Race Relations

Do Not Move Off The Sidewalk Challenge: Holding Your Space in A White World

Last year, I was in the airport on the rolling walkway with clear directions posted before stepping on the sidewalk to ‘stand on the right or walk on the left.’ There was a White man in front of me that disregarded the sign and stood in the middle of the rolling walkway preventing anyone from passing him. Behind me, I could hear someone approaching, and I turned around and saw a middle age Black woman walking briskly with her rolling suitcase flying behind her. I pressed myself and my luggage against the side rail to move out of her way and allow her easy access to pass me. She whizzed by me and in front of her was the White man, oblivious that she was behind him and in an apparent rush. He never turned around, never moved and never once thought that others behind him might need to pass. While I would like to say the Black woman, leaped over him, luggage in tow in a single bound, she stopped dead in her tracks. She never said a word. She never politely tapped the man on the shoulder to say, “Excuse me, may I get by you?” She just accepted that he was not going to move and for some reason even though she was in an apparent rush, she made a choice not to ask for him to cede the space for her to pass. She waited for the rolling walkway to come to an end, waited for him to saunter off the walkway then immediately took off in a sprint heading towards her gate. That small interaction stayed with me my entire flight.

As I made my connecting flight, I was looking forward to having pizza at the airport. I cannot recall the name of the restaurant, but it has the best pizza with prosciutto, arugula and cooked eggs on top surrounded by hot, creamy goat cheese. After I got my pizza, I sat down at an empty counter and put my earphones in, anxiously ready to take a huge bite. Before I could get my first bite, a White man walked up to the opposite side of the counter, facing me, with his food. I looked up at him then looked down at the completely empty counter space (besides me sitting at it) wondering why he chose to stand directly in front of me as he added salt to his food? Typically, I would move down, but after witnessing the Black woman on the rolling walkway, I made a decision, “I am NOT moving! I do not care if he wants to stand there until I have finished every bite of this pizza, I refuse to move to accommodate him!” After he enjoyed a few bites of his food and noticed that I was not going to move, he packed up his belongings and moved to the end of the counter.

Victory!

It was just that easy. I made a conscious decision as a Black woman to hold my space. I was not going to cede my space to a White person because that is what was expected of me.  Now, before you read any further, this is not a blog about being rude, impolite, etc. I believe as an “average” human being we understand that there are sometimes you must and should cede your space. If you are in the way of someone that has some physical challenges or someone is elderly and as a result, has some physical issues that is different.  I am not talking about ordinary, everyday courtesy we extend to others for often apparent reasons. That is NOT what I am talking about so please do not message me about that or make this blog about that. If you do, you are taking the easy way out of this blog and not looking at the totality of what I am discussing.

I am talking about Black people, particularly Black women and People of Color being cognizant of how they navigate throughout spaces making accommodations for White people and White people having an expectation that Black people or People of Color must navigate their bodies to allow White people access in spaces. This is more than someone being rude; this is about White people feeling as if Black bodies should accommodate them in spaces and if we do not, it is seen as the Black person being rude, unpleasant and intimidating.

An example of this is a recent incident documented by Frederick T. Joseph, who took a photo of a White woman placing her feet on his dining tray on an airplane. The airline staff did not address the woman and when Joseph asked the woman to move her feet, she accused him of disrupting her flight. According to the article, when the flight staff asked the woman to remove her feet she stated, “If I put one foot down, I want to be accommodated for accommodating him.”  In this space, the White woman felt she was well within her right to infringe on Joseph’s space and when told she could not, she wanted to be accommodated as if respecting his space was doing him a favor.

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Photo by Frederick T. Joseph/Twitter

Black people and People of Color accommodate spaces for White people  so often that we may not even realize that we are doing it or how ingrained it is in Black culture to cede your space.  I hadn’t given thought to the incident in the airport in a while; however, yesterday I read a Twitter thread by, Tatiana Mac and the memory of that day instantly came to my mind.  (Please read the complete thread on Twitter.)

While thousands of people shared, understood and could relate to Tatiana’s story, there was an exchange by a White woman named Liberty Warrior that brought the thread full circle. (I  am providing screenshots below because I knew it would only be a matter of time before Liberty Warrior blocked me and true to form, when I went to the thread today, she had blocked me. Because I deal with women like Liberty Warrior often, I had already taken screen shots of the conversation because I knew she would do that. That is often the modus operandi of people like her. When they do not want to face the truth, they block the truth.)

Even in the virtual arena,  Black people and People of Color are expected to cede their space.  If you look at the thread, Liberty Warrior  was repeatedly asked to remove herself from Tatiana’s thread, and she refused. Instead of starting her own thread in her own virtual space, she felt it was necessary to list all the times that People of Color have made her feel inferior in spaces on Tatiana’s thread. She could not understand that she was doing the very thing that  Tatiana was talking about just in a virtual space. When I mentioned this to her, she called me sweetheart, and when I told her that was not my name, she proceeded to tell me that SHE can call me whatever she wants. Why does she feel that she has that authority? Because in many spaces, even virtual spaces, many White people think that Black people and People of Color must step back, bow down, and  relinquish their virtual space to accommodate their racism.

For centuries, White America has dictated how Black people can navigate our own bodies in spaces.  It is not just the physical space itself being regulated by White people but the actual way Black people can use their bodies in these spaces. For instance, there was a time in this country that Black people were required to step off the sidewalk if a White person was approaching them and allow the White person to pass, before stepping on the sidewalk again.  According to Dr. Ronald L. F. Davis of
California State University,  Jim Crow laws provided “racial etiquette” for Black people. Black people were required to be “agreeable and non-challenging, even when the White person was mistaken about something.”

Black people are often told how much space we are allowed to take up, and our space is often infringed upon to accommodate White people. If we are tall, our height is used as a way to demonize us. This was evident when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was murdered within minutes by the police in Cleveland, Ohio. Tamir was described by now ousted police union president, Steve Loomis as, “Menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.” Tamir could not help his height. Yet his physical appearance was used to justify his murder. If we take up too much space, it is a problem. Black people and People of Color are acutely aware of our bodies in spaces. I have been in meetings, and everyone has been acknowledged, but me or I am acknowledged last. I have sat in spaces, and after a quick introduction, people cease directing any comments to me. It is almost as if I am The Invisible Black Person by the door just taking up space. I am learning after the airport incident, to hold my space. I am here, and I will not apologize if me holding my space disrupts your day.

My challenge for Black people and People of Color, particularly Black women and Women of Color, is to hold your space. I challenge you for the next 24-48 hours to be aware of your body in spaces and do not move for a White person or make any apologies for physically occupying any space. Be mindful of how you navigate sidewalks, who moves to accommodate you and who doesn’t. If someone infringes on your space, do you speak up or remain silent?  Make a mental note of any time you feel you were “expected” to move and the reaction of the other person when you didn’t. Take note of how people accommodate others in spaces. Was it frightening or empowering to hold your space? Do you think people felt you were intimidating? How did you feel at the end of the day? 

For White people, I challenge you for the next 24-48 hours to be aware of how to treat Black people and People of Color in spaces. Do you have an expectation that Black people and People of Color should move out of your way? How many times do you insert yourself and your comments into virtual spaces because you feel it is your right without reading and listening to People of Color that have stated their truth on a particular issue? Do you speak around the Black person as if they are not in the room? Do you interrupt People of Color when they are speaking? Are you cutting a Black person or a Person of Color in line because you feel that is your right? Also be aware of how it feels to be cognizant of how your body navigates spaces and imagine how that would feel to do that at the very least for 8 hours out of each day.

When I held my space at the airport, I felt empowered. I was angry that someone stood right in front of me and started eating as if I was not right there. I am here. I have every right to be here. I have the right to be in spaces. I will no longer apologize for taking up space nor will I cede my space to a White person simply because that is some unwritten but expected rule. Over the next two days, walk in your authority.  Walk as if you want the world to know, “I am here!” Because you are. And you deserve to be. 

Please come back after you do the challenge and share some of your thoughts!

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Enjoy the Sidewalk!  Photo Credit: Nappy.co Artist: @photosbyphab

235 replies »

  1. This was such an interesting read. It made me think of other ways POC cede or accommodate WP, not using our first name at restaurants or coffee shops. I was getting my lunch one day and I used my last name per usual because it’s a common last name Miller, vs my unique and sometimes hard to pronounce if you’re not aware of the unique flower or color. And there was another WOC in the sandwich shop and they called the name Nicki and no one was responding the WOC stood up after 3 calls and came by me and said I almost forgot i used my white name. And she assumed another WOC would understand…I told her I do the same thing but use my last name. This post makes me not want to do that anymore. #foodforthought.

  2. I remember when I first starting shopping in my local suburban supermarket and white people would come from behind me and expect me to move without ever saying excuse me. My mom was frequently with me and would tell me as she would see them. I knew they were behind me as I could sense them but I would not cede my space because they needed to know how to be courteous. I even went with my husband Once and he did the same as he was behind me. When I explained to him that they never said excuse me – he started to watch and realized what I said was right. And we refused to cede our space. My bestie and I always talked about how this infuriated us.

    After reading a reply about Duke – I have to say that a friend of mine once said to me how people of Caribbean descent do not lower their heads to white people and it is African Americans who do this because of their history from
    Slavery and Jim Crow. I am surprised that college students at duke would continue the cycle.

    • You seem to be saying that your behavior in the supermarket is just like the behavior of the “white man” in the airprot in the OP – that you aren’t going to move out of the way unless someone politely asks to pass you by.

      By Hannah Drake’s standard, you are actually ruder than the “white man” in the airport, because you are aware that people are behind you, and that you are blocking them, and are making a deliberate choice to continue to do so. His rudeness is of the unthinking type – he is not aware that other people are stuck behind him – while yours is deliberate.

  3. I’ve been trying to do this in Sweden, a country with THE RUDEST sidewalk etiquette. I’m an American who is carrying her own history regarding sidewalks/public spaces to a country who seems completely tone deaf about space. You’ve inspired me to write about this!

    • Thank you, Charish and please come back and share your link when you write about it. I am curious how this manifest in other countries. Is it the same expectation as here in America? I would love to read about your experiences. Maybe your writing can inspire some of the people there to be more aware of how they are treating others in spaces.

    • You complain that people in Sweden are much more likely to bump inmto each other ont he sidewalk without apologizing or otherwise making a big deal of it – then you say “I continue walking with the knowledge that this is not normal behavior.”. Actually, in Sweden, IT IS NORMAL BEHAVIOR. This is something you actually admit elsewhere in your post – yet throw aside in a twisted attempt to try to validate your “victimhood”.

  4. Peace Be Unto You
    Great read. It is the same old song. Like the Last Poets said, the white man has a god complex. We are expected to kowtow/bow to them, but I refuse!! They have maxed out the Caucrazian image of Jesus by using it to subjugate the whole world. These people are delusional psychopaths, and they prove it every day as they continue to slaughter brown folks all over the planet. Time to rebuild some Tulsas as in Tulsa Oklahoma and keep the resources in the family. Integration just made us better slaves.

  5. So a person is thoughtlessly blocking the passing lane of an airport slidewalk, and is thus “racist” because the person behind them doesn’t bother to politely ask if they can pass?

    I have been behind people blocking the “passing lane” of escalators many times, and they generally move if asked politely. In fact, those least likely to move (for me or others) – and even to try to escalate it into a confrontation (often using racially charged, “hate speech” terms) – are “POC”. Can I use those situations to now condemn a whole group of people? Or, should I continue to judge people as individuals, rather than trying to lump them into easily prejudged “races”?

    You are sitting at a counter in an eatery, and someone else comes up to the other side of the counter to get salt for their food – and you attribute that to racism? Isn’t it more likely that they are in that spot because that’s where the salt dispenser is? Maybe they are standing close to you to see if they get an encouraging “vibe” before opening up a conmversation and trying to make friends with you? PLease note that a real racist wouldn’t bring their food anywhere near you, and would not try to eat right next to you.

    You call out “LibertyWarrior” for doing exactly what you claim you are trying to do – to not be pushed around – but at least she isn’t being a racist or a hypcorite about it.

    And I will point out, here and now, that if you try to use my perceived “race” or gender in any attempt to deflect or counter my arguments, you are proving yourself to be a rude, thoughtless, insensitive, racist – and not to have any valid points.

    • I’m not going to argue with you about anything. I am glad that you read the article and everyone will take something different away from it.

      I will note I didn’t call anyone racist that is you projecting that. So you came to the article with that and were prepared to say that when in fact I never called anyone racist in this article. For me it says more about your way of thinking and why your comments are what they are.

    • Racism and proximity have nothing to do with each other… you have to get pretty close to people to enslave them and rape them. You can be white/black/asian, male/female, it doesnt matter… it’s clear you haven’t had any real experience with discrimination.

  6. Ever since I read this post I have been watching the flow of people on the sidewalks and in the aisles of stores. The dynamic really is there. Everyone gets disregarded sometimes in public spaces, but it is definitely skewed towards POC. I wonder how many times I, as a white woman, have subconsciously expected a POC to yield to me. I will do better and make sure my young kids learn to do the same.

    • Once you see it, you can’t help but notice it everywhere. And it takes being aware to ask yourself, “Have I contributed to this?” I am glad you are challenging yourself to do better and teach your young kids about this. That is how we start to impact the world in a positive way.

  7. Wow, this article was interesting. I have just recently read an article titled White Flight 2, referring to the move of whites to the suburbs in the 70s to avoid having to share a space with blacks. It made reference to the Bar B Beckys and the Pool Pauls. White people don’t want to share what they perceive as “their space” with blacks so they call 911. Now I was born and raised in the PNW. Portland, Seattle. I have been around Whites all of my life. I live in Georgia now and I don’t see as many white people here but this subject has made me hypersensitive to the issue. But for me it’s with Asians and East Indians. I’m wondering if Social Media has influenced me because it never really used to bother me this much. Like I said, I’ve been around white people all if my life. Yes, I have had numerous racist encounters but for me it came with the territory living in the PNW vs. The South. My belief is that Trump had normalized the ideology for many that whites are superior and we don’t belong here.

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