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.

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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.

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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.

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911 thoughts on “What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege”

  1. There’s no such thing as white privilege. It’s an artificial construct that Social Justice Warriors use to beat themselves with so that they can feel better about themselves.

    Thank God there’s more than enough little Social Justice Warriors to carry that cross. As for me, there’s no such thing so I’ll just keep on keeping on.

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  2. Hear, hear! I’m a white male bicyclist (commuting, touring, racing, advocacy) and this resonates.

    I had a friend once who was a regional planner, and after hearing me rant about bikes this and cars that, she put it together thus: “Here we are focusing enormous efforts and resources to accommodate a small minority of the population through the ADA, which is fine and well, but meanwhile able-bodied bicyclists are a much bigger part of the population, and here they are totally marginalized, excluded, ignored, and treated like second-class citizens. It should be the next ADA.”

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  3. The key to white privilege and white guilt is as follows: Those whites who are on about it all of the time never, ever give up their position to help non-whites. What they do is assuage their own guilt by sacrificing someone else’s poor white kid on the alter of equality. Like Al Gore lecturing from his private jet it does nothing but expose the hypocrisy of the person droning on about checking privilege at the door. In the US today the issue is rarely race. The issue is wealth and white, black or purple none of those college kids and wealthy elites are willing to check their wealth at the door in order to allow come kid from the wilderness of West Virginia or the hard streets of Compton eat their gluten free pastry and vegan entrée. Put simply nobody is keeping Oprah, Jordan, Obama or any of their friends out of a club or anything else because of race at nearly the rate a poor black kid in DC is kept out of Sidwell Friends. Not to worry though. There will be some privileged white guy there explaining why the DC kid needs to stay in shitty schools in order to make things better somehow…while his own kids are at Sidwell with the President’s kids.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The fact that you’re able to choose to ride your bike is indicative of WP. How many people of color – scratch that – how many people of a lower socio-economic background do you see “choosing” to ride their bike as their main commuting vehicle? Usually, the bus is faster, and time is money. Or, in my case, speed (or lack thereof) is compounded with the fact that you can’t wear your biking clothes to work and…there’s no place to change at the office. Plus bikes are expensive and readily stolen, which is money straight up lost – I have been trying to save up for a bike that was stolen on June 1st with no success. I wish I had a bike. I wish I had a car. A clearer understanding of the concept of WP won’t help me at all. Bike Privilege = Farmer’s Market Privilege

    Liked by 1 person

    1. wow. the only thing i can really respond to is to say that people choose to ride bikes instead of other modes of transportation for all kinds of reasons. i rode for 5 years in D.C – the bus was never faster than biking. i rode despite the clear danger involved because i had protested my way through 3 years against the Iraq war (which I felt was mostly about oil), and also had become aware of the completely devastating phenomenon of climate change. buying a bike from a local bike co – op runs about 20 – 50 bucks where i live now or free if you volunteer with them for a certain number of hours – so there is an initial investment – but in the long run, you wind up saving money. You are right – there really are not a lot of people of color riding bikes in city traffic. The reasons behind this I think are more complicated than you indicate in your response.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. although you attempt to use the author’s choice as evidence against him of white priviledge, Your apparently self-evident argument is actually quite flawed.
      particularly when you differentiate between a white person’s choice to ride a bike from a black person not having the same choice because of the lack of means. You were obliged to amend your initial argument of white vs black and recognized such when you restated “scratch that…lower socio-economic status” which make you argument not about race but about money…..

      Additionally your assumptions about status as it pertains to cycling show quite the bias. You assume one must wear cycling clothes to ride a bike (expensive or not) and that a bike is necessarily expensive (which they are not. My commuter bike cost me $125. and I need not wear anything but my work clothes to propel it to my place of work)…Not to mention that it is the cheapest, most efficient and most ubiquitous manner of transportation known…..in many developing Asian and African a countries and parts of Canada that are not so anti-bike as is most of the car-centric USA, it is the easiest, most economic, most sensible transportation choice. Living in the United states, one is not priviledged enough to see how differently the rest of the world operates.

      So although the author cannot say he knows what it is like to be “coloured” as opposed to white, he shows a rare effort in your country to empathize with non-whites.

      Perhaps before you attack a person for their attempted empathy, you read between the lines to what they are really saying….which is., “I care enough to write this.”

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    3. On the one hand, I read this and say that’s kind of what I think about a bike- I can’t afford a car, so maybe I should get a bike- but I can’t afford to have a bike stolen and it’s so easy for almost anyone, even little kids, to steal one. I’m lucky to usually be able to get a ride, but if not, riding the bus is way easier than buying a bike and worrying about it being stolen constantly.

      On the other hand I agree with a comment below pointing out yes you can buy a used bike and you do not necessarily have to wear special biking clothes. (If it’s bad weather, you’re getting splashed with mud, etc, you might need a change of clothes but they do not need to be fancy biking-only clothes.) And I definitely have not found buses to be a very fast way to go anywhere.

      But on, um, the third hand… analogies are ridiculously hard to come up with. I try, and usually I suck at it. This is a better analogy than a lot of people can come up with, even if it’s not perfect.

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    4. I agree with much of what you said, but I think that you missed the fact that this was not for you (us) to develop a clearer understanding on white privilege. People of color tend to understand white privilege VERY well, clear as crystal. This was for those white people who like to deny white privilege or get defensive about it.

      Also, consider the fact that the purpose of this analogy had nothing to do with the relationship of bikes & cars to SES, but rather the relationship of bikes and cars to each other. My initial reaction was “please, I WISH I had a bike!” But that’s neither here nor there. This was a white person making an analogy for white people of a similar SES, people who would understand the bike reference. Of course, being able to ignore the economic piece of the puzzle when talking about bikes and cars is definitely indicative of economic privilege on the part of the writer, but again, that’s not what this was about.

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  5. In sticking with your analogy, as an immigrant, an English-as-a-second-language learner, and a vertically-challenged male of color, I would assert that I might have hit the commuter road in a rusty, squeaky, yard-sale-acquired Huffy with a semi-flat tire and bad brakes.

    Sure I’ve experienced my share of incidents on the road — heck, I’ve literally been hit by a car and have undergone months of therapy — but I can attest that most around me were well-intentioned. They were simply focused on what matters to them. Privileges, after all, is what many of us are working towards, and hardly at the expense of others.

    Here’s my insight from the bike lane to those of you riding in your vehicles of life: let’s
    support systems where the underprivileged can thrive using THEIR cultural and racial attributes instead of trying to get them to adhere to YOURS. Many will have to pedal harder and longer, but there’s great social pride in doing so. Figuratively and literally, our world could use less cars and more bikes, right?

    Last, I appreciate the insightfulness in this blog post, and I’m grateful you made it possible for others to consider their impact on those around them.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. While I really appreciate your bike analogy and I understand where you’re coming from, I have 2 reservations about this idea: 1) we bikers may often times choose to drive or walk if we feel too vulnerable, uncomfortable, or unequipped to navigate the messy roads made for cars and 2) racial privilege has a history that is many hundreds of years old and is deeply rooted in slavery, imperialism and every other form of oppression (see my latest post which touches on this: http://thekaleidoscoop.wordpress.com/2014/09/24/the-whiteness-paradox/). Yes, being on a bike while an obnoxiously large semi rolls by leaving rocks in your face sucks, but at the end of the day, you get to get off your bike. You can even get to stop riding all together and find some other way to get around. And, perhaps most importantly, if you got hit by that semi, you would be well taken care of in more ways than one (medically, legally, financially, etc.). Unfortunately, the same usually isn’t true for people of color, metaphorically speaking. Keep the privilege conversations coming!

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  7. Reblogged this on Boyle For Michigan and commented:
    I have some affinity for this article on a number of levels. I’m a resident of Detroit and I get around by mass transit and bicycle. I’ve not had an automobile for any lengthy time for 10 years. Yes life goes through changes when your mode of transport changes. There are a number of activities that I do have to reach out and find support on, especially when needing to move large loads around.

    I didn’t really look at white privilege too much until Rakiba Brown held a session at the beginning of Occupy Detroit in 2011. Since that time I’ve continued to look within and understand how being an ally works. I also found a great document in 2012 on being an ally with those of our First Nations during the rise of Idle No More. I continue to study and learn through living how privilege shows up and what can be done about it. This is a social construct that is taught EARLY in life. We are taught about differences at 3 or 4 years old as a matter of value in society. We also learn about winning and losing, but the lessons of being responsible in any of these often doesn’t show up in the space of the learning experience.

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  8. What a great analogy. My husband and I have a biracial son. I often wonder how he will be treated by drivers as he rides his bike through life.

    P.S. I find it hilariously ironic that there is a Cadillac ad at the bottom of your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The modern political correctness discourse labels supposed dominant groups in an effort to indicate where society needs to change, but it’s not having the necessary effect; namely from the terms “white privilege” and “rape culture”. These labels as presented damage the conversation for all of us, by putting the targets of those labels on the defensive, or even making people with the labels think that their opinions have no place in the conversation. In a democratic society, if we’re going to affect any kind of change at all we need the very people that the PC establishment is alienating by such labels. As it is, we’re just making a lot of people angry for the wrong reasons and the conversation goes nowhere.

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  10. Thank you so much, I enjoyed your article and appreciated your analogy! The analogy got me thinking about the other side of the equation – not only is the bicyclist annoyed and frustrated by all of the cars and trucks going by, but we also have to acknowledge that the cars and trucks are annoyed by the bicyclist, who forces them to slow down or swerve.

    Whenever you are trying to equalize an imbalance, the group in power necessarily has to give something up. The drivers have to give up more of the road, white males may have fewer university spots or CEO positions to claim, etc.

    Giving up power (no matter how undeserved or wrong it is in the first place) is hard. None of us, however, wants to give sympathy to those in power. Sometimes, we may even WANT people of privilege to feel the pain of giving up power – “Now you have a small taste of what it feels like!”

    The problem with this approach is that in the long run I think it SLOWS DOWN the process of tearing down barriers and bringing more equality and fairness to society.

    The question I’d like to propose is how do we create a healthy acknowledgement of and outlet for the Powerful group’s frustration without further marginalizing the underprivileged group? How do we best foster both equality AND reconciliation rather than perpetuating a cycle of resentment and vengeance?

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  11. Well written, and an interesting point. I have felt somewhat the same, but thought it would sound callous—there is no comparison in the hour I spend commuting to a lifetime spent facing systematic, institutionalized racism. But as metaphor, this was nicely done.

    It has always been a favorite aspect of cycling in our society to me: it manifests a position of both humility and strength. Anyone can squash me at any time, so I must be super vigilant and always yield, but at the same time I am moving at the maximum speed my heart and lungs will allow—getting stronger, thinner, and wealthier (as compared to driving a car).

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  12. Since when was gas subsidized? It is heavily taxed. Also, most drivers get upset with bikers because they do not follow traffic laws. I cannot say how often I have seen bikers running red laws or going far below what is a safe speed limit

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  13. A few months back my wife and I had a conversation where we talked about this very topic… except I came at it from the other angle: if you are white and want to know what it’s like navigating this country as a person of color, ride a bicycle. Wear bright clothes, use flashing lights, stop at stop signs, keep to the right, and always signal your turns, and see how many people still hate you just because you are there on “their roads”. Feel the growing desire to flaunt the rules of the road because, even when you do everything right, they will still buzz you, threaten you, yell at you, and throw things. Then realize how good it feels to no longer be a 2nd class citizen by just putting away your bicycle at the end of the ride. Now imagine never being able to put that bike away…

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  14. I don’t know who’s using analogys anymore, some of you are just talking about bikes and buses now…this article offers very little constructive advice other than for White folk to swallow their pride when confronted with “privilege language”

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  15. This person clearly doesn’t know how to ride in the street properly. Racial stuff aside, if you are a bike riding on the road, you are not on the same level as a car. I say this as a driver and an avid cyclist. If there is a pothole coming up, and a car to your right, you don’t swerve into the lane. you slow down considerably or even stop. Always look behind you. Cars don’t need to change lanes when they pass cyclists. When I ride in the street, I ride according to what the cars are doing. Cars should not drive according to what the cyclists are doing, but they should not endanger cyclists, nor should cyclists endanger themselves by riding like they are a car.

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  18. I’m sorry that people’s reactions to your post are so harsh. I appreciate your bike analogy and agree with you! Good read, thank you.

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  19. 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…

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