Oct 26, 2006


You know what really pisses me off? The way that some straight white men interact with public space - the sense of entitlement to dominion over shared or other public space is overwhelming sometimes. Let me give one example, though I (and I'm sure you, the intrepid reader) can think of many more.

The kicker for me has always been in the simple task of walking down the sidewalk, or even a crowded hallway. Most people that I know, from women, to men of color, usually yield a little when faced with someone walking towards them in a constricted passageway. When walking down a crowded sidewalk, I weave and lean, leading with one shoulder at a time, sometimes stepping briefly off the curb, sometimes falling straight behind the person I'm walking with, in the effort to do my part to make the public space work.

If we all walked with our shoulders squared, we would crash into one another all the time - specifically when there isn't enough space for people to walk abreast of one another in opposite directions (like in most of the City below 14th Street). So we do our small part, generally subconsciously (and it's an easy way to figure out who belongs in the City, and who is a spectator in a full-contact sport).

Anyway, I can't count how many times I've been walking along, either thinking to myself, or with a friend, when I've squared off, as it were, against some white guy, walking alone or with his own companions. As we're walking by, I do what I have to do to make room, but almost without fail, the white dude doesn't - his shoulders are squared, and he brushes against me, or sometimes even sends me spinning.

WTF? Is it that hard to just accommodate the other person and find a way to coexist on the busy streets? I'm not asking for a hug or something - I'm a New Yorker after all - but at least recognize that I exist, and that I have a claim to the same right of walking down the street without being knocked into. So therein lies my problem - more than anything else. I feel like at times, these people walk around like they own the joint - and we're just granted some license of use, but they can pull that whenever they feel like it.

The phenomenon is not limited to just a few men - I've gone through this over and over again, where someone will walk straight down the middle of the sidewalk like he owns it. He won't yield. I usually get angry as a result, but don't do anything (because it's usually too late, and it's not like I'm going to make a cogent argument to the back of someone's head anyway. And it's not as satisfying, or probably as seemingly safe, as road rage. But it just pisses me off that I, and many other people (women, people of color, etc) are expected to make the space around them (or in their shadows?) work for the rest of us.

I guess men in general are guilty of filling out more space than necessary on subway cars, spreading their legs like tsars in their own small domains, creating spatial inefficiencies for women, children, and non "guy-guys" who have to squeeze into the spaces that they leave for us.

But maybe the beleaguered white man feels like sidewalk is one of the last domains where he can still feel like the king of the jungle, after all, he's been beat down by all these -isms and hyphens in America. He is the new oppressed, the new minority, the vilified, the victim, the target of virulent attacks. Whatever. My solution? I don't yield to them. I keep my shoulders square when I walk down the street and face someone who doesn't seem like he sees me. Because this is about being visible, and being invisible. If you don't even respect me on the street, where we should all be equals, how will you respect me in a situation where there is a more obvious challenge of power? You won't. And we head south from there.

So I square my shoulders, and if you have to yield for once in your life, good. If not, you'd better be a helluva lot larger than me, because I have sharp shoulders.


watevz said...

i have been doing the same for years. i sense when white guys are approaching me and not going to yield as a type of aggression and i don't give them the benefit of making me move out of my way for them, especially because more than often there are two or three of them walking together and one of me, so it would not only make sense for one side of the traffic to have half the space, but it is just basic politeness. but then again, i gave up on expecting polite behavior from white males. ego trip!

Rage said...

Okay - so I'm not alone. I mean, if we're to co-exist, get the hell out of my way, and don't act as if you own the joint.

But I'm not hating just on the white males - there couples of all creeds and colors who walk hand-in-hand and side-by-side even on narrow sidewalks, and end up knocking the rest of us off. A friend and I had a game of staying in the middle of the sidewalk when we saw these couples and forcing them to break that link as we walked through them.

amanda said...

omg, i totally feel the same way, except i think it's ALL white people. seriously, have you been with them and their kids ANYWHERE? they let their kids run around all crazy and don't move when you try to walk around them! i have this problem in airports ALL THE TIME. thanks for writing this!

Rage said...

Thanks for reading, Amanda. And yeah - maybe you're right. It could be most of these folks. And it's a nice way to teach the young 'uns about how they'll be running the place in the future...

Reminds me of my friend's dialoguing with me at some point about how young white kids in really rich suburbs (or places like the upper west side, which sorta fits that description anyway, I guess) probably look around at all the women of color who have jobs as domestic workers/childcare attendants and think that that's their societal role... as if we're revisiting the days when white kids thought it the most natural thing in the world that their caretaker and most "motherly" figure was a woman of color.

I say the women in these roles radicalize the young somehow. It's not that hard to imagine, when they're the first point of contact, to start teaching these kids other languages and some understanding of how the world really works.

Anyway, that's a little off topic, but it's a post I haven't had the chance to write, so there it is. :)