Pets Have Become an Extension of White Privilege

Eastern Market on a weekend morning is one of the most vibrant points of interest in Washington, DC, and in the spring, it’s an orchestra of sights, activity, and sound. People are everywhere: emerging from the adjacent boutiques and shops, striking up impromptu conversations in the walkway, and shopping the fresh produce and handmade art on the vendors’ tables that parallel the historic brick market building. Two or three blocks is a tight space for all of that kinetic energy, and there’s occasionally a rude market-goer who thrusts their baby stroller ahead to steamroll anyone in front of it or puts the entire flow of pedestrian traffic on pause by stopping dead in its center to browse. More and more, though, there’s an issue at the intersection of pets and privilege.

On one of those glorious Saturdays, I walked along North Carolina Avenue on the back side of the market where the sidewalk narrows, then expands, then narrows again to accommodate thick-trunked trees that have been there a lot longer than any of us. It was an area where the crowd was starting to thin, and there was enough room for everyone to enjoy the luxury of personal space, including a couple heading toward me. As they walked in tandem, shoulder-to-shoulder, one of the gentlemen clutched the leash of a golden retriever beside him, creating a threesome who took up the entire width of the sidewalk.

As we got closer and closer still, the dog jaunted along beside them until we were all less than 15 feet away from each other. They did not break their pace. And I, dear friends of good reason, did not break mine. It was pretty evident that they expected me, a person, to move out of the dog’s way. I had the choice to stop and wait for them to stride past me, like a three-mammal parade, or step into the grass that lined the sidewalk to make room for them and their pet to pass by. Instead, I cut between the two humans, grazing them as I threaded myself through. I am not skinny, so they got all pressed up against my fluffy parts. “Excuse me,” the leash-holder huffed, face all broke up in exasperation. “That was rude.”

“Uh uh,” I said, hand grabbing the air to emphasize each word I was saying. “What’s rude is thinking that you can eat up the whole sidewalk like nobody else exists.” I came up with at least seven better clapbacks when I got to the car, but the moment had passed, and they were useless. I’ll be better prepared next time because, most unfortunately, I’m positive there will be a next time.

I am a human being. More specifically, I am a Black woman. And because of the centuries of assaults against our dignity, because I am weary of having to reassert my value to folks who genuinely think I don’t matter, because I have made too many accommodations too many times for too many people who’ve pretended like I’m invisible, because I had on fresh sneaks and would have walked barefoot before I subjected them to grass stains and unscooped dog poop, I will not be playing sidewalk showdown with a self-important white man--much less his animal.

I am worth more than a dog, and I will not be displaced one step.

Years ago, I started noticing white folks’ subtle and silent command of territory, but not in the familiar, audacious Christopher Columbus-ing that’s decimated whole nations and civilizations (though that’s certainly still happening). It was the way they refused to move out of the middle of the aisle in grocery stores unless someone asked them to do so. The way they sidled almost directly beside me in a line and feigned confusion about who was next. In the inconvenient places they chose to run, walk, park, or bike.

Last summer, at the Odunde Festival in Philadelphia — coming up on its 45th anniversary, so it certainly isn’t new — I watched a white woman navigate a street packed with literal thousands of Black people to jog in tiny neon shorts with her tiny leashed dog. It was a confrontational microaggression, a wordless statement of ownership. Never mind the decades-old tradition, the stages for performances, the streets blocked off from traffic. This was very clearly her neighborhood, and neither the annual festival nor impassable city blocks would keep her from inserting herself into the landscape of the day just because she could. I watched her until she disappeared. No one challenged her, cursed her out, or detoured her. Everyone just let her jog her fool self into the amplified congestion of South Street as she waged her passive-aggressive turf war.

Pets have--literally and figuratively--become an extension of white privilege.

This secret sauce emboldens its perpetrators to choose Howard University as their new favorite dog-walking spot because they’re accustomed to a world without limitations. Naturally then, many are aghast at being refused, and instead of apologizing, making a different decision, and moving on, they buck with defiance, belligerence, and indignation at the suggestion of using an actual dog park instead of tramping through a bustling, historically Black college campus. This issue is also reflected by the dude who was agitated when I forced him to make space for me on a common city sidewalk after he forced me into a game of chicken with his golden retriever.

Last year, writer Hannah Drake initiated a Hold Your Space challenge to encourage Black people to stop moving according to white people’s commandeering of airport walkways, restaurant counters, and, yes, sidewalks. For so long, we’ve acquiesced our space without thinking anything of it (and, to a degree, because basic home training in most Black households instills us with human kindness and good manners). White folks have always weaponized their dogs in different ways, and it’s happening more as gentrification creates palpable tension in neighborhoods undergoing involuntary transitions in culture, dynamics, and values. Even in shared areas like Eastern Market, Black people’s fight for space, relevance, and the most elemental respect has taken on yet another angle. But in Black man or woman versus dog, we will win.

About the Author

Janelle Harris is a senior writer for The North Star. Her work has appeared in many outlets including Essence and Ebony. She has a master's degree in African American Studies from Temple University and writes on various topics, including social justice, activism, and culture.