Allen: Are the sidewalks at Northwestern too White, too?

Kenny Allen, Opinion Editor

When I first got to Northwestern, I wondered why walking around on campus could be so frustrating. Even when sidewalks were relatively empty, I would often have to walk way around people to pass without bumping into them. At first, I chalked it up to the geographic diversity of the school; maybe the people that came to this school were used to different ways of moving through a public place. But after talking to my Black friends about my experience, they echoed it: people at this predominantly White school would not move out of our way on the sidewalk.

This was one of many reminders that diversity does not mean inclusion at NU. Even though the University has worked to increase the number of Black students here, that doesn’t mean we’re welcomed with open arms. Bedelia Nicola Richards, a sociology professor at the University of Richmond, laid out a set of five questions to determine whether one’s university is racist: 

  1. Which group or groups feel most at home on the campus and which ones feel like (unwanted) guests? 
  2. Whose norms, values and perspectives does the institution consider to be normal or legitimate? Whose does it silence, marginalize or delegitimize? 
  3. Who inhabits positions of power within the institution? 
  4. Whose experiences, norms, values and perspectives influence an institution’s laws, policies and systems of evaluation? 
  5. Whose interests does the institution protect?

At this school, the answer to most of those questions is White people. Any honest accounting of the decision-making structures at this school would tell you so. And this power dynamic is always present in the way Black students interact with this institution.

So why did my Black friends and I all feel that we were being pushed off the sidewalks?

Almost everybody in the United States gets some sort of education about Jim Crow segregation. Black people had to attend different schools, weren’t allowed to vote and didn’t have any legal protection from discrimination. These laws helped to create an image of Black inferiority after the abolition of slavery. And that sentiment trickled down to the way people interact on an interpersonal level. 

The formal rules of Jim Crow were accompanied by a set of informal ones that governed the way Black people approached White people in public space and vice versa. That social order required Black people to yield to White people whenever possible. Both sets of rules told White people that they were superior and Black people that they were inferior — and that this pattern of subjugation was the natural way for things to be. Black people were made to show deference to White people any time they interacted. One of the ways they were made to do so was by stepping off the sidewalk when a White person was walking past.

The informal rules are passed down through generations just like any other kind of etiquette. White people came to expect the right of way in public spaces. White people who were accustomed to moving through the world like that — intentionally or not — taught their kids to move through the world in the same way. And the racism that undergirded Jim Crow wasn’t eliminated just because the laws were no longer overtly racist.

Many White people walk around campus having unknowingly absorbed this particular facet of White supremacy, and the leaders of the institution do little to make us believe that White supremacy is something worth challenging in the first place. This is not to say that giving people space in public is a way to be anti-racist; the sidewalk question is just one way in which Black people are made to feel unwelcome. This is to say that essentially every aspect of our society, including the way we physically move through space, has been shaped by a racist legacy. Uprooting that White supremacy requires both recognizing its scale and disrupting it however it shows up. 

If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.