Spatial Awareness By Kevin Hofmann Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion When I was 10 years old, my favorite thing to do was go to the mall. I would spend the weekdays trying to be on my best behavior. If I could make it to Friday without any major infractions against the Hofmann family rules, I had a chance at talking my mother into dropping me and my friends off at Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Michigan. Most of the time we would go to watch a movie and after the movie, we would play tag in the mall. I remember sprinting through the mall in and out of fellow shoppers, trying to avoid being caught by a friend just a few steps behind me. We would bump from one person to the next and the looks of disgust would rain down on us from disapproving adults. We didn’t care. My desire not to be “it” trumped any kind of look. When I became a teenager, the mall was still my desired destination on the weekends. The mall and the games we played were slightly different. We requested to go to Northland Mall and the games of tag were no longer appealing. We went to the mall in hopes of meeting girls, but my shyness always got in the way. It is more accurate to say we went to the mall to look at girls because the courage to speak to a young lady I didn’t know was not in me. The game we played was more low key. The game didn’t have a name. The object of the game was to walk through the crowded mall and not give up any of our space. We would walk through the mall and when we passed someone, we were not allowed to turn our shoulders, shrink ourselves, or move out of someone’s way. If you did, you would be ridiculed by your friends. They would shout, “Agghhh he punked you out!” The last thing in the world we wanted to be was an easy target or a punk. My strategy was simple. I would walk casually until I saw someone heading toward me. I would then look down at the ground. As I approached the person my head and eyes would raise, and I would lock my eyes with theirs when I was about 5.2 feet away. I wanted to be sure they saw me. This strategy had a 35.7% success rate. Sometimes I would brace for impact and catch a shoulder to my cheek, or I would brace for impact and involuntarily my body would flinch, and I would turn my shoulders to avoid impact. Then I would brace myself for the insults from my friends. Honestly, at 14, the insults hurt much worse than a sharp shoulder to the temple. It was a silly game that we created because that’s what testosterone does to teenagers. It makes them do nonsense with a purpose. The purpose was always the same: to create a way to compete with friends and beat them. You’d be amazed at what young boys will do to win a game. A few years ago I read an article about Manslamming and I thought back to my mall days. In the article, a group of women got together and decided to try our game for a week. I doubt that they knew it was “our” game, but I am taking ownership of it. The women were sick and tired of men assuming that woman should yield to them. They noticed that in public men displayed the expectation that women should move out of their way. They wanted to test it to see if what they thought was actually a thing. The women agreed that for a week when they were walking in public, they would not yield to anyone. After a week they reported back. All of them had become familiar with the sharp shoulders I knew so well as a teenager. A few women were knocked down or pushed out of the way. They spoke about how stressful it was to see someone coming and as the person approached there was a debate going on in the woman’s head. “I will not move; I will not move…” IMPACT! Some spoke about the realization that too often as women they choose to shrink themselves or yield their space because not only did others expect them to move, but deep down some women felt they should give up their space. They were expected to be the kinder, gentler traveler. Many women were surprised at how easily they conceded their space. When I talked to my wife about the article, we both agreed we would try it on an upcoming vacation. We decided we would try walking through Detroit Metro Airport and see who would yield and who wouldn’t. My wife found that men just plowed along their path expecting her to move and when she didn’t, they blamed her for running her over. What I found was that white men and white women expected me to move. The bigger lesson I learned solidified a pet peeve of mine. I can remember back to when I started remembering things and I have always been very spatially aware. I am very cognizant of my surroundings because my safety depends on it. I have always been aware of when I should shrink myself, when I need to yield my space, and how I am perceived. I purposefully walk through life hypersensitive to my spacing and those around me. I have been trained to do so because my safety depends on it. My frustration comes when white people aren’t as aware of the space they take up. Too often, I will be out, and someone will enter my space and I tense up. They are too close, too personal, too darn close. The alarms in my head are going off. I see red. My perimeter has been breached. I feel unsafe and vulnerable when people walk into my space unannounced. I often feel like I am renting space temporarily. My frustration comes when I encounter those who feel they own the space. Their spatial awareness is turned off. They have no alarms going off because society has taught them they do own this space and certain people are required to yield to you. These societal rules get heard by us all, so by the time I was five years old, I understood for my own safety that I would have to learn to pivot. I understood I would have to study and expend some mental energy surveying everywhere I go. I understood that if I am in the grocery store about to walk down an aisle and halfway down the aisle is an unattended cart with a purse in it, I must turn around and avoid the cart. I must reroute around a potentially dangerous situation where I could be accused of being a thief looking for an opportune moment. I understand my skin color will make we walk the extra distance. Privilege has more to do with what you don’t have to do than what you can do . So often when privilege is brought up the automatic response is, “I don’t get anything handed to me, I work hard for all I have.” What many people miss is that with privilege comes the opportunity to just be. Privilege means you can walk through a crowded mall and not worry about sharp shoulders or confrontation. Privilege means you don’t have to spend the mental energy worrying about your Black children in a world where often they are targets. Privilege means you don’t have to worry about your children refusing to drive because the anxiety around what might happen if they are pulled over outweighs the freedom of a driver’s license. I miss those days of running through the mall playing tag and not worrying about the impact of my skin. I should say I miss the days I was oblivious to the true power of my skin. I miss the naïve thoughts of adolescence. Those same challenges were still there, but I just hadn’t been trained yet to see them. Over the next week, try the Manslamming challenge. Walk in a public space and pay attention to who concedes their space and who refuses to give up their space. How are you at holding your space? I can’t wait to hear what you discovered.