SIDEWALK POLITICS.Mar 13, 2021
As pedantic as this might sound, I find the small interactions that occur when two people pass each other on the street, really fascinating to observe and unpack.
Back in my high school days, I used to play this game with my friends where we'd link arms and walk in a straight line down Chapel street. It was a game of willpower; who would cave and unlink arms to make way for oncoming traffic? Or who could lift their chin up high and power through regardless of who they bumped into or who turned around to try and teach these unruly teenagers a lesson?
I feel like the memory of this game still lingers on (it was a good game) but now the game is not so much about willpower, but about noticing the politics of who's expected to move out of the way for who in this country.
WAYS TO NAVIGATE THE SIDEWALK.
When two people pass each other on a narrow or crowded sidewalk, there's always an exchange that occurs.
The exchange could look like either one of the four scenarios below:
- One walker notices the other walker and decides to cross the road to avoid any kind of interpersonal interaction (side note - this is my favourite scenario)
- Person A walks in a straight line and person B shuffles to the side
- Person B walks in a straight line and person A shuffles to the side
- Both walkers acknowledge each other and both make adjustments so that both can walk in a mutual, cooperative manner.
And when the need to consider any of these four options presents itself, a whole bunch of incredibly swift and unconscious decision making processes occur.
For example, you might see a parent with a pram, with shopping bags, perhaps with another toddler tagging along, and you intuitively shuffle to the side or even cross the road to give them more space to pass. You might also do the same for an elderly person who needs a bit more space to navigate the world.
Or alternatively, you might see a group of kids and you keep walking in a straight line as they make way for you. Or maybe they don't make way and you think, "bloody kids! They should be more respectful" or something old like that...
But whatever the case, there's always some kind of flash decision making process that occurs. And what's interesting is that the decision making process isn't only limited to age, space or need, but often also involves gender and race.
In what order are we lined up along the invisible yet definitive hierarchy of who gets to walk in a straight line in this world?
A FREE RIDE.
To illustrate this a little more; before Covid, I used to always walk behind middle-aged white men in suits in the city (especially if they looked like they were busy). I found that doing so would help me to get from point A to point B swiftly because everyone seems to move out of the way for this demographic.
And I'd walk behind them, not in front of them, because regardless of how smart I dressed or how busy I looked, the world just doesn't quite move out of the way for people who look like me. It's all about the politics of who gets to move in a straight line, and who has to move out of the way in this world.
20 MILLION PEOPLE WORKING TOGETHER.
I’m acutely aware of these sidewalk interactions because I’m from Tokyo, a deeply monocultural, collectivist and busy city where literally millions of people pass each other every day. Despite how crowded the stations and streets are, everything seems to flow and move smoothly. People aren't stopping and starting every few steps nor are they constantly bumping into each other.
The sidewalk works in Tokyo because people are patient and aware of their surroundings. People also consistently make small shifts in their physicality so that people can pass each other and share space. There’s a lot of subtle head nodding going on too to signal that “yes I see you and thanks for noticing me too” and these small gestures, subtle turns of the body, quick glances to see if there’s any more space for you to move, all allow the sidewalk to be shared in a fair and somewhat equitable manner.
And of course there’s the downside to this too. Firstly, it highlights a deeply monocultural society where cultural norms are shared by everyone and those who find themselves even a little outside of this norm, are often overtly ostracised and excluded. It's also exhausting having to constantly be mindful and aware of your surroundings and negotiating with strangers about how to share the sidewalk every single time you step outside.
This intense need to always be considering the collective rather than the individual, inevitably leads to the explosive nature of Japanese night life and mental health issues too so I’m definitely not saying that this is the way in which the world should work. But what I am saying is that there's such a stark contrast between the Japanese and Australian approaches to sharing space. And it's this difference that's made me really aware of how much or how little space I'm supposed to be taking up in this world as an Asian Australian woman.
WHO DESERVES TO HAVE SPACE?
Historically, Caucasian Australians are used to ample space and low-density living. People don’t know how to navigate crowds because the urban experience in Australia has been limited to really only the past few decades. Culturally, there never really has been a need to negotiate small spaces with other people so there’s no inbuilt awareness or mindfulness about sharing space. This leads to an almost entitled sentiment when navigating the sidewalk, because historically, there's never really been a need to negotiate small spaces.
But far more insidious than this naivety about city living are the comments that range from, “fuck off we’re full” (so succinct and eloquent) to “Melbourne’s getting too busy, we need to control immigration”. Because these sentiments have so little to do with urban planning and instead have so much more to do with racism.
Whose land is too full or too busy? Whose needs are being cared for in these comments? Whose spaces are the "immigrants" taking up?
And all of these sentiments are actually really senseless because the land that we're trying to navigate is all stolen land anyway, so it's really only our First Nations people who can even claim entitlement of this "space".
NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SIDEWALK.
The politics of how we navigate the sidewalk on a day to day basis is replicated in our workplaces, in politics, in executive leadership, and in our media representation. And this, is how sidewalk politics ends up having nothing to do with the sidewalk and having everything to do with the politics of who's allowed to take up space in this country and who isn’t.
Who do we naturally make space for (not just physical space but space for our attention) in this world? And who do we naturally expect to shuffle to the side, out of view and out of sight?
In what kind of ways will changing the way we navigate the sidewalk, inform the politics of who can take up space in Australia?
BACK TO THE SIDEWALK.
From here on, I wonder if I can also pull you into my exhausting awareness of the many choices that get made on the sidewalk... Take note of who moves out of the way for you, or who creates a mutual and collaborative experience to navigate any small spaces. Take note of who you move out of the way for and who you don’t move out of the way for and then ask yourself:
- What does your experience of the sidewalk tell you about your sense of worthiness to take up space in the world?
- Similarly, what does it tell you about your desire to be seen in this world?
- What does your experience of the sidewalk tell you about who you think should move out of the way for you?
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