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.
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:
It’s “lunar white,” according to the Federal Highway administration: a shade of white with yellow and grey accents that mimics the colour of the moon. Lunar white wasn’t chosen because it sounds cool. According to FHWA research, the agency spokesperson says, moonlight offers “the peak sensitivity for the rod cells in the human retina.” In other words, our vision is predisposed to favouring the clarity and intensity of moonlight.
All sounds quite sensible. Rather than, say, a nefarious racial conspiracy intended to break the will of the negro. However, Mr Kaufman - for whom pretentious agonising is the very stuff of life, or at least the stuff of woke status - is not easily deterred.
But my heart still sinks at the spectre of teaching my sons to ask a White man for permission to do — well, anything. Because so much of the world already insists that we do.
Loaded and sweeping claims for which no evidence or explanation are deemed necessary, and which are nonetheless expected to command deference, are, it seems, a signature of Mr Kaufman’s prose. And presumably, his mental habits.
Nonetheless, that little White man woke me up to the ways that language imparts power and privilege even upon the most banal necessities. And so, as I begin teaching my boys survival basics like riding a bike, waiting in line, and… yes… crossing the street, I’ll work hard to avoid phrases like “little White man.”
Happily, Mr Kaufman devises a cunning alternative.
a bit of extra verbal labour is worth the price of not conceding our power to even one more little White man.
bright light person.
A triumph, then, of sorts. An act of radical defiance. Against sensible pedestrian crossings.
Heavens, a button. I wonder what it does.