I however, couldn’t help but wonder what I’d missed during my black walk. It’s hard to hear the birds chirping, or to smile at the squirrels playfully darting along the branches when you’re on a black walk. It’s easy to miss the promise of a light blue sky, or appreciate the audacity of the red, yellow, and purple daisies declaring their independence from the green grass when your mind is preoccupied with black thoughts. I took a walk through a beautiful neighborhood this morning. But I missed the whole thing.

David Summers, Facebook, 24 February 2020

I can’t keep writing about walking without acknowledging my White privilege. My daily walks, my sanctuary and a major source of the joy in my life these days, are not something that everyone can engage in safely. Racism on the part of White neighbors and police endanger the lives of BIPOC, even when they are just out for a walk around their own neighborhoods. It’s wrong, and we desperately need change.

I do not have answers here, but raising uncomfortable subjects is one of the only ways that we can begin to heal.

Walking Is My Sanctuary

Walking saved me this past year. A few moments, outside, with just my thoughts and curiosity helped me to focus on the beauty and wonder around me, and to experience something akin to normality in my every day.

Walking also helped me in times of crisis. When I learned in March that my good friend was in the hospital with Covid-19 and on a ventilator, I walked to my sanctuary spot on Lake Winnisquam, looking out at the dark water, trying to will my friend to live and to process that he might not (thankfully, he survived).

On the first real day of springlike weather, Ollie and I walked for two hours, saying hello to all of the flowers and new leaves, the sun warm on our bodies. It felt like hope. I walked off work stress in the afternoons, starting out fast and frustrated, and ending with a slower pace and some peace. Sweated like crazy in the summer, stopping to snap photos of countless gardens; kicked leaves in autumn.

I can tell you about countless other walks this year, and in other years, from angsty adolescent stomps to joyous wanders in other cities and countries. Walking helps me deal with my emotions, clarify my thinking, and opens me up to new perspectives. To to say that walking has shaped who I am doesn’t really do it justice.

Walking costs nothing, and so long as one is able to walk, and there’s a reasonably safe place to do it, it’s free to everyone.

Walking with White Privilege

That’s the thing, though. It’s not safe for everyone to walk. As a White woman, now in middle age, with a cute (if barky) little rescue pup, I look like I belong in my privileged, mostly white, neighborhood. I walk around with a camera, taking photos of people’s gardens, and no one ever gives me dirty looks or questions my right to walk on the sidewalk. In other words, I have some pretty serious White privilege that allows me to engage in one of my favorite activities without risking my life. As a woman, I do have limitations on where and how I can walk safely, but my options are far greater than others.

Walking Can Prove Dangerous for BIPOC

Walking safely is especially curtailed for BIPOC. Whether from police or vigilantes, and/or nosy White neighbors, the simple act of taking a walk, even in broad daylight, incurs risk of harassment, violence, and death for BIPOC. And this does not address the disproportionate number of BIPOC who live in environmentally unsafe neighborhoods for walking.

David Summers, quoted above, who is Black, had been out for a walk in a White neighborhood, where police tailed and menaced him. While the encounter did not end as too many such encounters do, it did rob Summers of the basic joy of going for a walk. He didn’t get to notice all the magic around him, because he had to spend his energy on how to live through his walk. No photos, the only story to share with his friends was about how his life was endangered.

Or, there’s also this post from Shola Richards, where he writes that he never goes for a walk without his dog and his little girl, because walking alone would risk his life as a Black man. Richards writes:

But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong (even though, I’m still the same guy who just wants to take a walk through his neighborhood). It’s equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of being targeted.

Shola Richards, Facebook, May 28, 2020

Think about that

Think about that. This man cannot go for a walk alone in his own neighborhood without potentially risking his life. He can’t just take a walk with nothing but his thoughts.

These aren’t isolated stories; this happens all over the US, all the time (here’s another one from a few years ago in Boston). And the fears aren’t overblown. Think of Ahmaud Arbery or Trayvon Martin.

And it isn’t just Black men who face such risk.

This is wrong.

We Need Change

This has to stop. I do not have answers here, but I can’t keep writing about walking without acknowledging my White privilege inherent in doing it.

We need to change our approach to the health and safety of our communities so that BIPOC are not targeted for violence.

For those of us who are White, we need to understand and confront our privilege, especially our role in furthering injustice by not actively fighting it. Racism is on us to dismantle, as White people, and it’s on us to educate ourselves.

We need to listen to BIPOC when they do share their experiences, even though it hurts to do so, and can make us feel defensive.  We need to believe them.

And we need to act. Nothing changes if we don’t act. This starts with engaging with subjects that make us feel uncomfortable, including the fact that the simple activity of taking a walk is not free to everyone.

A few resources

Below are a few resources, including on the role of race in the history of policing. Please share any resources that you have found helpful.

Lepore, Jill. “The Invention of the Police.” New Yorker. 13 July 2020.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom, July/August 1989.  

Muhammad, Khalil. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, with a New Preface. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk about Race. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 2019.