The Unintentional Racism Found in Traffic Signals
Just because something doesn’t use an offensive mascot doesn’t mean it can’t reinforce a broken system
Washington D.C.’s pro football team. Aunt Jemima pancake products. Eskimo Pies. They’re all examples of the everyday racism that bombards people of color from the supermarket to the playing field. They’re also all iconic American products that both corporations and consumers finally agree are ready for a rebrand.
But what about the far more subtle streams of everyday racism that course through our homes, our workplaces, and the outside world? These instances may be far subtler than a mascot or an offensive term, but are no less pervasive — and no less deserving of cultural reckoning.
For me, this reckoning begins with traffic signals.
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.”
I realize 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?
Part of my surprise here was a function of age. My boys are a few months younger than her daughter and we hadn’t yet tackled the “crossing the street” component of basic toddler training. But 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?
Technology and necessity propelled the shift from verbal crosswalk cues to a lunar-white Walking Person. But…