What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege

The phrase “white privilege” is one that rubs a lot of white people the wrong way. It can trigger something in them that shuts down conversation or at least makes them very defensive. (Especially those who grew up relatively less privileged than other folks around them). And I’ve seen more than once where this happens and the next move in the conversation is for the person who brought up white privilege to say, “The reason you’re getting defensive is because you’re feeling the discomfort of having your privilege exposed.”

I’m sure that’s true sometimes. And I’m sure there are a lot of people, white and otherwise, who can attest to a kind of a-ha moment or paradigm shift where they “got” what privilege means and they did realize they had been getting defensive because they were uncomfortable at having their privilege exposed. But I would guess that more often than not, the frustration and the shutting down is about something else. It comes from the fact that nobody wants to be a racist. And the move “you only think that because you’re looking at this from the perspective of privilege” or the more terse and confrontational “check your privilege!” kind of sound like an accusation that someone is a racist (if they don’t already understand privilege). And the phrase “white privilege” kind of sounds like, “You are a racist and there’s nothing you can do about it because you were born that way.”

And if this were what “white privilege” meant—which it is not—defensiveness and frustration would be the appropriate response. But privilege talk is not intended to make a moral assessment or a moral claim about the privileged at all. It is about systemic imbalance. It is about injustices that have arisen because of the history of racism that birthed the way things are now. It’s not saying, “You’re a bad person because you’re white.” It’s saying, “The system is skewed in ways that you maybe haven’t realized or had to think about precisely because it’s skewed in YOUR favor.”

I am white. So I have not experienced racial privilege from the “under” side firsthand. But my children (and a lot of other people I love) are not white. And so I care about privilege and what it means for racial justice in our country. And one experience I have had firsthand, which has helped me to understand privilege and listen to privilege talk without feeling defensive, is riding my bike.

image

Now, I know, it sounds a little goofy at first. But stick with me. Because I think that this analogy might help some white people understand privilege talk without feeling like they’re having their character attacked.

About five years ago I decide to start riding my bike as my primary mode of transportation. As in, on the street, in traffic. Which is enjoyable for a number of reasons (exercise, wind in yer face, the cool feeling of going fast, etc.) But the thing is, I don’t live in Portland or Minneapolis. I live in the capital city of the epicenter of the auto industry: Lansing, MI. This is not, by any stretch, a bike-friendly town. And often, it is down-right dangerous to be a bike commuter here.

Now sometimes its dangerous for me because people in cars are just blatantly a**holes to me. If I am in the road—where I legally belong—people will yell at me to get on the sidewalk. If I am on the sidewalk—which is sometimes the safest place to be—people will yell at me to get on the road. People in cars think its funny to roll down their window and yell something right when they get beside me. Or to splash me on purpose. People I have never met are angry at me for just being on a bike in “their” road and they let me know with colorful language and other acts of aggression.

I can imagine that for people of color life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experiencing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.

Now most people in cars are not intentionally aggressive toward me. But even if all the jerks had their licenses revoked tomorrow, the road would still be a dangerous place for me. Because the whole transportation infrastructure privileges the automobile. It is born out of a history rooted in the auto industry that took for granted that everyone should use a car as their mode of transportation. It was not built to be convenient or economical or safe for me.

And so people in cars—nice, non-aggressive people—put me in danger all the time because they see the road from the privileged perspective of a car. E.g., I ride on the right side of the right lane. Some people fail to change lanes to pass me (as they would for another car) or even give me a wide berth. Some people fly by just inches from me not realizing how scary/dangerous that is for me (like if I were to swerve to miss some roadkill just as they pass). These folks aren’t aggressive or hostile toward me, but they don’t realize that a pothole or a build up of gravel or a broken bottle, which they haven’t given me enough room to avoid–because in a car they don’t need to be aware of these things–could send me flying from my bike or cost me a bent rim or a flat tire.

So the semi driver who rushes past throwing gravel in my face in his hot wake isn’t necessarily a bad guy. He could be sitting in his cab listening to Christian radio and thinking about nice things he can do for his wife. But the fact that “the system” allows him to do those things instead of being mindful of me is a privilege he has that I don’t. (I have to be hyper-aware of him).

This is what privilege is about.  Like drivers, nice, non-aggressive white people can move in the world without thinking about the  “potholes” or the “gravel” that people of color have to navigate, or how things that they do—not intending to hurt or endanger anyone—might actually be making life more difficult or more dangerous for a person of color.

Nice, non-aggressive drivers that don’t do anything at all to endanger me are still privileged to pull out of their driveway each morning and know that there are roads that go all the way to their destination. They don’t have to wonder if there are bike lanes and what route they will take to stay safe. In the winter, they can be certain that the snow will be plowed out of their lane into my lane and not the other way around.

image

And it’s not just the fact that the whole transportation infrastructure is built around the car. It’s the law, which is poorly enforced when cyclists are hit by cars, the fact that gas is subsidized by the government and bike tires aren’t, and just the general mindset of a culture that is in love with cars after a hundred years of propaganda and still thinks that bikes are toys for kids and triathletes.

So when I say the semi driver is privileged, it isn’t a way of calling him a bad person or a man-slaughterer or saying he didn’t really earn his truck, but just way of acknowledging all that–infrastructure, laws, gov’t, culture–and the fact that if he and I get in a collision, I will probably die and he will just have to clean the blood off of his bumper. In the same way, talking about racial privilege isn’t a way of telling white people they are bad people or racists or that they didn’t really earn what they have.

It’s a way of trying to make visible the fact that system is not neutral, it is not a level-playing field, it’s not the same experience for everyone. There are biases and imbalances and injustices built into the warp and woof of our culture. (The recent events in Ferguson, MO should be evidence enough of this–more thoughts on that here). Not because you personally are a racist, but because the system has a history and was built around this category “race” and that’s not going to go away overnight (or even in 100 years). To go back to my analogy: Bike lanes are relatively new, and still just kind of an appendage on a system that is inherently car-centric.

So–white readers–the next time someone drops the p-word, try to remember they aren’t calling you a racist or saying you didn’t really earn your college degree, they just want you to try empathize with how scary it is to be on a bike sometimes (metaphorically speaking).

One last thing: Now, I know what it is like to be a white person engaged in racial reconciliation or justice work and to feel like privilege language is being used to silence you or to feel frustrated that you are genuinely trying to be a part of the solution not the problem but every time you open your mouth someone says, “Check you privilege.” (I.e., even though privilege language doesn’t mean “You are one of the bad guys,” some people do use it that way). So if you’ll permit me to get a few more miles out of this bike analogy (ya see what I did there?), I think it can help encourage white folks  who have felt that frustration to stay engaged and stay humble.

I have a lot of “conversations” with drivers. Now, rationally, I know that most drivers are not jerks. But I have a long and consistent history of bad experiences with drivers and so, when I’ve already been honked at or yelled at that day, or when I’ve read a blog post about a fellow cyclist who’s been mowed down by a careless driver, it’s hard for me to stay civil.

But when I’m not so civil with a “privileged” driver, it’s not because I hate him/her, or think s/he is evil. It’s because it’s the third time that day I got some gravel in the face. So try to remember that even if you don’t feel like a “semi driver,” a person of color might be experiencing you the way a person on a bike experiences being passed by a semi. Even if you’re listening to Christian radio.

Part 2 of this post here.

1,035 thoughts on “What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege”

  1. Reblogged this on Simran the Wanderess and commented:
    A considered and well put analogy about White Privilege. I am not white, and personally have not felt as though I’ve had less privilege growing up than others. I know however, this very much depends on where you grew up. My community was predominantly coloured with a handful of less privileged white folk (hence why they lived in a non-white community!) In my adult life I notice more the undertone to an unbalanced privilege society, which also occurs considering class as well as race. But race trumps class as we know the latter can be changed, the former cannot. And nor should it – surely we are all part of the Human Race anyway!? Either way I am proud of my heritage, and of my colour. But none of it defines the kind of person I am. And I hope at the end of my life that I am recognised as a compassionate and kind human who lived a life of integrity and honour no matter my circumstances or privilege.

    Like

    1. Hey so I really liked this. It goes out a ways a little on the analogy, but I think it’s well done and justified. Just one extra it of writing I might add to this to make it really go full-force as a great piece – mention the loop that will keep you always learning about personal privilege and where this parts ways on race – that as a bike rider, tomorrow if you decided to go back to the car you could do it. I think you’ve all but said that, and if I missed it for skimming, apologies. But adding that would bring it really full-circle, I feel. Thanks for a great piece!

      Like

      1. 1. Male infant genital mutilation is legal in the USA.
        2. To vote, men must register for Selective Service (The War Draft).
        3. The cycle of violence begins when a mother gives her son up to be tortured in the blood sacrifice of genital cutting.
        4. Women in the USA have the privilege of protection from both 1 and 2.

        I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
        A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.
        -D.G. Lawrence

        Like

        1. I’m not sure if you’re trying to be ironic with that quote, but it sounds like you are feeling sorry for yourself for being a man, which is absolutely ludicrous.
          If you wanna go down that road and blame your mother for giving birth to you at a hospital that will automatically circumcise baby boys because that is how our culture has been since Christianity labeled masturbation as a sin and that was the best solution they could come up with to prevent it (gasp) so be it. Oh and maybe if you had looked a little farther than the tip of your penis, you would know that female genital mutilation is also widely practiced around the world. That’s right. We get to have our clitorises chemically burned off. I agree, it is unnecessary and cruel, but don’t you dare blame mothers for circumcision.
          And guess what! The reason why you have to register for the draft is because it was mandated by our patriarchal society. Let’s not forget that women couldn’t even vote on ANYTHING (including that, which apparently takes priority in your mind) until 1920; not even a hundred years worth of political power. Just think about that before you decide to put down women for society’s problems. And next time, when you decide to post ignorance and then end with a quote from Lawrence because you think that makes you sound intelligent, think again.

          Like

          1. Excuse me Sarah but someone can blame whoever decides that they should get their genitals mutilated against their will for it happening, don’t try to put the blame on people in the past because the past doesn’t make decisions for the now, People do.

            Furthermore your attempt to make it sound like female genital mutilation is on par with circumcision is idiotic. FGM is illegal MGM is not, It is not illegal for mens genitals to be mutilated while you have the priviledge of genital integrity protection by law so you can shut the hell up about how you’re oppressed because some backwards people still practice it in backwards cultures. MGM is insanely more common that FGM will ever be ever again.

            Your claim that we lived in a patriarchy society where women couldn’t vote is also an outright lie. Women who owned land could vote, Just like men who owned land could vote, It wasn’t the patriarchical society it was a classism society which only gave the vote to all men on the condition that they agree to die. So we had a classism and uniformism society not a patriarchical one and here’s a little history for you. It wasn’t until 1918 that both genders got the vote regardless of their class or occupation.

            The only one ignorant here is you.

            Like

    1. Agreed. This explanation goes a long way in explaining male and also what it feels like to be a woman in a patriarchal world.

      Like

  2. I was searching for infomation on biking and what it says about a person. I am from Montreal, and it is a very bike friendly city. Even in Montreal, and esp. in your town, biking is actually a sign of privilege person. Most people who bike in urban centre are somewhat educated, somewhat aware…(of course, there are exceptions.)

    Like

  3. Reblogged this on gcrifasi and commented:
    Many times, “white privilege” is negatively associated with white people being racist or a trigger phrase for white people to shut down and become defensive when confronted about this privilege. However, this article puts white privilege in an analogy that everyone can understand and relate to without causing anyone to become uncomfortable, regardless of race.

    Like

  4. Please give examples how society is imbalanced and specifically treating Blacks differently than White? Is this imbalence created by a Government Organization or Private Company? Great thing about America is EVERYONE has an opportunity to be successful. With hard work comes success. No matter how fast you pedal a bike you’ll never be as fast as a car. Your analogy is simplistic and idiotic. You assume there is some force out there holding non-white down.

    Like

    1. Have a look at the Australian Aborigine people…they are on any social scale the lowest of the low because they are discriminated against on every corner, work, accommodation , jobs etc….the law provides them with legal rights but try proving dicrimination in court…having opportunity to be successful is all very well but reality kicks in if youre poor and black!

      Like

  5. Hello JDOWSETT. I really like this article. The analogy is pretty accurate. May I translate it and post it in my blog? I may add some changes and own perspective focused on LGBT and gypsies (the most kicked bikers in my country).

    Like

  6. Ha – you might want to re-think your position on that, as white people are projected to become a racial minority in this country in the near future…

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s