Pay Attention

‘Have you noticed white people never move out of your way?’ The politics of the pavement

Illustration by Michelle Wong

Living in a city with 8.8 million other people certainly has its downsides. You notice them as you squeeze onto the already full carriage. It’s a silent game we play together as we weave through crowded stations and dart across busy streets – tutting at tourists who don’t know the rules. Then one day my sister came home with a straightforward question “have you ever noticed that white people never move out of your way on the street?” She was inspired by a challenge that was popular on social media at the time, and she was angry. I realised then that there were unspoken rules that we all acted on, beyond standing on the right and walking on the left.

A year ago, writer Hannah Drake issued the “hold your space” challenge, after noticing how people of colour, particularly black women, “navigate throughout spaces making accommodations for white people.” Dozens of women seemed to relate, sharing tips and experiences of the challenge online. Hannah argued that this policing of black bodies stems from Jim Crow laws that “provided racial etiquette for black bodies”.

For the last year I’ve been ‘holding my space’ on the pavement. I’ve been barged into, scowled at and everything in between, for simply deciding not to move out of the way. I used to think that stepping off a narrow pavement to let a group pass was just the polite thing to do, until I realised not everybody would do it. Some people walk with the belief that even the Earth should reposition itself to suit their chosen path. Here I am in the UK, millions of miles removed from the American South. But to me, the hierarchy is still obvious.

“I’ve been barged into and scowled at and everything in between, for simply deciding not to move out of the way”

09:15 15/07/19, Piccadilly line Westbound – it’s by no means a busy train, but the (white) woman next to me is desperate to have her suitcase to my right, by her seat. She knees me once (a mistake). Once again (surely it’s not intentional). A third time (any second now she’ll settle). Strike four. There shouldn’t be a fourth strike but I’m too tired this morning

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