A couple of summers ago, I took my younger sister and my son downtown for dinner. We parked a few blocks away from he restaurant, fed the meter and began walking. I am always making those kids laugh, so we strolled leisurely as I told them a story to make them giggle.
Behind us, I could hear a group of people. Their voices told me they were white. I could hear they were walking at a brisk pace and knew they’d soon be on our heels. Still, on the narrow sidewalk, we strolled, in no rush to arrive at the restaurant.
Soon, these white people were inches behind us. I turned to see there was a group of four of them. One woman in the group issued that phony smile white people give when they don’t want Black people to suspect they’re calling us niggers in their head. I turned back around and kept clowning with my sister and son.
My son started to move over to give them space. I immediately pulled him back over. “Did you hear anybody say ‘excuse me’?” I asked. “No, but they right behind us,” my baby replied.” I let him know loudly that people let you know they want to move past you by excusing themselves not by walking behind you, so we don’t move without “excuse me.” And still, them white folks continued walking on our heels because saying those two words would have been too much like right.
Well, Titanic, meet the iceberg.
It is a rare occasion when I’m walking in any shared space and come into the path of another Black person and we both don’t start to move in opposite directions so that we don’t hit each other. It is cultural. Sadly, it is a result of us being taught that we don’t really belong in any space, are always tolerated and never welcome, so we learn early to move out of the way of others.
Conversely, white people are groomed to believe any space they are in they have an inherent and supreme right to inhabit. They expect everyone to move for them. And saying “excuse me” would be tantamount to admitting that they are not the supreme beings they are taught they are.
It’s the reason they will squeeze their asses through the smallest slither of space they can fit through to avoid humbling themselves with “excuse me.” It’s the reason they will stand behind you in the grocery store just staring instead of asking you to move your cart so they can go past you. It’s the reason they would rather issue that empty ass “sorry” without making eye contact after bumping you than issue a courteous “excuse me” to avoid touching you. It’s the reason they will walk on the edge of a train platform where one misstep could drop their asses down on the tracks and in the pathway of a speeding train instead of walking safely on the platform where they would have to share the space and respect the other passengers.
And as a Black woman whose very existence is considered negotiable, challengeable and burdensome, it’s worth it to me to stand my fucking ground anytime a white person refuses to respect that I have just as much right to be in a space as they do. I will happily bump into you. I mean you can huff and puff like the Big Bad Wolf behind me for a block or three because I ain’t motherfucking moving until you demonstrate that you know the magic words. You wanna ride your bike on the sidewalk and ring that god damned bell instead of opening your mouth to say “pardon me” – Yes, this shit actually happened when I was on my way to lunch with coworker! – and expect me to step aside? I guess you best take your feet off the peddles because you will only be traveling as fast as I’m walking.
In this world, Black people have to take and use whatever power we can. Everyday we have to find ways to make sure we are not trampled literally and figuratively. For me, this is one of the easiest ways to remind white people and myself that I’m not aiding them in administering their racist ass system. I’m going to be seen and respected. You’re going to acknowledge me.
Or you’re going to stay the fuck behind me.