The first thing that I noticed were her shoes. Not because of their color or their style, but because of what they were doing. As we walked down 4th Ave towards East Liberty, me about 25 feet behind this stranger, I watched curiously as her feet wandered across the sidewalk. It was clear there was some kind of pattern. She would start near the center of the pavement and then slowly drift outwards towards the curb. After a few paces with her shoes hugging the edge of the pavement, she would gradually shift back towards center again. Her movement was not jerky, like a child’s when trying to hop over cracks in the sidewalk. It was smooth and natural, creating some sort of wave.
But what was most unusual about her path was not what it looked like, but why she was doing it. This way of walking is something I often do when I see some kind of obstacle in the distance: a dead animal in the road, a pothole, a drink someone spilled. But whenever it came time for me to walk across a square of sidewalk that she had just crossed, I didn’t see anything worth avoiding. Maybe she’s just an aimless walker, I thought, or maybe she’s confused about where she is going. But as I looked up from the most recent slice of sidewalk I had been examining to assess where her shoes were this time, I saw him.
About 60 feet ahead of us a middle-aged Black man sat to our left on a bus bench. As we both neared him, I several paces behind this woman, I looked on in bewilderment as her path began to shift right ever so slightly. The process was so gradual, I doubt that she noticed it herself. But I did. In every step she took forward, she shifted a little bit further away from him, creating a buffer zone between herself and this man. As we passed him and continued down the street, she slowly started moving back inwards until her shoes were once again in line the center of the sidewalk. I tried to make sense of what I had observed as I witnessed her repeat the same swerving pattern with each of the three subsequent black people we passed as we walked along the bus station. Although my gut was telling me her behavior was motivated by race (or more accurately, racism), I did what we millenials are often trained to do and strained to find and any remote justification that I could as to why it was not about race (see: “It’s about hip-hop, not race” a la Theta Xi, and “It’s a celebration of their culture” said by every person ever who has worn a “Native-American” Halloween costume).
I considered that she didn’t like to be near people at all when walking down the street, regardless of race. Maybe she was having a private phone conversation that she didn’t want overheard. She could have thought that the people waiting for the bus wanted more space and was trying to be polite by moving over. But as I settled on the idea that I had simply jumped to conclusions and misjudged her, I witnessed something that gave me pause. At the corner of 4th Ave and East Liberty, there was a white man washing the windows above the Kuroshio Japanese restaurant. Standing in the middle of the sidewalk with a sponge attached to a long metal pole, he was dripping water down the black awning of the restaurant and all over passersby. If there was anyone to avoid, this man seemed like the one, for no reason other than he was actually busy doing something that was messy for anyone within a few feet of him. When she approached him, however, she didn’t change her course at all, causing him to have to stop what he was doing to move out of her way.
As I turned left down East Liberty and she continued straight on 4th, I realized that this is exactly the kind of subtle, hostile behavior that I, and people who look like me, face every day. This girl never outright said “I would prefer not to walk near Black people if I can avoid it because something about them is distasteful to me,” but she didn’t need to: her shoes spelled it out on the sidewalk. And honestly, I don’t even think she knew what they were writing. This type of hard-to-name, often subconscious glimpse of racial prejudice accounts for the majority of racism I experience on campus. Unfortunately, I think this kind is the hardest to fight, because even though I know I am experiencing racism, others often just see oversensitivity or hyper-awareness.
When I try to pinpoint for them exactly what clues me in to the event being about my race as opposed to being about my demeanor, my gender, my verbal intonation, my outfit, or anything else about me, I am often at a loss of words. Trying to do a deep dive into every social interaction to carve out and categorize the nuances of someone’s behavior isn’t something I can or am willing to do. In the same way that I, as a straight person, know that if someone doesn’t like me it has absolutely nothing to do with who I love, when someone white on this campus feels left out, ignored, misrepresented, or unheard it will never have been because of their race. And because it is never about race for you, it makes it that much more difficult for you to identify and understand when it is about race for me.
Sometimes you’ll just have to trust that even though I can’t really describe what every instance of racism will look like, I always know it when I see it. I see it in the flash of surprise that crosses someone’s face when I tell them I am a chemical engineer, as they try to reconcile how someone can be both Black and pursuing STEM. I see it in the empty bus seats next to Black people, when people are standing despite the fact that there is clearly a seat available. I saw it in this white woman’s shoes, as she layered an invisible barrier in between herself and black strangers but didn’t do the same with a white one.
Because the thing is, these days you don’t have to call me a nigger, wear a white-hooded cape, or burn a cross on my front lawn to let me know that who I am, the way that I am, isn’t always welcome here. From your perspective, you might just be walking forward carrying on with your life, but from mine a few paces back, I can see you silently inching to the right. My experience walking behind you all these years has forced me to be aware of things that you physically don’t have the perspective to see. But just because you can’t or won’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not happening. Maybe one day I’ll catch up to you. Walking side-by-side, there will be no gap for either of us to witness. But until then, the first thing I’ll notice is your shoes.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail email@example.com.