New York Times contributor David Kaufman, writing here, wants us to know that he’s rendered distraught by “subtle streams of everyday racism that course through our homes, our workplaces, and the outside world.” An endless assault that “bombards people of colour.” People such as himself. It is, we’re told, time for a “cultural reckoning.”
For me, this reckoning begins with traffic signals.
Hm. Perhaps retracing our steps will help. Make things less confounding.
A few months back, before Covid-19 kept us in our homes and George Floyd made us take to the streets, I was walking with a friend, her daughter, and my twin sons. My friend is White and I’m not — something I’d never given a second thought until we reached a crosswalk. “Remember, honey,” she said to her daughter as we waited for the light to turn green, “we need to wait for the little White man to appear before we can cross the street.”
And in the very next breath:
I realise that White people like to exert control over nearly everything everyone does, I thought, but since when did this literally include trying to cross the street?
It’s a bold leap. Dense with assumptions. And hey, no racism there. Mr Kaufman - who can doubtless detect racism in the motions of subatomic particles - would have us believe that his friend was using the word white as a racial descriptor, rather than, as seems more likely, an unremarkable acknowledgement of a traffic light’s colour when talking to a child. In light of which, Mr Kaufman’s claims of being “bombarded” with racism – daily, everywhere – become at least explicable, if not convincing.
As a Black dad, I was struck by the language at play. How is it possible that well into the 21st century, parents all over Manhattan — well-meaning, #BLM-marching parents — are teaching their children to ask “little White men” for permission to cross the street? And why doesn’t this seem to bother them? It certainly bothered me.
The pedestrian crossing signal that so distresses Mr Kaufman – a rudimentary humanoid figure, made of white lights on a black background – can be seen here, from a safe distance. You may want to steady yourselves. It’s all very upsetting, at least for the exquisitely sensitive - people finer than ourselves. And who write for the New York Times. Mr Kaufman then goes on an investigative journey, in which he learns why, in a society with lots of non-English speakers, crossing signals with words – walk / don’t walk – are being replaced by simple, universal graphics, calibrated to capture attention – say, by using lights of a certain hue: