Why Am I Stepping Off the Sidewalk for White People in 2014?

Race Manners: This is an understandable, if depressing, adaptation to the world you live in. But you don’t have to continue to repeat the Jim Crow era in your daily life. 

Posted:
 
83386353
Generic image

Thinkstock

Dear Race Manners:

When I’m walking on a sidewalk and white folks are approaching, do I step aside and hit the grass, or keep moving straight forward and make them move? Usually I’m the one who gives them the path, especially if it is a woman. But either way, I feel like I’m offending my ancestors or something by reinforcing a time when black people had to defer to white people on the sidewalk.

What do I do? Keep it movin’ or move to the side? I really need to know what to do. When my son sees me step aside, he gives me that look like he thinks I’m a punk. I’m a 30-something black guy. —Sidewalk Sensitivity

It’s entirely possible that you’re just a really polite person and you do this for everyone, but because of your awareness of America’s racial history, you’re hyperconscious of stepping aside when you do it for white people.

But assuming that you really are giving race-based special sidewalk treatment, I can see why your own actions would bother you (and your son, and your ancestors, and maybe even many of the white people themselves, if they were conscious of what was happening) by suggesting that your access to a clear path is unimportant because you’re black.

Here’s the easy answer: Stop it! Seriously. Offer a little extra room to people of all races who are in wheelchairs or pushing strollers or who appear to be in a much bigger rush than you are (and women, if that type of chivalry is your thing), and don’t be so aggressive as to cause a collision with anyone, but never let a fellow walker’s color determine when you “hit the grass.”

Perhaps that’s easier said than done (I’m guessing it is or you would have answered your own question).

Of course, you didn’t pull this practice out of nowhere. You’re no doubt aware of the expectation in the Jim Crow South that African Americans step off sidewalks to allow white people to pass (sometimes called “giving whites the wall”), when failure to adhere to this racist rule could have deadly consequences.

It’s true that that type of explicitly enforced white supremacy stopped governing black people’s foot travel decades ago. But there’s a case to be made that the attitudes behind it—you know, the ones that make black men and boys transform into threats simply by, well, existing—persist.

We were reminded of them in discussions of the racially disparate impact of New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, the facts leading up to the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, and the evidence that “Stand your ground” laws tend to benefit defendants whose victims are black more than those whose victims are white. Plenty of parents of black boys have opened up about their lessons to their sons on best practices for appearing nonthreatening and navigating potential stereotypes on the part of law-enforcement officers and everyday white Americans.

Given all that, you definitely wouldn’t be crazy or alone if, in the back of your mind, you worried that any one of the possible misunderstandings that can come with bodies being in close contact could end badly for you if you failed to clear the sidewalk.