For the benefit of overseas readers, “jumping the shark” is an American phrase meaning that one’s taken something to an absurd extreme in an attempt to attract attention to it. It seems appropriate to describe this article.
A few months back … 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? … 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?
. . .
… the “little man” is actually a little person, but that little person is still white. Right?
Close. It’s “lunar white,” according to the FHWA: a shade of white with yellow and grey accents that mimics the color 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 favoring the clarity and intensity of moonlight.
. . .
And there you have it: The government-approved origins of the “little White men” telling us to cross the street at corners across New York … I am now convinced that technology and necessity, rather than some anti-Black conspiracy, propelled the shift from verbal crosswalk cues to a lunar-white Walking Person. But my heart still sinks at the specter 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.
. . .
… 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.” Obviously “bright light person” rolls off the tongue far less mellifluously, but a bit of extra verbal labor is worth the price of not conceding our power to even one more little White man.
There’s more at the link.
I must admit, the first time I read that article, my blood boiled (figuratively speaking). I was outraged. How the hell could anybody be so utterly stupid as to equate a non-racial traffic signal with human racism? The author appeared to be seeing everything through racist-tinged spectacles, so that he could no longer separate technology from the color of human skin. I found that appalling.
On further reflection, I suppose if I was walking in that man’s shoes, I might see things differently. If I’d been brought up in an environment where everything was seen in racial terms, where it was a staple of everyday life and never allowed to go unmentioned, perhaps I’d feel as he does. I hope not . . . but I’m forced to admit the possibility.
I’ve certainly seen that sort of extremism often enough, in Africa and America, in men, women and children. Speaking as a pastor and chaplain, I’m reminded of Matthew 15:11; “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” What we and others “feed” our kids, mentally and spiritually, can in fact determine what comes out of them for the rest of their lives – the way they live, speak, behave, react, whatever. Racism has to be dealt with in that sense, for both the racist and the victim of racism. If we see life, and each other, only through racial spectacles, we have no chance whatsoever of living a normal life. For proof, look at most of the BLM activists currently creating mayhem on our streets. They’re the fruit of that process.
Too many parents bring up their children in that sort of biased consciousness. It’s the same fanaticism that we see in religious hard-liners. I’ve heard too many Christian fundamentalists parrot Proverbs 22:6; “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Sadly, that’s sometimes been taken as Divine license for extremists to beat, starve and torture their kids to force them into compliance. It usually results in those kids rejecting God and religion in all its forms as soon as they’re able to escape. (That’s also why Palestinian TV shows programs to kids that encourage them to become “martyrs”, and show them how to wear suicide bombs beneath their clothing. Same principle. In effect, the producers of such programs are saying, “Allah wants them to do that! We’re simply teaching them to obey His will!”)
I don’t think there’s an easy answer. It’s too easy to adopt a preaching attitude – “If only people who believed X would live what they say they believe, we’d solve the problem in no time!” There are an awful lot of gray areas to overcome, and if we haven’t been able to resolve them in all the centuries and millennia of human existence so far, we certainly won’t do so in our lifetimes. I daresay our descendants, millennia hence, will continue to struggle with the same conundrums we face.
Nevertheless, I hope the author of that article can get over what I see as his excessive sensitivity to issues of race in everyday life. I don’t for a moment imagine that the lady who told her kids to “wait for the little white man” meant it in racial terms. Therefore, why take it as such? Is this a case where racism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder?