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.
New York University’s Michael Lindsey, who has studied how notions of masculinity affect the decisions of black men, says that although it’s unfortunate that anyone would have to go to such lengths to ensure that he’s not mistreated, “The anxiety black men have and our preoccupations with who we are and how we’re seen is healthy in a way because it prepares us for the threat of challenge.”
He’s not the only one who has thought about these issues. Your dilemma also reminds me of what Boston College professor Anderson J. Franklin calls “invisibility syndrome”—a conceptual model he created to explain the personal-identity development of African-American men as they navigate racism, writing in a 1999 paper on the theory (pdf), “Society has infinite social rules about the inclusion of African American men that can make them feel invisible.”
Here’s how he explains how “invisibility syndrome” plays out:
For example, as a result of a given racial slight or cumulative encounters with them, (a) one feels a lack of recognition or appropriate acknowledgment; (b) one feels there is no satisfaction or gratification from the encounter (it is painful and injurious); (c) one feels self-doubt about legitimacy—such as “Am I in the right place; should I be here?”; (d) there is no validation from the experience— “Am I a person of worth?”—or the person seeks some form of corroboration of experiences from another person; (e) one feels disrespected (this is led to by the previous elements and is linked to the following); (f) one’s sense of dignity is compromised and challenged; (g) one’s basic identity is shaken, if not uprooted.
It sounds like (c) and (f), at least, apply to your dilemma.
And Franklin practically predicted your inner turmoil over your sidewalk deference, writing, “It is important that individual changes in behavior to gain acceptance are consistent with one’s personal identity and worldview, or a form of dissonance will occur that requires a reconciling of beliefs and anxiety.”
To deal with that dissonance, he suggests getting support in dealing with this “invisibility” by tapping into the “brotherhood of other African American men.” That doesn’t mean you have to get together with your friends and repeat this adorable kid’s “Who the best? Black people the best!” mantra (although maybe it wouldn’t hurt). But talking to them might give you the emotional support to kick this habit, or at least find a balance between self-preservation and re-enacting Jim Crow in your daily travels.
Remember that what you’re doing is a reasonable (if depressing) adaptation to the world you live in. The best news of all is that you’ve raised a son who hasn’t had experiences that give him the same preoccupation with racial inequality in his daily life that you have. Whatever messages he’s received seem to have convinced him that it’s ridiculous that white people should get the sidewalk because they’re white—and that’s great. Maybe when thinking about these issues, and when walking down the street, you can begin to follow his lead.
Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. So if you need race-related advice, send your questions to email@example.com. Follow Jenée on Twitter.
Previously in Race Manners: “Why Do Black People Have So Many Cousins?”