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.
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.
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!