pan with me, going back to to that room, could have been a reasonable idea. A frying pan would not kill anyone, I thought, but I could well use it to hit an aggressor and to knock him out for the time needed to reach out and call for help.
Two dark pupils, in the night
When I entered our apartment, my sister-in-law (who was visiting us for some days, and who is a brave girl) asked me: “what happened, where are the cloths?”. It was dark, I explained, and I need a light. I’ll come with you, she said. Oh, no, no need for that — my not-too-convincing answer. In my heart, I hoped she would join my expedition to the dark room. No need to bring the frying pan, I thought.
So, our two mobiles in our hands as modern torches, we both made our way into the dark laundromat. We were walking side by side, carefully minding every step, guided by the evanescent blue light of our mobiles screens. The silence was reigning around us. Once we entered the dryers room, I walked toward the left corner, leaving her two or three meters behind. There, my clothes were supposed to be. I reached the dryer machine number 7, but the door was open and inside it was empty. I turned my head to the left, with the mobile in front of me. And I jumped back with a suffocated scream of panic. Two dark pupils, fixed in their respective yellowish bulbs, were staring at me. Silent, hiding between two dryer machines, and covered with someone else underwear, the black man was standing still.
And now I had to take a decision
In the fraction of a millisecond, I had to take a decision: should I scream? Should I run away? Should I punch him? How tall is he? Taller than me? Why the hell didn’t I take the frying pan? But what is he doing there? Is he also taking his cloths? No, the black man seemed as scared as I was, but he was definitively hiding, there, in that corner, under a mass of cloths. And what about my sister-in-law?
I decided to play cool. When my sister-in-law heard my gasp, she asked “what did happen?”. I did not answer, maybe she saw him, maybe she did not. I reached for her, with a quick look I identified where my cloths were (thanks god, that man did not choose my stuff as a hiding camouflage), and I swiftly pushed everything in a bag. Everything happened in a second. My sister-in-law did not have the time to react: I took her hand and pulled her out with me.
Just before getting out of the room, afraid that he could follow us, or react, or whatever, I decided to send a signal. And I said, loudly: “Good night!” — From the darkness, an echo answered: “Good night!”. Hearing that unexpected voice, my sister-in-law realized that someone else was in the room and screamed with all the air she had in her lungs. We run out, through the corridor, and up the stairs. “What the fuck was that? What the fuck?”
An interesting ethical dilemma
Once back to our apartment, we had to decide what do to. And this was a nice ethical dilemma. For sure, he was hiding there. So maybe he was hiding from the police. Or maybe the black man was just a homeless. Outside is quite cold, so it is possible that he found refuge for one night in that room. Should we leave him there, and have a warm night? Or maybe he is really hiding from the police? So we need to call for help, as any law abiding citizen. And what if he was a rapist? What if, instead of me — a forty years old guy, my twenty years old sister-in-law would have met him alone?
And how much — my judgement of these events — was influenced by the fact that that the skin of that man was dark? Was my imaginary playing a role, there? The stories of the “black man” told by my mother? Or were my feelings biased by some racism. Despite my liberal attitude, in that moment of fear, archetypes could play a stronger role than reason. That man in the darkness was probably — guessing an ethnic identity is never a nice, nor a fair game — he was probably Indian, or so. Would I have had the same feelings, meeting the blue eyes of a blond Swede, in that dark room? Would I have thought about a rapist? About a homeless? Or would I have rather imagined a guy too drunk to find the door of home, someone thrown out by his girlfriend, or a guy who just forgot the keys of his apartment?
The question is: how deep prejudices and racism are inside us? How the stories you heard as a child influence you? When I will have a son, or a daughter, I will never tell them stories about “the black man”, and I will possibly buy them multi-ethnic dolls. Will this be enough? How will I build their imaginary, so that they will not judge situations based on the color of someone’s skin?
The photos is this post
Afghan Refugees in Pakistan, seen by Associated Press photographer Muhammed Muheisen. More: The Atlantic, in focus.