Wednesday the NY Times published a piece titled “Was that racist?” the point of which was to look closely at ambiguous incidents which may or may not have been prompted by racism. The story opens with an incident where racism was not involved. A tall black man named Marques is momentarily stunned when a barista calls out an order for “tall, black Marques.” After a moment he realizes “tall, black” is a reference to his order, not his appearance. But the next story, written by a NY Times employee, doesn’t seem to leave a lot of doubt. The author thinks white women are walking the city’s sidewalks in a racist manner:
There are many times in a day when a person is walking toward me and in my path. In these situations, we both generally make minor adjustments upon our approach. Sometimes, and especially with pedestrians who are black, as I am, there’s eye contact or even a nod. Almost always, we shift our bodyweight or otherwise detour to make the pass easier for the other. Walking courteously doesn’t take much, just soupçons of spatial awareness, foresight and empathy. In seven years of living and walking here, I’ve found that most people walk courteously — but that white women, at least when I’m in their path, do not.
Sometimes they’re buried in their phones. Other times, they’re in pairs and groups, and in conversation. But often, they’re looking ahead, through me, if not quite at me. When white women are in my path, they almost always continue straight, forcing me to one side without changing their course. This happens several times a day; and a couple of times a week, white women force me off the sidewalk completely. In these instances, when I’m standing in the street or in the dirt as a white woman strides past, broad-shouldered and blissful, I turn furious…
After these encounters, I’m always left with questions. Why only and specifically white women? Do they refuse to acknowledge me because they’ve been taught that they should fear black men, and that any acknowledgment of black men can invite danger?
The author does do some speculating on what this might mean, but all of his thoughts seem to boil down to white women being afraid to acknowledge him. He says he has asked white women he knows and they tell him they don’t know what he’s talking about. “Wait, am I crazy?” he wonders. But then when he asks black male friends and “they know what I’m talking about.”
What I see are a lot of unexplored variables. Since these are people passing in the opposite direction, the author doesn’t really know how these women behaved toward everyone else. In other words, maybe he has just encountered some rude women. The idea that there are rude people walking around New York being rude doesn’t exactly come as a shock to me.
Or maybe he’s become so irritated by a few instances of this behavior that he’s overestimating how often it actually happens. Is it really true that no white women ever make adjustments for him? On a busy sidewalk, you might pass dozens of people every minute. Is he counting all the people who weren’t rude or just keeping count of the ones that were?
And what if the women in question are reacting to something other than his race? Is he scowling as he walks down the street, anticipating the next minor incident that will make him “furious.” There could be an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here. If you’re on the edge of anger all the time as you’re walking around, maybe that’s visible. Maybe one reason women don’t want to make eye contact is they catch the mood. No one wants to catch the eye of the person who is muttering darkly to themselves as they walk down the street. To be clear, I’m not saying the author is doing that only pointing out that avoiding eye contact can sometimes be based on factors besides race.
Or maybe it really is a racial thing. It’s possible but we probably need a lot more information to rule out other possibilities first. One thing about this story is that it wouldn’t be very hard to prove the point one way or the other. Just walk down the street with a GoPro so we can all see what you’re experiencing. But it’s a little hard to believe white women in one of the most progressive cities in the country are behaving like racists on the sidewalk.