. . . It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. . .
—Ralph Ellison Invisible Man (1952)
On my walk to the grocery store, I stay to the right side of the path, giving cyclists a wide berth around me. The width of this path is fairly generous, nearly six feet across. There’s enough room for me to remain safe during my ten minute journey. When I spot the jogging man coming towards me, he’s several yards ahead, on my side of this wide path. I have a few seconds to decide what I’ll do, the anxiety actually elevates my heart rate. Stay the course or move aside? The way I reason it, he’s moving much faster than I, speeding downhill while I trudge upward, he has the ability to jog around. At the last second I stand my ground and stay the course.
When he does brush against me, our arms bumping, I continue walking with the knowledge that this is not normal behavior. He doesn’t say “excuse me” or “Ursäkta mig.” He just blow through me as though I’m not there. For the rest of my fuming walk to the store, I realize that this hasn’t been the first time I’ve experienced this.
Being ran into, walked into, bumped against, has happened countless times in Sweden. The strange thing is that I’m not the only American experiencing it. My husband (white) is beyond irritated by these run-ins. While walking around Gothenburg, he and I crossed paths with a group of tow-headed teenage boys who walked three-deep on a rather narrow space. One of them bumped my husband and kept walking. Noah stopped in his tracks and stared at the back of the boy’s head. “Did you see that??” he asked me.
Yep, I see it all the time. I’m a black woman from America, lol.
To make sense of this strange phenomenon, I had to refer to a book an American colleague gave us, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. In it, English author, Michael Booth met up with famed Nordic ethnologist Åke Daun, to discuss Swedish eccentricities. Apparently Swedish people were very isolated Pre-Industry Revolution and have maintained some of that mentality well into the following century. According to Duan, “. . . the Swedes were highly adept at insulating themselves from others, and remained able to do so even in urban environments.” He added, “That’s why, in Sweden you might have observed that they just walk into people as if they don’t exist.”
Booth seemed relieved to hear this and wrote:
“At last, an explanation for the breathtaking rudeness I had routinely experience while visiting Sweden: the unapologetic barging, the oblivious blocking, the complete absence of common courtesies that had left me impotent with rage on so many occasions” (310)
Obviously, I’m a bit relieved too. If it’s not just me getting barged into, then it might not be me. And when I say me, I mean a black woman who is often overlooked or ignored in America. By now, it should be well-known that America’s Jim Crow laws and unwritten rules made certain that white Americans were given the right-of-way . . . all of the time. It was just a given that black people made space, took the long way around, or stepped aside, for the sake of white comfort. If not, the results could prove fatal
From American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, author Jerrold M. Packard writes:
. . . blacks had since slave days been expected to step off the sidewalk to allow white persons to pass unimpeded—failure to do so could result in being murdered—some communities with the new century began to require blacks to keep off the sidewalks altogether when any white children were occupying any part of them (91).
If you think that Jim Crow is old and we’ve moved past it, you would be wrong. While I’m here in Sweden dealing with their oddball approach to shared walking spaces, America is still doing her thing. In this twitter thread (below), Tatiana Mac illustrates several instances where her existence is erased in public spaces. She attempted her own version of “stand your ground” and was met with this reaction.
Many of those who read the thread understood, all too well, Mac’s experience. One writer, in particular, shared her own experience and issued a challenge for other black people to “hold your space,” in public spaces. In Hannah Drake’s post Do Not Move Off the Sidewalk Challenge, she urges us to:
. . . to hold your space. I challenge you for the next 24-48 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?
So, do I take up the challenge while living in a society where most of folks are wrecking balls to one another regardless of color? My husband and talked about this and he’s convinced that he doesn’t want to pick up the habit. “They won’t make me become rude.” He came from a place where you said “excuse me” or “sorry.” He’s also very conscious about making others comfortable (i.e. he’s not a man-spreader on public transportation).
I’m of a different mind regarding this social conflict. I can’t dismiss where I came from so easily and say: “I will beat these people by being even more polite!” I’ve already been bumped around too much. My mother also raised me not step off into the grass when passing a white person. From my perspective, I don’t believe this is one of those “when they go low, we go high” situations. This is simply a cultural quirk that deeply offends me because of my history.
If Swedish people believe they have the right to move about in the world the way they do, maybe it’s time for me to catch up to them. I intend to be less apologetic about the space I take up. After all, American women of all races are trained to make themselves smaller. Black women in particular, are not meant to be seen at all.
So far, my current approach is exhausting, so I think I’ll try something new and see where I get. I’m going to take up Hannah Drake’s challenge no matter which country I’m in. I have every right to be visible.