Walking While White — An Awakening

About a month before the streets filled with protestors outraged by the murder of George Floyd, my husband and I devoted our time to walking them. Our presence was not born of politics or despair, but a reaction to Covid-19. Our county in suburban New York had been hit hard. When the weather warmed, we longed to get outside. The parks near us were either closed or dangerously crowded and we couldn’t travel. So we hit the pavement.

Back in March, during a stay-at-home-motivated basement decluttering, we came across an old paper street map of our town. Finding it prompted a plan: we committed to walking every single street in our town. Setting a goal seemed to give purpose to our daily forays. Now we’re more than a third of the way finished. The blue highlight we use to mark the areas on the map we’ve covered is expanding in all directions.

But this week our walks through our 80%-white town feel like something else entirely.

We are both white, in our sixties, and as we make our way down tiny lanes in new neighborhoods, rounds corners we’ve never seen before, or brazenly walk down the occasional street marked “private,” now we ask ourselves: what if we weren’t white?

I have little doubt that the police would have been called dozens of times during our rambles around town. What would have happened after that is anyone’s guess. As it is, not one person has asked us what we’re doing, why we’re walking on their cul-de-sac, or stopping in front of their houses (admittedly to check house prices on Zillow with our phones).

A month into walking, I believed we were really exploring our town, seeing it up close. Not until George Floyd was killed, and nearby New York City, not to mention Minneapolis, LA, Oakland, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Houston, and almost every other city in this country exploded — did I realize that we hadn’t been paying attention at all.

Early in our journey, most of what we noticed was Covid-related. Windows were decorated with children’s drawings of rainbows. At first I thought this was an elementary school distance-learning assignment, or maybe even a treasure hunt. Now I know it’s a thing — rainbows drawn by kids to boost morale during the pandemic. We also pass a thin but regular stream of discarded blue rubber gloves and paper masks on the side of the roads — presumably tossed out of car windows. My instinct is to pick up the trash, but I leave this virus detritus untouched.

Navy blue and orange lawn signs — the local high school colors — reading “Home of a 2020 Grad” are everywhere, with handwritten addendums like, “Congratulations Brad!” or “You did it Jen!’” Those kids, about 300 in the graduating class, didn’t get a ceremony. A few college graduation banners are also up. Less frequent, but still pervasive are “Thank You Health Care Heroes”.

Campaign signs on little metal stakes sprouted on lawns throughout the town. Our district is having a Congressional primary in which eight Democrats are vying for one vacant seat. Three candidates are holding a steady lead in lawn sign frequency. We’ve also seen one sign that reads, “Hillary for Prison.” How long has it been there, I wonder? Another notice, hanging from a tree: “Whoever took our azalea bush, please return it. We planted it here. No questions asked.”

Broken dressers, their drawers hanging loosely, long-abandoned exercise equipment, rusting tricycles and the like are piling up at the end of driveways. It seems everyone used the shutdown to tackle their basement clutter.

There’s beauty everywhere. Huge old willow trees. Blossoming azaleas. The rhododendrons exploding in purples and pinks. Carefully tended gardens. Kids drawing with pastel colored chalk on their driveways. Old couples sitting in their backyard shade. Emerald lawns. Lawns gone wild with clover and dandelions. Lilacs. Lilacs. Lilacs. My husband waits patiently as I stop to smell another one, the fragrance as delicate as the pale purple blooms. Turning a corner, we come across a wild yellow rose bush running riot on a fence.

Some streets bring up memories. As we walk, one of us will say, “Didn’t we once have a babysitter who lived around here? Curly hair?” or “Didn’t our daughter have a boyfriend who lived on that road?” or “What was the name of that couple who once lived here? You know who I mean. She used to work for a bank…”

But driving the streets as busy, young suburban parents and walking them when you’re in your sixties are two separate things. We take our time. If someone else is on the street, we slip our masks out of our pockets and pull them over our nose and mouth. Everyone nods and waves. We take turns politely and preemptively crossing the street for social distancing.

My husband and I racked up mile after mile. We were on a mission.

Now it all feels different. We realize that the only reason we can walk these streets with impunity is because we’re white. The charming houses, the gardens, the quiet — it’s all a bastion of white privilege as the country burns. The entire undertaking of walking every street in town is built on that privilege.

It’s time to stop walking and start marching — with real purpose this time.

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