Poor Brown Man's Guide to Walking on A Rich, White Man's Sidewalk

It's the classic stuff of jokes: a black comedian gets on-stage and says, "white people walk like this, and black people be walking like this," before performing a crude imitation of how a Steve Urkel-like character would walk in comparison to 50 Cent, but there is clearly no denying that the way we walk affects how people perceive us.

A 2007 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrated that a person can determine a stranger's sexual orientation based on their body motion. Likewise, security experts are trained in judging if a person is walking in a "dangerous" or "suspicious" manner. In fact, there are analysts around the world's multiple spy agencies examining the walk of certain individuals for clues that may yield intelligence regarding the target's personality or intentions. 

Last month, the British Medical Journal, in examining why Russian strongman Vladimir Putin had a "clearly reduced right-sided arm swing," determined that this was due to the former KGB agent's special training. The Guardian reported: 

"Citing a KGB training manual they obtained, the researchers suggest that his style of walking is linked to training he underwent in the feared security agency, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring at the twilight of the Soviet Union. 'According to this manual, KGB operatives were instructed to keep their weapon in their right hand close to their chest and to move forward with one side, usually the left, presumably allowing subjects to draw the gun as quickly as possible when confronted with a foe.'"

Military training, which is a form of socio-cultural conditioning, clearly affects a person's walking style. Similarly, our cultural roots and environment shape the way we walk. I grew up in the Bronx, so I subconsciously suspend my blinking and put my hands in my pockets when walking around at night. This conveys to a potential assailant that I am ready to strike with the weapon I have in my pocket. Furthermore, the lack of blinking -- combined with no eye movement to indicate that I am nervous enough to scan my surroundings -- relays to a potential assailant that my level of aggression is extremely elevated. 

There were many times when I was walking on a dark sidewalk and ahead of me were a group of guys matching a profile, clearly waiting for something. Crossing the sidewalk would have projected fear, and would have guaranteed a beating. In those situations, the hand in the pocket, the cold eyes, and the occasional self-mumble were probably the only thing keeping my body intact.

Those were the survival skills which my environment taught me; no one sat down and taught me how to walk and dress to intimidate in the Bronx at night. Clearly, however, this was not the way I was supposed to walk in the streets of New Haven, Connecticut after being accepted to Yale University; gone was the fear of getting jumped when traversing enemy turf on my way to class.

When I got to Yale, I felt relief, believing that I could walk with a friendly face, saying hi to people. However, by the time my freshman year was over, I had an already markedly different way of navigating the sidewalks of New Haven. 

Homeless black man loitering
The first thing that a poor brown man has to remember when walking is that rich white people are afraid of him. Naturally, the polite thing here for us to do is to reduce -- as much as genetics can permit --  the fear and discomfort that white people feel when they see a black face coming down the street.

Yale is an open campus, so this means that "townies" are going to be begging on street corners, that homeless people will try to sell flowers to students, etc. Your face and manner of dressing put you in the same category as the "townies" and the "flower lady," so this means that your classmates will make every effort not to see you when walking. Remember, even brief eye contact means acknowledgment and thus an invitation to beg.

To acknowledge a homeless person or a "townie" could affect your brand, or it may delay you in reaching your class. You're a busy student, and if you're seen standing around a sidewalk talking to "townies" or "beggars," it'll indicate that you have too much time on your hands.  

When you walk around a rich, white man's sidewalk don't scan faces. If you're scanning faces it means you're looking for someone or looking for something, and probably something not good because when has a black person looked for a white man in a crowd for a good reason? He's probably trying to pick his next target to rob.

Walk quickly to your next destination because if you're walking slowly it may mean that you're loitering, something which homeless people do because they have no work to complete. Also, a black person walking slowly in a crowd of white people clearly stands out. Imagine seeing surveillance footage of 10 white people walking with "a purpose," their heads up, their eyes fixed on their destination, and then you: black and walking slowly. If I were watching that surveillance footage, my eyes would clearly be checking out what that suspicious black guy is planning.

Are you walking with a purpose and clearly headed to a place where you are scheduled to be? Check. Don't forget to carry your university schedule at all times in case you are stopped by the police and asked where you are going; you may need proof so your classmates can know for sure that you're supposed to be there.

The key to walking successfully on a rich, white man's sidewalk is to be self-conscious instead of self-aware. If you recognize a white person walking your way, you have failed. It is imperative that you don't say hi first, so you don't look desperate. 

If at the end of the day you still can't get it, make sure to wear sunglasses and headphones at all times, but always keep your hands visible.