When standing up to white supremacy, every step matters

Tuesday, April 10, 2018 - 7:28pm

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Roseanne Chao/Daily

Every morning, I find myself walking to class listening to my favorite songs, watching squirrels as they finesse food from passersby and moving around white people walking in my direction on the sidewalks. Before I noticed this disturbing pattern of mine, I always thought that stepping out of the way for oncoming pedestrians was just the polite thing to do. However, I recently noticed that the oncoming traffic, specifically when the person was white, would never return the common courtesy of stepping to the side when I walked by. I began to ask myself questions and wonder if I was carrying out the same subconscious behavior with people of other races. So, I decided to experiment a bit. Whenever a person of color walked by, I made space — while carefully watching if they would do the same. I tried doing this with people of color in large groups, small groups and by themselves. Each occurrence led to the same outcome: mutual respect for sidewalk space. This data then led me to the belief that this was a natural behavior of only white people, notably among white women.

After coming to such conclusion, I decided to try something even riskier: not move at all when white people passed by. I thought perhaps the confidence of a large, stocky Black woman standing her ground would make a difference and would be a call for change. But hell, was I wrong. Instead of change, I got shoulder bumped and glared at, commonly followed by snarky remarks such as, “Watch where you're going,” “Wow that was rude” or “I can't believe she just did that.”  Of them all, it was the repetitive comment of “I can’t believe she just did THAT.” Confused on what “that” was referring to. 

As I continued my investigation of this behavior, I became aware of some not-so-surprising history of racial tensions and practices of white supremacy. I was in Associate Professor Stephen Berrey’s American South course when he started the lecture by talking about the more blatant and explicit forms of Jim Crow and racial superiority. He then clicked on a slide informing the class about more subtle practices in Southern states. He went on to state that “the expectation that Black people would step off the sidewalk for approaching white people was a common custom across the South that had extended back into the days of slavery (in which enslaved people were expected to step off). The incident (that exemplifies this was) in Danville, Va., in 1883 during an election year in which many white people were alarmed over growing Black political power and fears that Black people considered themselves the social equal of white people — as evidenced by the refusal to perform expected roles.” And many decades later, during the Jim Crow era, Black people continued to step off the sidewalk when a white person were to walk in their direction. Otherwise as noted previously, if a Black person failed to do so, they were acting as defiant, uppity and downright disrespectful. Now it all makes sense. This demonstration of subservience during such a simple thing like walking on the sidewalk was not and is not my fault. Instead, it is deep-rooted racism and white supremacy among white people that led me to feel inferior, just as my ancestors felt during the Jim Crow era, and much earlier.

But wait — there's more.

I didn’t just notice this flat-out disrespect and sense of superiority on the University of Michigan’s campus.

I’ve experienced it in the halls of high schools, where younger white students would do the same thing. I’ve experienced it walking downtown Detroit, a place where many white people dramatically state that they are afraid to go, yet there they are, subtly enforcing white supremacy. I’ve experienced it in grocery stores, malls and just about anywhere you could think of.

But now, I don’t move. I don’t budge. I don’t care. I don’t care whose shoulder I bump into, whose avocado matcha smoothie I spill or whose day I ruin. Why? Because every day that this continues to happen to other students, especially Black students, the more embedded and unnoticed it becomes, and the further it goes. So now when you see me walking and I don’t move, do not think it is because I am just another stuck up Black girl with an attitude, know it’s because I’m sick and tired and a change is bound to come. One step at a time.