You’re walking down a street, maybe sipping a coffee or opening Instagram. The invisible lane in which you’re walking quite conceivably marked out for all to see because, well, you’re in it. When suddenly, your eyes flick up for only a brief moment and you notice the person walking boldly and unashamedly directly towards you, and worse, it’s a white man. In a suit. (Run for your life!)
Instinctively, you know you’re now locked in a battle as old as time, a game of chicken for who will be the first to cut out of line, rendering said lane walker victorious champion, guardian and now unrivalled owner of said lane.
You’ve got a good feeling about this one, you’ve got it! You’ll continue your march towards victory, maybe even make eye contact this once (in London?! God forbid!) to show that you mean business. The inevitable shall happen, that two step dance with strangers we all hate as much as being told to seek assistance when your oyster doesn’t work. But this time, you’re here for it, this time you crave victory. 5 metres, 4, 3, 2… TUTTTTTT!!?!? He stops in front of you. You remain unmoved. He huffs and puffs, the look of sheer shock and outrage descends upon his face. You?! A brown man in a dungarees and unkempt Reeboks should dare to challenge his lane? He shakes his head and mutters under his breath as he manoeuvres to one of the multiple empty invisible lanes nearby. It’s not the end of racism, but inside you celebrate this one small Victory. You continue checking Instagram, *like* (because you’re feeling generous) and walk on, ready for the next lane battle. Another day in the city.
I’ve long been thinking about what it is I hate so much about manoeuvring my way around a big city. The pollution? The traffic? The endless over-stimulation of sirens, lights and strange smells that only visitors recognise? All of the above? But lately it hit me. It hit me that what I really detest are the countless times a day that I’m reminded of my minoritised position in this world because of the colour of my skin. I’m reminded that I’m expected to move out of the way for white people. Now, I know what’s coming, the “whataboutery” the “you’re being over-sensitive!” And the “this happens to me ALLL the time too!” Save it Susan. I’m speaking here.
Because what I’m talking about is the microaggression that happens when a person of colour, simply walking around, is expected to move, to get back in their place, to allow space for whiteness to have the easier ride. Remind us of anything? *whispers: Colonialism* This dance may seem so commonplace in big cities, and yes, I’m not denying that there aren’t times in life you may also have had to move Tarquin, but I am referring to the reaction that comes time and time again that people of colour will be familiar with, the shock, the huffing and puffing, sometimes even the verbally calling out that you should move. And why? Well, because the assumption was we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The dance, was racialised.
I was sitting with a friend recently (hi Priya!) when we were talking about the benefits of whiteness – riveting conversation I know. We settled on one fundamental benefit being quite literally the ability to walk around and occupy space that people like us are expected not to occupy. When you are used to being seen as the support staff and not the manager, or being praised for speaking articulately or simply having eyebrows raised when you appear in a corporate environment, this dance does not come as a stand-alone event. This dance is a dance you’ve danced a thousand times before. This dance becomes symbolic of the power & privilege dynamic that exists between white people and people of colour. It becomes the visual image of centuries of history that’s allowed for the world we live in, a world where white people get to walk wherever they want and not have their right to be there questioned.
It occurred to me what’s at stake in this dynamic, yes, I could move out the way, sure. But doing this time and time again? Almost subconsciously? What message is this sending to White Person X who once again gets to move without barriers through the world about my legitimacy? Am I, simply by moving out the way, sending an unspoken message that this is the way it should be? That Minoritised people should be jumping out the way? (And let’s be even more mindful of what’s at stake when we add the compounded layer of sexism that it would take nothing short of blind ignorance to not recognise when this applies to minoritised women!)
There have been times when I’ve even analysed my position post-microaggression. Was it me? Was it what I was wearing? Do I look threatening? Perhaps it was the “way I was walking?” Please sense the ridiculousness in this. And I’ve now come to the conclusion that none of that matters. No Tarquin and Susan, your time is up. I am no longer moving simply because your privilege affords you the ability to take up space, if we can have dreams and take seats on busses, then I can continue to walk in my lane. You may be shocked, you may even huff and puff, perhaps mutter under your breath at the audacity of a brown man with battered Reeboks to write something so outrageous. But, I have hope for you. When this happens to you enough times, perhaps you’ll begin to think about why it was that you ever thought you owned the lane in the first place.