It’s New York City, so it’s bound to happen. You don’t catch someone approaching and your shoulders lightly bump. You look back, a little shocked but regretful, and try to sputter an apology before turning back to your hurried walk to class or the office. And by the time you’ve made it to your upward-bound elevator, you’ve forgotten about it.
But what if you didn’t forget about it? What if it began to happen so often that the momentary shoulder graze jumped from a sensory memory and became a short term memory—momentarily occupying your mind during a meal hours later, perhaps—before finally becoming a long term memory?
Because that’s what happened to me when I began to notice the people bumping into me: mostly men and mostly white.
I know. You’re already asking whether I’m reading too much into something—and trust me, I’ve already done it. It’s a self-assessment too many people of color have to make on a sometimes daily basis: The “Am I Making This A Racist Thing?” Test. It’s a vicious mental test, described best by Jezebel’s Brit Bennett, who wrote in her post-Ferguson piece “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People” the following:
“I often hear good white people ask why people of color must make everything about race, as if we enjoy considering racism as a motivation. I wish I never had to cycle through these small interactions and wonder: Am I overthinking? Am I just being paranoid? It’s exhausting.”
I mentioned the shoulder checking (think like the Bruins) theory to a friend, and she lit up, intrigued by the phenomenon she’d never heard uttered. That encouraging moment inspired further research. New York Magazine’s Jessica Roy last year documented similar instances of men not moving for women: “It’s a phenomenon that perhaps we could call manslamming,” she wrote. “The sidewalk M.O. of men who remain apparently oblivious to the personal space of those around them. Should you choose not to yield to these men, they will walk directly into you without even acknowledging it.”
That’s exactly it, I thought. But while I had a pretty good sense of this all having to do with a skewed spatial authority informed by a privileged sense of entitlement, I couldn’t find the language to express it. Until Roy unpacked it a little. “[Bumping] involves questions of personal space that have vexed feminists for years — arguably, both are symptoms of a culture that teaches men to self-assuredly occupy any and all space available to them, regardless of who’s nearby.”
And there was my a-ha moment. Walking around New York with an inflated sense of self and entitlement (lucky bastards), men—primarily white—didn’t even register that sharing a 10 foot sidewalk with two opposing lanes of pedestrian traffic, tourists, strollers, dogs etc. would necessitate an adjustment of their walking trajectory. No; Instead, everyone else must yield to them. Unbothered with blissfully and unapologetically shoulder checking women, surely exercising the same disregard for men (and women) of color would also play into the phenomenon.
That these phenomena are being documented is one step, and hopefully it will inspire more awareness and defiance. But I’m aware these microaggressions may not be recognized or reversed in my lifetime. And even so, I don’t expect to suspect that every bump of the shoulder I experience is informed by my race, or anyone else’s gender.
But at the very least, if you are a white man bumping into someone of color, or a woman, or anyone who dare not yield to your whim… Just as I go home and fruitlessly wonder, you should also be subject to the shadow of a doubt lingering in your mind: Was that action inherently informed by an inflated sense of white entitlement? Are my actions racially motivated?
And hopefully the momentary self-assessment will give you a glimpse into what it’s like to experience microaggressions every day.