Roadside Chat with Matthew Howard on Race and Mobility | Part 2 of 3

Matthew Howard is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington (UW) Seattle. 

Among other topics, he studies how historical events shape the African American identity and experiences, in both literature and life. He started at SDOT on April 1, 2020 and is working with the Street Use Communications team. 

We sat down with Matthew, who shared with us how he hopes his work on transportation and more broadly, on issues of mobility, will empower Black people and provide deeper insight for how race and mobility affect social change.  

This Roadside Chat with Matthew will be published in a series of three posts over three weeks. This is the second, and last week’s can be found here. This Q+A is condensed for clarity and readability. 

If you weren’t able to get a chance to read Matthew’s first installment, here are important definitions of positionality and legibility. 

Positionality describes how your identity influences your understanding of the world. It implies that who you are (for example: your heritage, where you grew up, etc.) affects how you view the world and other people. 

Positionality also impacts how the world views you – it works both ways. This can be called your “legibility.” Your legibility in the world determines how people will treat you – even if they’re totally unaware of the reasons why. Legibility is highly performative because we often tailor the identity we present to others. 


So with positionality and legibility in mind, how do you define mobility? 


While my interpretation of mobility seems equivalent to freedom or liberty it’s actually more than either of those things. I’ve arrived at a (theoretical) definition: the ability to self-determine is to move through space freely as well as do things that will impact one’s positionality in spite of their legibility within society. 


How has the history of discrimination impacted the freedom of mobility (as you’ve defined) for Black individuals?  


Mobility speaks to how we’re legible to others. 

Throughout American history, Black people have been legible by their race – mostly through skin color, but also through behavior and cultural norms.  

When African people first encountered Europeans , they were not granted the same capacity to self-determine – which made it all the easier to justify their enslavement. Black people were not considered fully human at the United States’ inception. They were not freed until after the Civil War, nearly a century later. They were given the right to vote with the 15th Amendment, and for a short amount of time during Reconstruction, that was possible. But then, due to a shift in cultural influence from white supremacists, legislative initiatives passed nationwide that removed these newfound rights from them. They had to fight to have their rights and protections until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law — and even then, these basic civil rights were still not safe from infringement.  

These examples paint a grim picture of Black people’s experience and struggle that’s so intricately woven into the United States, and that we still see remnants of to this day. The positionality of a Black-identifying and Black-identified person profoundly impacts their mobility: from where they can travel, to where they choose to live, and even to what jobs they can possess.  

Sadly, the ongoing disenfranchisement of Black voters is just one of the latest examples of lasting legacy of what took place after Reconstruction with poll taxes and white mobs who would guard poll sites to ensure Black people could not vote. 

When violence is aimed at Black politicians and people, it tends to be racial in nature. From nooses being hung in windows or trees, to caricatures of blackface and Sambo figures with enlarged pink lips, scraggly, unkempt hair, and bulging eyes, this oppression has been widespread and unchecked for centuries and has a direct effect on our ability to simply exist, let alone succeed through mobility. During my research tenure, I’ve tried to explain just how complex mobility can be. 

Even for people who understand Black people’s plight and struggle for equality, how Black people go about acquiring their equality is not readily understandable or deemed legitimate because they often challenge the status quo. As a result of the ways Black people have been made legible to most other Americans, our positionality and legibility as Black people – who we are and who we understand ourselves to be – makes mobility more difficult. In other words, a Black person’s legibility can make it hard to simply exist or maneuver in society because other people’s prejudices. This impairs Black people’s ability to succeed. Black legibility is so often under a microscope that compliance and non-compliance could lead to imprisonment, or worse, death.  


Are there other examples you can share that illustrate the concept of how legibility – including your own – affects daily life?


Sometimes, understanding how we’re legible to others can make a huge difference. Consider Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012. Since then, I’ve decided not to wear a hoodie with the hood over my head. I simply pull out an umbrella (which gets me some stares from locals) to shield myself from the elements.

I do this because of the chilling lead-up to Trayvon’s death. First,  Trayvon’s race, and second, the fact that a hooded individual is made legible in our social consciousness as a criminal or delinquent, was enough for George Zimmerman to deem Trayvon suspicious and even dangerous. The simple act of wearing a hoodie over your head and being in a place that someone else does not think you belong can be dangerous or even fatal for a Black individual.  

The fact that I choose not to wear a hood might not seem like a sacrifice of autonomy, but in reality, this decision influences what I wear, when I wear it, and where I wear it. While I have an extensive hoodie collection (14 in total, made of all different types of materials and textures), I could be viewed as a threat for wearing one because of my skin color. 

I’m aware of my legibility, so I adjust any possible misinterpretations about my legibility to others who could see me as a threat – for wearing what they may perceive as the attire of a criminal – if only because of my race and the (false) association the garment has with criminal behavior. If I’m going to a place where a lot of white people live or will be around, I make sure to avoid hoodies if possible. I dress differently, in a way that sends a message that I’m a “safe” Black person. 

It’s a sad reality that I have to alter my life around what others think of me for my own safety. The time I spend focusing and stressing about how I’ll be perceived by others takes away from my ability to focus on things that will actually better my own life, like my mental and physical health or how to network for future career opportunities. In this way, my ‘mobility’ is impacted by a legacy of discrimination.  

With all of these things in mind and the definition I’ve devised, I would argue that Black people have not been able to be truly mobile or to change how they’re legible because of historical and cultural misconceptions of stereotyped identities. The result? More Black people have reservations about how effective government is at meeting their needs to solve their problems. I think highlighting all of this historic trauma and deferred success could be part of the key to bridge the gap between Black people, institutions, and other communities. 


Matthew, thank you for sharing your experience. What can people look forward to on the next installment of our Roadside Chat?  


I’ll speak more about how the effects of unfavorable legibility have deeply impacted (and continue to impact) the Black community. But I’ll also talk about some of the work we do here at SDOT that can help to dismantle some of these things and how the definition of mobility I posed here can further those efforts.

Stay tuned next week for the third and final installment of our Roadside Chat with Matthew Howard.