11/08/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Renisha McBride: Knocking While Black

For a brief period, I lived in a small college town on a windswept prairie that was considered by many--many white people-- to be the safest place on earth. It was picturesque, with rows of Victorian houses and fine oak trees. Its bank was turned into an old-timey museum. And there was a plus: this town, which won the honor of being one of the prettiest painted towns (yes there is a prize for this) was far from the big city where crime and pollution and squalor--like the devil--lay coiled like a serpent.

Of course, I never felt safe the entire time I was in this jewel box of a town. Yes, I was a professor and stood in the protective wing of a college that leant its very name to the town. But for me, small cute rural towns are scary places. Suburbs, too, fill me with dread, precisely because they are nostalgic imitations of the countryside that my town embodied.

You see: I'm a person of color and idyllic locations like little towns fill me with dread.

So, like the rest of America, I was shocked to hear about the fatal shooting of Renisha McBride, a 19 year old black girl, who got into a car accident late at night and made the mistake of knocking on a stranger's door in a wealthy suburb only to get a bullet in her head.
Yes, I was shocked but not in the least surprised.

You see, this is the exact fear that I once harbored during my period in this town: every time I knocked on a strange door, I was sure that I was going to have my head blown off. It made me nervous if I was invited to a dinner party at a stranger's house; I always made sure I arrived as part of another group.

I'm not black. I'm Asian American. But late at night, in a certain slant of light, I'm just a spook, a boogey man, a creep. I could see how a wary homeowner in hunting country could over-react to a stranger at the door.

Lest you think I'm overreacting, what happened to Renisha, actually happened to a Japanese foreign exchange student in Louisiana: he knocked on a door; he was shot; he was gone.

There is a street in my town where there are no addresses. Grand, magisterial houses like that don't really need addresses. I recall, at the beginning of the year during the festivities, I was invited to a professor's house. "I'll leave the door open," he said. And I was two hours late--casserole in hand--because I walked up and down the street, listening for the sound of a party as the Fall sunlight dwindled and the street became a tracery of shadows.

Knocking on the wrong door, I was sure, would only spell catastrophe.

I don't know exactly what was going on in Renisha McBride's mind late that night when she was shot dead on the front porch of a stranger's house. My heart goes out to her family. I just know that Renisha must have been very desperate to find herself in such a circumstance--that her desperation must have been so extreme, so dire that she overcame basic instinct and knocked on a door in a wealthy suburb expecting, not violence, but help.