I was in the airport on the rolling walkway with clear directions posted before stepping on the sidewalk to “stand on the right or walk on the left.” There was a white man in front of me who disregarded the sign and stood in the middle of the rolling walkway, preventing anyone from passing him. Behind me, I could hear someone approaching, and I turned around and saw a middle age black woman walking briskly with her rolling suitcase flying behind her. I pressed myself and my luggage against the side rail to move out of her way and allow her easy access to pass me. She whizzed by me, and in front of her was the white man, oblivious that she was behind him and in an apparent rush. He never turned, never moved and obviously never once thought that others behind him might need to pass. While I would like to say the black woman, leaped over him, she stopped dead in her tracks. She never politely tapped the man on the shoulder to say, “Excuse me, may I get by you?” She just accepted that he was not going to move and chose not to ask for him to cede the space for her to pass. She waited for the rolling walkway to come to an end, waited for him to saunter off the walkway and then immediately took off in a sprint heading toward her gate. That small interaction stayed with me my entire flight.
As I made my connecting flight, I was looking forward to having pizza at the airport. I cannot recall the name of the restaurant, but it has the best pizza, with prosciutto, arugula and cooked eggs on top, surrounded by hot, creamy goat cheese. I sat down at an empty counter, anxiously ready to take a huge bite. Before I could, a white man walked up to the opposite side of the counter, facing me, with his food. I looked up at him, then looked down at the empty counter space wondering why he chose to stand directly in front of me as he added salt to his food? Typically, I would have moved, but after witnessing the black woman on the walkway, I decided, “I am not moving! I do not care if he wants to stand there until I have finished every bite of this pizza. I refuse to move to accommodate him!” After he had few bites of his food and noticed that I was not going to move, he moved to the end of the counter. Victory!
It was just that easy. I made a conscious decision as a black woman to hold my space. I was not going to cede my space to a white person because that is what was expected. Now, before you read any further, this is not about being rude, impolite, etc. I believe we understand that sometimes you must and should cede your space. I am not talking about ordinary, everyday courtesy we extend to others for often apparent reasons. That is not what I am talking.
I am talking about black people, particularly black women and people of color being cognizant of how they navigate throughout spaces making accommodations for white people, and white people having an expectation that black people or people of color must navigate to allow white people access in spaces. This is about white people feeling as if black bodies should accommodate them, and if we do not, that black person is being rude, unpleasant and intimidating.
An example of this is a recent incident documented by Frederick T. Joseph, who took a photo of a white woman placing her feet on his dining tray on an airplane. The airline staff did not address the woman, and when Joseph asked the woman to move her feet, she accused him of disrupting her flight. According to an article about this, when the flight staff asked the woman to remove her feet she stated, “If I put one foot down, I want to be accommodated for accommodating him.” In this space, the white woman felt she was well within her right to infringe on Joseph’s space, and when told she could not, she wanted to be accommodated as if respecting his space was doing him a favor.
Black people and people of color accommodate spaces for white people so often that we may not even realize that we are doing it or how ingrained it is in black culture to cede your space.
For centuries, white America has dictated how black people can navigate our own bodies in spaces and how black people can use their bodies in these spaces. There was a time when black people were required to step off the sidewalk to allow a white person to pass. According to Dr. Ronald L. F. Davis of California State University, Jim Crow laws provided “racial etiquette” for black people. Black people were required to be “agreeable and non-challenging, even when the white person was mistaken about something.”
My challenge for black people and people of color, particularly black women and women of color, is to hold your space. I challenge you for the next 24 to 48 hours to be aware of your body in spaces and do not move for a white person or make any apologies for physically occupying any space. Be mindful of how you navigate sidewalks, who moves to accommodate you and who doesn’t. If someone infringes on your space, do you speak up or remain silent? Make a mental note of any time you feel you were “expected” to move and the reaction of the other person when you didn’t. Take note of how people accommodate others in spaces. Was it frightening or empowering to hold your space? Do you think people felt you were intimidating? How did you feel at the end of the day?
For white people, I challenge you for the next 24 to 48 hours to be aware of how you treat black people and people of color in spaces. Do you have an expectation that black people and people of color should move out of your way? How many times do you insert yourself and your comments into virtual spaces because you feel it is your right without reading and listening to people of color that have stated their truth on a particular issue? Do you speak around the black person as if they are not in the room? Do you interrupt people of color when they are speaking? Are you cutting a black person or a person of color in line because you feel that is your right? Also, be aware of how it feels to be cognizant of how your body navigates spaces and imagine how that would feel to do that at the very least for eight hours out of each day.
When I held my space at the airport, I felt empowered. I will no longer apologize for taking up space, nor will I cede my space to a white person for some unwritten but expected rule. Over the next two days, walk in your authority. Walk as if you want the world to know, “I am here!” Because you are. And you deserve to be. •
Hannah L. Drake is an author, poet and spoken word artist. Follow her at writesomeshit.com and on Twitter at hannahdrake628.