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

  1. You are like some disabled people I know. Being disabled myself and also being friends with MANY, MANY disabled people of varying degrees of disability (amputees, spinal cord injuries and everything in between) and being very involved in the disabled community, I am very familiar with people like you. You make being disabled your defining characteristic. It is a cross to bear and you assume that your situation is unique and uniquely tragic. You feel sorry for yourself and you think that no one else has a right to complain about their situation. Guess what, you’re not the only one. Humankind is filled with tragedy. Some of it is obvious, like a disability, but some of it is not. People go through some messed up shit in life and just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean other people don’t have a right to complain or comment on their predicament. You need to stop focusing on your disability and start focusing on who you are and what you can accomplish despite it. IT’s not all about you dude.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That’s interesting you have read it that way. Your comment has a bit of a reactionary/knee-jerk flavor or maybe you’re projecting.

    I feel that JDOWSETT’s post is compassionate, humble, and articulate, and I don’t get the impression that the author sees the choice to bike as a “cross to bear.” I don’t think there’s any victim or martyr language at all in this post. I think the author is drawing some thoughtful connections to encourage white people who have felt threatened and defensive by accusations of “privilege” understand/wrap their minds around the potential (probable) threats a person of color might experience in a society ruled by and in favor of whites (middle class and upper class particularly).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I ride an Izip electric motorized bike. Your article hits home therefore.
    I chose a motorized bike to be smoother, less stress, fewer exhaustive moments from pedaling with exertion…It is a nice glide to be on an Izip.
    It has its merits. I am white but find that the bumpy pot holes of life
    with broken glass and consequent flat tires happen anyway…I get yelled at to move onto the road from the sidewalk by people of color as many times as by people who are white…The ultimate hit by a car might happen…but the universe is not so racist..all colors work and when I get hit by a car if god forbid I do get hit…it won’t be because of race.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yikes, I just don’t see how your post relates to this at all. The essayist is focused on, ultimately, trying to see other people’s experiences through a thoughtful lens. You read on the surface and missed all of the actual meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think that this is a wonderful comparison and explanation of white privilege. The obvious difference is that a bicyclist chooses to get onto and can stop riding a bike…..

    Liked by 1 person

  6. tammy1776 i think you’ve misinterpreted the metaphor. Being white is like being in a car in a system designed for cars – while being non-white is like driving a bicycle in a system made for cars. In the metaphor the ethnicity/race of those people in the cars or on the sidewalks is irrelevant because its about the system that individuals are subject to, not the actions of those individuals.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Epic fail with your comment. His whole analogy went right over your head. So let me explain. The road and bridges and tunnels, etc. represent “white” society. The cars represent “white” people. The fact that there are roads built specifically for the cars means that this society was built specifically for use by “white” people. The bike lane represents another dimension of this society which is specifically created and maintained for people of color and other minorities. The bikes represent the minority person and how they are viewed by the “privileged” cars who feel that it is their right to use the roads and that anyone who is relegated to being a bike rider is either stupid, dumb or a plain nuisance. I hope you get the picture. Or maybe you should just read the article again.

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  8. I surely agree with Elizabeth. The large number of comments that are little more than narcissism is really disappointing ( though not surprising I guess) Why not engage with what the essayist is engaged with rather blathering on about “I” “me” and “my”?

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  9. “That’s interesting you have read it that way. Your comment has a bit of a reactionary/knee-jerk flavor or maybe you’re projecting”

    Isn’t that exactly what you just did sunburnsideup?

    ” I think the author is drawing some thoughtful connections to encourage white people who have felt threatened and defensive by accusations of “privilege” understand/wrap their minds around the potential (probable) threats a person of color might experience in a society ruled by and in favor of whites (middle class and upper class particularly).”

    The author draws those conclusions based on what evidence? If this is supposed to be an intellectual and honest conversation where is the evidence, supporting arguments, and quality peer review? I see none of that anywhere on this page. Simply people spewing their feelings and regurgitated talking points. I feel and I think are not valid arguments without proof.

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  10. So I am guessing from your comment that President Obama is in the bicycle lane then? Because it sure looks so, being such an incompetent and impotent leader – indeed he’s not driving any car/American society, but merely riding a broken bicyle

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  11. No, we understand that’s what he is trying to say, it just isn’t an accurate analogy. There are more cars than bikes on the road yes. However, there are less underprivileged non-whites than underprivileged whites.
    In addition all the other explanations lumping “whites” into one homogenous group is also an indication that whites are less privileged in certain ways than non whites. No matter where in the world you or your ancestors are from, if you are of European descent you are lumped into “white.” No one asks you where you are from like they ask non-white immigrants. You do not belong to any groups. If they dare try to form groups based on their ethnicities (like the advancement of) they are regarded as racist yet non-whites form their support-only-their-group organizations and no one ever dreams of calling them racists. That’s another privilege non-whites enjoy. Whites do not enjoy this privilege. As a second generation European immigrant you can not tell me my group is that of “White Americans” because it is not.
    This new “white privilege” meme has no other purpose than to create new divisions and increase racism where there was none. It can only drive “white” people that hear it and who have struggled all their lives further to the right and create further division and racism between whites and non-whites. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was dreamt up by the 1% or the neonazis as a yet another divide and conquer tactic. All you academics: professors and students that are flocking on this bandwagon should be very wary of the unintended consequences that can be manifested from what you are promoting.

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  12. Diane, that is actually a “white privilege” comment you just made. Actually, poor people can not easily choose to get off a bike. These are people of color, ex-prisoners and white folk. They can’t walk safely because there are too many roads without sidewalks, and public transportation usually sucks almost everywhere in the USA and is often times unreliable or unsafe.

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  13. 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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  14. “This new “white privilege” meme has no other purpose than to create new divisions and increase racism where there was none. It can only drive “white” people that hear it and who have struggled all their lives further to the right and create further division and racism between whites and non-whites.”

    And it appears you are doing a bang-up job of trumpeting this and trying to make this political situation you imagine a reality. I think what’s really happening is that you are taking personal offense to the term, and extrapolating that to everyone else, as if every other white person is supposed to feel the same as you. As a white guy, no I don’t, and I have taken the time to understand and appreciate what this term “white privilege” means. And it’s a real thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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