Sidewalk Politics

5 mins read

One night, I was talking with my friend on the walkway leading out of Essie’s and toward Parrish. She was on the grass, and I was standing right on the boundary between the grass and the sidewalk. We were cackling together, presumably over something dumb, when a small group of white kids who’d just come out of Essie’s brushed past both me and my friend, not acknowledging us. It was as if they had gone out of their way to bump into us despite the infinite amount of space available to them on the sidewalk. My friend and I went through all the possibilities of how they could have not noticed us, quickly ruling each out. There was no way they couldn’t have heard us — we both grew up in Caribbean families and consequently are very loud women. There was no way they couldn’t have seen us — we were very close to a lamppost, and my friend was wearing very eye-catching pajamas. Eventually, we realized that they simply did not care to pay attention.

Afterwards, as we went on fuming about this irritating encounter, we gathered that both of us, me especially, have had multiple encounters of this type, mostly with white people. I used to brush them off, thinking that maybe the specific white people around me who grew up in the suburbs didn’t understand sidewalk etiquette, something which had been drilled into me at an early age as a native of Newark, New Jersey. I found, however, that my other black friends who live and attend schools in predominantly white places have many similar stories to share. 

There was no ambiguity in the situation outside Essie’s: these kids could have walked anywhere on the wide pathway, yet they decided to not move around me and my friend. Curious to see if I was crazy, I looked online and found an article in the Daily Northwestern titled “Are the sidewalks at Northwestern too White, too?” written by Kenny Allen. Not only did the author and their friends, all African American, share the same experiences I had, but they were also able to articulate a theoretical framework in line with the strong opinion I’ve had for years. 

During the Jim Crow Era, an informal rule that black people had to follow was stepping off the sidewalk when a white person passed. If they didn’t, it often had fatal consequences. It is also important to note that although Jim Crow laws were explicitly upheld in the South, this social law was recognized all across America. We all mimic our parents, who’d mimicked their parents and so on, so it makes sense that not yielding to fellow passersby is just a social behavior passed down through many generations. 

The article also discussed sociologist Bedelia Nicola Richards’s quiz to determine whether one’s university is racist, which includes five questions, the first of which is: “Which group or groups feel most at home on the campus and which ones feel like (unwanted) guests?” I think we all know the answer to that question. Also, spoiler alert: Swarthmore definitely fails this quiz, but that’s another story for another day. 

People of color are perpetually on high alert because of this feeling that we are imposters and/or unwanted guests, primarily in academic spaces, so not having one’s personal space respected on a wide sidewalk, which is just common courtesy, doesn’t make things better. People’s lack of accommodation towards those that don’t have the same background or mindset as themselves bleeds into so many other aspects of Swarthmore life: I have a multitude of stories about Swat professors telling kids of color, kids going through tough situations, and/or kids who struggle in a certain subject that many of their wealthy counterparts had already been well-educated — to give up.

No one is saying that if you bump into or brush up against a person on the sidewalk as a white person, you are automatically racist. Every person does that sometimes. I’m just saying that if that is a recurring habit for you, learn to give people space and move out of the fucking way.

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