When I was a little kid, my mother says, I was fearless. I would go up to even the biggest dog and, in the telling German phrase, put my hand right in its mouth – no fear at all. But when I was three, we were visiting at a great-aunt’s house, and she had a German Shepherd. He jumped out at me from behind a door, barking – it badly frightened me.
I don’t remember any of this. What I do remember is being afraid of dogs – debilitatingly so. The worst were German Shepherds, but it could be any dog, and particularly if it was barking and running at me. The lady on the third floor of the house across the street had a dachshund – I was scared of going over and ringing her doorbell, because the dog would start barking. A dachshund, for crying out loud, a silly wiener dog!
But the worst was another neighbour. We lived on a short cul-de-sac that only had one entrance way. Along that road was a family who had a large dog – well, what seemed like a large dog to me as a child; I think he might have been a collie. Their fence ran along the whole lane, and it had a small gate in the middle. The dog wasn’t out in the yard that much, but every once in a while, when we’d ride our bikes down the road, he’d run along the fence behind the hedge, barking. And once or twice, the gate was open, and the dog was out on the street. Not running or barking, just out wandering about – and I was terrified.
Now, as I said, this was the only access road to get to the end of the cul-de-sac where my house was, so I had to walk along that fence every single time I came home from school. And every single time, I was scared of that dog being there. I remember walking up to the corner, where the tall hedges of the yards met, and stopping. Carefully, I would lean forward, and carefully I would peer around the corner. Was the gate open? Usually, it wasn’t, so I’d heave a sigh of relief and scuttle up the road to reach home in safety.
A few times, however, it was open. I distinctly remember that on at least one occasion I retreated, went back a few hundred metres and around another corner, and stood there waiting, hoping that somebody would come and close that gate so the dog wouldn’t come out and bark at me. After a little while, I went back and did another stop-and-peer manoeuvre – the gate was still open. But the dog was nowhere in sight, so maybe I could risk it? I took a deep breath, and I ran for it. No barking, no attack by a slavering fiend – I made it!
The next day, I went right back to peering carefully around the corner, my heart in my throat – because you never know, do you?
Yes, I know, it sounds silly. The dog in question was, I’m sure, a perfectly harmless, friendly creature – this was a family with children, so his barking was probably only a desire to play. But that didn’t matter. I was scared of dogs, and of barking dogs in particular, so that was that.
In fact, I’m still scared of big barking dogs. Oh, I’m fine with dachshunds now – anything that’s no taller than my knee doesn’t really scare me, and my knee is considerably higher now than it was back then.
But – do me a favour, will you? If I’m coming over to visit you, and you have a big dog, particularly a German Shepherd, don’t let it rush out barking at me. I don’t care that your dog is the friendliest creature ever, and that, look, he’s really smiling at me, and that the wagging tail says he’s so happy to see me, and him jumping up on me and slobbering all over me only means I’m one of his favourite people, and he’d never harm a fly anyway. I don’t care, because I’m bloody well scared of big barking dogs! One frightened me, a long time ago, and I’ve never gotten over it.
Well, thank you for understanding. I knew you were a real friend.
So then today, I was in another one of those white-people conversations. It all started with me mentioning how I’ve been taken aback on re-reading some of the wonderful classics of British detective fiction (namely Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown) at how racist some of these stories are. Just casually racist, like that’s perfectly normal (which, sadly, it was, a hundred years ago when those stories were written).
And it set one of the other people around the table off on one of those white-privilege rants – you know the ones, to the tune of “All this talk of racism today is a bunch of politically correct nonsense; this stuff happened a long time ago; we can’t change the past, so why do these people get all this special treatment now; they should just get over it and be treated like the rest of us!” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)
Oh brother. I wasn’t going to get into a big argument with them – that’s usually not very productive. But on the way home, I thought about it. And what I thought was this: A lot of white people, in the Western world, are walking around with a chip on their shoulder. We’re being picked on, they say, for being white. Those others, they’re getting special privileges because their ancestors were being abused by people of our skin colour or culture. That’s not fair – now we’re being picked on, and it’s not our fault! Unfair! Poor us!
Well, let me ask you this: Am I being unfair when I’m asking you to not let your big dog rush at me and bark? Yes, probably I am. It’s not your sweet Fido’s fault that my great-aunt’s German Shepherd traumatised me when I was a toddler. But I’m still traumatised. I still react with fear to the noise a large dog makes, even if that fear is not rational.
And because you’re my friend, you are willing to help me with that fear. You are willing to (unfairly) curb your dog’s exuberance, so I can learn to trust one more dog, which will go yet another step towards teaching me to trust all dog-kind. I will probably never entirely lose my fear of large barking dogs – the scars are too deep, and too deeply buried, for that. My friends will probably always have to accommodate me in this way, at least a little bit.
And the same goes in the much bigger picture for us white people. It will be a long, long time before the injuries our ancestors’ actions have inflicted on those of other colours and cultures will start to heal. And until they do, we have to accommodate them. Yes, it might be a little inconvenient for us. Yes, it might seem a bit unfair. But it’s justice. It’s what friends do.
And that’s not too much to ask, is it? No, I didn’t think so.
Life, the Universe, Big Dogs and Privilege. It’s really not that hard.