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

375 replies »

  1. Damn this girl has issues! People are rude – doesn’t matter what color they are. Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come across WOMEN who are standing there talking right where people want to pass. These gabby chicks are OBLIVIOUS of anyone else’s needs. If I they’re in my way while I’m trying to get by I just simple say “‘SCUSE MEEEEeee…” as I go, squeezing pass them HAVING TO MAKE PHYSICAL CONTACT WITH THEM (which I don’t like since I’m GAY). When it comes to defending your space, HONEY, it’s not always about RACE, sometimes – more often than not – it’s GENDER.

    • Try taking yourself out of the center and not making you the focus. And just imagine for a moment that the people here that have commented have experienced this. Just pause and not make it solely about you and see if you can expand your thinking that just because it’s not about you doesn’t mean it can’t happen to others. Try it.

  2. Another race baiting article written by a POC. How about y’all just be nice to people, say “excuse me” when you need to get by someone or “thank you” when someone holds a door open for you? I’m ashamed to be black because of how inconsiderate black men and women are, how rude black men and women are, how only accounting for 13% of the population… 52% of all violent crimes.

  3. There was actually a study on this and before I commented I looked for it but can’t find it, its out there though, really, I read it with interest and immediately changed my posture on this. I don’t know what I did before, but now, I yield to no one but people with infants in arms and the disabled. The study said something like this: white men are more likely to yield to white women than anyone else, other white men and then black women. Black men get yielded to rarely. White women don’t yield to anyone, not even other white women! Black women yield to Black women, white people in general and Black men. I find airport traffic most interesting. People walking toward me on my right will literally try to walk through me because I will not move to the left to let them pass. I’m female tall and steady. I see them coming and I may have to stop and brace myself (I’m also 60+), but I will lean in, shoulder first… but rarely do we make contact and off they go to my left maybe with a brush and a quick “sorry” and I hope they will hear me say not “no worries” but “you are excused.”

    • You realise that most countries walk/drive on the left hand side, right? These people at the airport aren’t being rude; they’re walking how they normally walk. You’re the jerk in this situation.

      • She said the sign says with side is standing and which side is walking so in this situation, the guy who stayed put in the walking lane is in the wrong.

    • Yes Queen Arlene! I’ve been doing this for years. Sometimes I add an elbow, if they are being particularly rude.

    • I’m a white woman, raised in southern Virginia, and I take special pleasure in making space for people of color, especially the sidewalk thing. I noticed it as a child and thought it was horrible.

      As an adult, I will step into the street (or grass) and sweep my hand in a gesture encouraging the poc to pass freely.

      I’ve never had anyone comment about it. I dont know if maybe they think I’m being sarcastic or something maybe?

      Anyway, *I* know my intentions are positive.

  4. This is ridiculous in my opinion. Who’s to say the man who didn’t move was just simply unaware that anyone was behind him? Maybe he is hard hearing, but to assume it’s about race when he clearly didn’t even look behind him is absurd. If the woman ASKED him to move, who’s to say he wouldn’t have. The guy at the counter, did he ask her to move over? No, she just assumed and was paranoid he was expecting her to move because she was black and he’s white. There is no hard evidence that would suggest racism here but simply assumptions. If they would have said, “I have the right to occupy this space because I’m white!” Ok now we have something to go on. I’ve experienced rudeness and a lack of courtesy from all colors. Some people expect things to go a certain way, but news flash, we all think differently about certain situations. You can’t judge a person who fails to conform to your standard of thinking. The people in her story never said anything to her but I guess she’s just an excellent mind reader.

      • I never cede my space to ANYONE when I walk in my city!!! exceptions are persons needing a device to walk and the elderly. I will literally bump you and you better be ready to catch yourself lol. Not being a jerk, just that I’ve earned my way!!!

      • Well you know I think Brittany has a point here. How did she know he wasn’t maybe delaying getting his salt because he was trying to get up his nerve to sit with her and strike up a conversation? Like, because he was attracted to her, or just fancied company at lunch or something? And then if she just blanked him, he’d have felt uncomfortable and moved away, as described. That seems much likelier to me, because why would even the most racist person deliberately go and monster someone when the whole counter was available to him?

    • Hard of hearing?! Because reading a sign requires your hearing? Or, maybe he is just obnoxious and felt entitled to stand in the middle of the walkway where on the opposite side Im sure he sure people passing others. Why cant we assume that people are aware to what they do? Why can’t folks be called out for their bull? Why is it so hard for you to understand the point of view this blog was centered in? Do you feel entitled to telling someone how they feel? Do you think it’s appropriate to dismiss someone’s experience because you can’t relate? Or, do your use comparative superiority for all arguments?

  5. Thanks, this article is great. I have often noticed being expected to move from my space. It is usually from older white women, not men. That is my experience anyway. They never expect that I will NOT move.

  6. Seems that almost no one who commented on this article, understands what they read. This not about rudeness, or etiquette, or manners. This is about white privilege, entitlement, and the way that black people, and people of color are expected to move/not move in this world. I get it. I’ve seen it, experienced it, witnessed it. It exists. As a black woman, halfway past 60 yrs old, I grew up watching it. Thank u for this article. So necessary.

    • Thank you very much. This article has went viral and I have learned just as you stated either people have directly experienced this or their is a group of people that want to believe this doesn’t happen. The people that acknowledge this happens far outweigh those who don’t believe. However when the world bends to you, it is easy to believe this all “made up.” Thank you for reading. Hold your space!

  7. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and your bold challenge.
    It’s wild to me that some people in the comments automatically take offense and aren’t able to see this situation from a bird’s eye view. Like, for those defending the white man on the moving walkway and saying he’s not a racist: you’re absolutely right. We can’t know whether his intent was malicious or race-based. But that’s not what the story was about. The story was about the man’s arrogance and impoliteness. How he was not going to let anyone past him because he as a white man has a culturally permissible ability to take up space and not think about other people who might want to walk past him, regardless of who they are. Whether he was American or from somewhere else, he should have been standing to one side of the walkway, not in the middle. It was also about how the writer, a black woman, has internalized these prevalent attitudes of white men and how she has adapted her behavior in order to preserve the status quo.
    The writer did not insinuate that the slight was specifically targeted towards her because of her blackness. Like the woman in the Twitter thread who says, “You’ve named me racist,” although Drake is never shown to have called her that, readers who couldn’t stop themselves from taking personal offense failed to see that this article is not only an accusation of privileged people, calling out their behavior, but it is primarily a letter to POC or other people who have to “move off the sidewalk,” encouraging them not to cede to the expectation that they will remove their bodies from the paths of white people.
    As someone who regularly “moves off the sidewalk” for, say, a group of two or three people coming from the opposite direction, I’m not being polite, I’m being subordinated, and I know this because when I am in a group of multiple people and there is someone trying to get by us from the opposite direction, I will move behind or in front of my friends, so that we all stay on the sidewalk and pass each other. That, to me, is a gesture of politeness and respect, so I must wonder why the same gesture is almost never show to me.

  8. I really appreciate this article. I think that whenever anyone helps others to understand their perspective, all boats are lifted. I have witnessed this phenomenon and appreciate everyone’s efforts to hold their space. After I read the blog, my consciousness was raised. I saw people of color being dis/spaced by white people in my own town. Further, I am a portly gay white man and at a recent gathering of support for LGBT pride, I was bumped, pushed, sighed at, and had eyes rolled at me for holding my space. I say this not to diminish the phenomenon for people of color, but to support the author’s call for holding one’s space. Thank you for this truth.

  9. I completely understand what is written. I move for no one, often taking shoulders with me of those who chose to walk left or in the middle. White people are usually scared of black men, except when in groups, so when they see I’m not moving from the correct space, they move when alone. White women are the worst though. Especially when they are walking in groups of 2 or more. It’s like they don’t recognize they are taking up the entire walking space and moving closer to or behind one of their friends, for me, is beneath them. I don’t mind knocking a shoulder out of place though.

    • Interesting observations. I’m an older white women and I’m very sorry I can’t presently try your experiment as I’m pretty socially isolated. Maybe I’ll check it out in Walmart though, I go there. I have just in the last two years or so started feeling how it is to be invisable sometimes, a complaint women of age (probably any color unless they are wearing the hijab) complain of. Sales people, waitresses, people on the street don’t see or hear us. It can be an advantage sometimes, mostly it’s just frustrating. Your article makes me wonder if at least SOME of this is some of my privilege expiring as I move into a new demographic??? I’ve never been a pusher, more back of the room because of my height and shyness, but I can stand my ground if I get my back up. I am sorry that this has been your experience and to the extent you describe!! I will check myself, and if I need to, correct myself. I won’t be the guy in the Chinese restaurant if I e been him, either!

      • I appreciate your willingness to be more aware and if we all were open to growth, this country would not be in it’s current predicament.

  10. This is so interesting,I never thought about it being a thing.This journey will be an eye opener.Thank you for writing on it.

  11. Thanks for this article. I’m not a women of colour but even as a white woman I feel that I often have to cede my space so I can only imagine how much worse it is for POC. Walking down the street I used to always shuffle to the side, move out of the way when people (usually white men ) were barreling through. I started to realise that I was giving up my space because I was a woman and it was expected, not because I was being more polite. So I started standing up for my space and challenging those who were not ‘sharing’ space. It has made a big difference and has increased my confidence. I’m not rude but I no longer assume that I have to be the first to always give way. I recognize that even though I’m a woman I have privilege that many POC do not. Which means this is definitely something we need to stand up and notice. So thank you.

  12. I’ve witnessed this on various occassions and I associate these behaviors with white privilege; however, it’s contingent upon various factors. A white person’s socioeconomic background genuinely alters whether they display this type of behavior. White people who are intelligent & or socially aware tend to be cognizant of their interactions with others & are more respectful as a whole. I also acknowledge most millenials (black & white) are obnoxious, so they need to be excluded as they struggle with self-image etc…thus altering their perception & behavior. The most dangerous group is ourselves. I’ve acknowledged the behavior of black people who are not used to multi-racial or predominantly white environments. As much as white people struggle to acknowlede racism & privilege a lot of us fail to acknowledge our interactions in these environments and their need to change. Most of our behavior is a response to racism & privilege but that doesn’t negate our responsibility to change it. Some black people cede because they’re out of their comfort zone in a predominantly white or multi-racial area. Some cede because they have low self esteem from weight, victimization and various other things but then this doesn’t correlate with race because a white rape victim or obese person would do the same. Yesterday I experienced privilege multiple times in a short duration of time because of where I was so I am by no means taking away from our plight but I do acknowledge this song & dance isn’t always about privilege or racism. Some people aren’t aware, some people are, some are racist & some are plain old stupid…

    • I like the nuance in your response. I commented earlier on how I’ve been oblivious to this. Partly because of my privilege (white male) partly because I walk fast and tend to cede space to everybody. I’ve wondered about all the different variables that go into this, but it does seem harder form me to measure because of the above reasons. That makes your comment super valuable to me. It makes sense to me that there are all these other variables at play. (I’ve been wondering how much location plays a part in this.) At the same time, it brings me a new level of awareness hearing your thoughts (and other people’s thoughts and experiences) on Poc feeling intimidated in predominantly white and/or multicultural settings. It makes me sad, but is an important thing to understand. With less understanding, the notion of standing ones ground by not ceding space in public areas could seem trivial or even rude to me. Having a greater understanding of what people have to deal with, the feelings they have to overcome, and how my privilege has kept me from having to deal with the same problems, makes me better understand the nuance and importance of this issue of not ceding space when it is unjust.
      Thanks for your comment!

  13. Today i (white guy) was out for a run. I was running along the side walk and at some point there were two black kids walking my way. So I scooted as far to the right as I could on the sidewalk bc of course thats just what you do. Neither of the kids budged to give me space and I had to stop and hop around them. One of the kids yelled something at me but I didn’t catch what he said. It wasn’t something nice. This is now the third time this has happened to me in this city. Happened once in a prior city. Even worse, THREE completely different times in that other city a black kid would wait till I got close and then yell to scare me and laugh to himself as he kept on walking (actually one time he, two times she). I’ve light heartedly wondered if there’s some memo going around that says “mess with white runners”. Otherwise how could these completely different kids all know to do the same thing. I spent the rest of today’s run trying not to get too mad about it. Googled “black kid not making space on sidewalk” to finally find out if this is, like, a thing. Found this blog. Yeah I guess it’s a thing. And you even encourage it as a form of empowerment. Sucks a lot. Everybody loses. The answer to your experiences with racism isn’t revenge and it isn’t profiling.

      • Ah, thanks for the reply. I’m amazed that this thread has lasted a whole year. And I must admit, I’m feeling like i shouldn’t have waded into an online discussion on race. Oh well, too late I guess…

        Yes of course it bothered me to have to move for the kids today and to get scared by the kids the other times. Race doesn’t matter, it’s just mean. Like a form of bullying.

        maybe you’d tell me that I’ve learned from this experience and now I understand the perspective of the POC. Not really. Or maybe in some twisted way that poisons the well. No offense, but this experiment you proposed serves only for internalization. Without dialogue all it is is people being mean to each other. Whenever you don’t cede your space, especially in an obvious way, do you then catch up to the person to have a conversation? Otherwise all you may have done is confuse someone and hurt their feelings. For example, a guy like me – liberal yankee immigrant native Spanish speaker who is white – I’m already 100% there on racial inequality. So when this happens while I’m out running it just leaves me fighting internally for 10miles to not give up on that mindset. Because it’s bullying and it’s happened 7 times already. So maybe those kids felt like big men, but with me all they did was make me feel bad. I didn’t learn any lesson. For someone else, they could tip the scales and lose that person who would otherwise have had their back. And for someone else, they could risk tipping them toward hatred if they were susceptible to that.

        This experiment of yours – you’re signing people up for it without their consent. They can’t opt out and they can’t opt in. it serves no greater purpose.

        And you can see how it can get out of hand. What might start as “hold your space” can turn into “let me wait until this white runner guy gets really close and then scream at his face and laugh, haha that’ll show him”

        All that said, I’m of course not denying or downplaying the problem of racism and how it can lead to the situations you described. I did suspect that what I experienced was a reaction to systematic racism. that’s how I rationalized it after the fact, including today before deciding to finally do the google search.

      • I don’t know what happened to you today. You are attempting to find a way to rationalize why kids would be yelling at you through this article. That is a huge leap. Did they yell, “we aren’t moving because we read an article online!”

      • Also note you said it bothered you to move. Why? Why are they expected to move in your mind?

      • I think there are two things going on here – and I am only hesitantly wading in here:
        There were two kids abreast on the sidewalk … the polite thing to do when walking abreast and someone else is coming, is to go single file instead, isn’t it? I suspect that would be what bothered the runner.

        Also, the being shouted at seems like such a teenage thing to go, regardless of race… hey, here comes a runner, let’s make him/her jump out of his/her skin. High schoolers are ridiculous and remarkably thoughtless.

    • Looks like they are not going to cede their space to you. Good for them. It is what it is. I suppose you don’t like the feeling it gave you. Now imagine that being a reason you were beat, raped, hanged or just terrorized every day. That’s how POC feel and have felt for decades. I have the office experiences mentioned in the blog happen several times over. It’s doesn’t feel good but thank goodness she has spoken on it! Just excuse yourself and move on. Thanks, white guy.

  14. Great article. I’m from the Caribbean and dated an African American. We were walking along the sidewalk and a white couple walked toward us. He grabbed my elbow and took me off the sidewalk onto the street accommodating the white couple. I ruined the date for me; I was furious. In my mind, this was never an option. We could have single filed past each other or they could have moved onto the road if they so chose; I should never have been placed in potential jeopardy in establishing white superiority. Pisses me off to this day.

  15. White girl here: So I did the experiment and came to the conclusion that I am just a chicken. I cede to everyone, even stepping into the street to do it. It could be because I’m fat and really self conscious about the space I’m “allowed” to take up. I did also, however, pay attention to others around me – and, yeah, the bulk of white people don’t cede space and the bulk of POC do, in both cases some with attitude, some not – attitude seemed to vary with the age. Teenagers were the most clueless, middle aged people had the most attitude. People (of all colors) tended to cede to the elderly, not so much to the disabled (unless they were also elderly). Thank you for this post.

    • You’re welcome, Kelley. Once you see it, you cannot “unsee” it and I appreciate that you took the time to do this challenge.

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