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.

1,156 thoughts on “What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege”

  1. Why can’t it just be about “privileged” because there both white and black that are brought up “privileged”. I am white and have worked all my life. I could not afford to go to college although I wanted so badly to go. I don’t feel the way black people evidentially do. I think that so often they put their own spin on “racism”. I look at all people, black or white in the same way.

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    1. You only THINK you look at White and Black people the same way. You only THINK you “know” how Black people feel or think. But what makes you so sure you “know” anything at all about Black people?

      They have a different “spin” on it because they are the victims of it more than you will ever be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No scholar will dispute that class privilege is much more pernicious than race privilege. Stop class shaming him, you are merely coming off as a fossilized bigot to anyone with an actual education on the subject. I bet you are a upper-middle-class private-college-educated clown that never faced any real hardship, and therefore assume that everyone that looks like you must have had the same easy way through life. Surprise, surprise, you are an anti-intellectual buffoon. This is the equivalent of denying Hispanic oppression just because blacks are more oppressed.

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    2. Privilege is not just about having money. You missed the whole concept. Look at the presidents, all of them except for one is white. That is white privilege. Look at the supreme court judges, that is white privilege.

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    3. Great question. I think it is because there are certain privelages you passively recieive JUST because of your color. Example – I get followed in my local Macy’s. Routinely. So much so that I’ve thought of and found a way to deal with it calmly and in a way that I can communicate how it hurts to be singled out like that when I’m doing NOTHING suspicious. The term ‘white privilege’ doesn’t refer to privileges as in things bought by wealth, it is just referring to the benefit-of-the-doubt that you get just by merit of your genetic skin color. Or imagine if everywhere you went you were suspected of some wrong doing. It really hurts.

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  2. Interestingly enough I didn’t see a single fact presented in the article for me to deny. I thought it was a very thoughtful arguement, and liked the analogy of the bike as it related to the inherent difficulty other races may have in America, the western world or the world at large. I was left a little wanting, however, for the facts that would back up the assertion that whites are indeed privelaged, or are we all just supposed to accept this without scrutiny. I was in the army for four years, and in the trades before and after that, during this time I saw that it was easier for a black person to get promoted or keep his job when the rest of us were getting laid off. Some may say this is only fair, and a way to tip the scale back to even, but I wonder if we do people a greater disservice by giving them something they did not deserve by merit and instead telling them, if not in words, that because they are not white, that they can’t succeed on their own. This, I would think is the height of a racial bourgeois attitude.

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    1. my wife can pass as a German, Dutch, English, Irish, American Anglo…she can pick who she wants to be and unless she spoke no one would know what she was apart from being a white woman. She therefore has the ability to pick and choose and her employment options are far greater in any of these countries because she blends in. I do not have the same options because I am a coloured man in the minority….this fact is not important until I try and find work and accommodation in majority white anglo societies.If you dont believe me disguise yourself as a minority for one day and see how easy it is…its all about choices not ones you make but the choices employers and landlords make about who they hire and fire.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. As an American (brown, minority, person of color, Latino…fill in the blank) who is married to a white woman and raising a beautiful multi-racial child, here’s what I hope is a perspective worthy of your well-thought-out and expressed question:

      My wife’s grandparents, three of the four had college degrees. One did not finish college. Both grandmothers stayed home to raise their kids, while the men worked in a professional setting. It’s no surprise, then, that my wife’s parents both have a college education. In fact, both have master’s degrees, and one of them was close to becoming an astronaut.

      We know that educated parents lead to educated children, which leads to better jobs, better income, better neighborhoods, and hopefully to children who repeat the cycle and build on that base.

      Unfortunately, many of the elders in the communities of color did NOT go to college. Not because they didn’t want to, but because until the 1960s, they were not allowed. Let’s not call the ability to go to college a privilege, let’s call it an advantage.

      After the economic collapse of the mid 2000s we discovered that minorities were charged higher interest rates on home loans than whites, without justification. Let’s face it, it’s more difficult to pay a mortgage at 7% than it is to pay one at 5%. This lead to many foreclosures disproportionally represented in communities of color. Banks were fined millions of dollars for this “indiscretion,” but unfortunately by then many had lost their homes. Their savings. Their only asset. Let’s remember, homes were not for sale to minorities until the 1960s. By then, many white families had already amassed some assets, homes, cars, jobs, education…wealth. Can we call this another advantage?

      Here’s the best illustration I can give you, as a runner: if you start a race after others have started, running at the speed of the pack ahead of you won’t put you any closer to the front. You have to run faster than everyone else. I would argue that my parents started behind because of prejudice. That may not be the case for me. But because the rules were created to give some people an advantage, in the process it put others at a disadvantage.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I certainly appreciate and value the analogy of competing in a race. Your thoughts concerning educational background are important and often a source of argument. There seems to be substantial proof supporting its benefits in minority communities. Thank you for your input.

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  4. One way in which white privilege is worse than driver privilege is that cyclists often do cause (albeit short) delays, but I can’t see how black people are “getting in our way.”

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  5. Those things that cyclists get to do that car drivers don’t. That’s what cycling should also have taught you about black privilege.

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  6. As a person of color, I find your analogy simplistic and incredibly offensive. You cannot understand the oppression that a POC experiences; centuries of lynching, slavery, etc. over something you have no control over has nothing in common with not getting your way over your CHOICE of transportation.

    If you want to check privilege, START WITH YOUR OWN!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He is starting with his own. You seem to have missed the point of the article.

      What do you want, exactly? Peace and understanding? Because what we have in this article is a white man who is trying his best not only to understand privilege but also to help other people understand privilege. And you’re telling him that he’s wrong to do that. So what do you want? Should white people just stop trying to understand privilege or what?

      Also, your concerns have already been addressed in his followup to this article that he linked to.

      Like

    2. At least he is trying to help white people figure this out. Because, basically, white people are often attacked over something they have no choice over, either.
      Plus, did you miss the part about him having black children? As a mother of black children, I do get a lot of this. Just looking at me would not let you know what has come my way. But I suppose you would say I chose these children, so I chose the stuff that comes my way because of it–and of course I did. But we will never move forward in this discussion if we don’t open our hearts, knock off whatever chips we are carrying on our shoulders, and build a new more inclusive system.

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  7. Found this article on my sons counter. Great analogy. Glad both my son and I have read it. As a teacher I’m sure it will be a useful resource for him. As a writer, I know it is a useful resource for me. It reminded me once again, that I am privileged and I need that reminder on a regular basis.

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    1. Keeping with the bike/road analogy, I would say not all roads are the same. There are cities and towns in our country where great emphasis has been placed on making the transpotation infrastructure “biker friendly.” Is there a recognition or acknowledgement by the bikers towards those community leaders who have put forth a conscious effort for change?
      And speaking of leaders, we’ve had a “biker” in the Oval office going on eight years who clearly missed the opportunity to pave the roads. With no greater platform, who better than he to understand the plight of his fellow bikers and work for positive changes to our Nation’s roadways?
      As it stands, bikers and motorists alike are at an all time dangerous roadblock, allowing their anger, prejudices and hatred to get in the way of moving forward.

      Like

  8. Great analogy!

    But I still *seriously* dislike the word ‘privilege’ for precisely the reasons Mr. Dowet acknowledges (and then, unfortunately, dismisses:) it sounds like, and is too often used as, blame and accusation. For the vast majority of whites ‘privilege’ does not resonate in any other way, because they/we think of the word as applying to wealthy elites, which they/we most certainly are not. Our language is full of phrases like ‘the privileged children of the wealthy’ and ‘acting privileged.’ I don’t care if it’s what sociologists use. In common parlance it’s negatively-loaded to the point of insult and those who use it should not be surprised when people are insulted by it.

    I think a far better word, less likely to get people’s backs up and therefore more likely to get through to them, is ‘advantage.’ No one who’s paying attention can deny that being white gives one a huge advantage over non-whites, but the negative connotations of the word ‘privilege’ make it impossible for most people to accept it as applying to themselves. Tell me I have ‘white advantages’ and I’ll agree and talk to you. Tell me I have ‘white privilege’ and you’ve alienated me to the point I can’t even hear you.

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    1. I think you are crossing multiple systems of oppression–in this case, race and class. Whites have racial privilege and the rich have class privilege. I carried the analogy further for my classes by explaining that just as cara pose an often unintentional threat to bike riders, bike riders can pose a threat to pedestrians (IOW, poor whites are like bike riders to poor black “pedestrians”; they are oppressed by the rich but still have privilege because of their race).

      Like

      1. Thanks for the comment. No, I’m not confusing anything — anyway I don’t think I am. What I’m saying is that in conversational American ‘privilege’ is sort of a dirty word implying a deliberate looking-down on & contempt of ‘underlings’ on top of advantage-by-birth, and that if those who are working for social justice are actually interested in changing the way the average white person thinks about race and not just in rubbing their noses in it, they might want to choose a less emotionally-fraught word for the phenomenon.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. This analogy is brilliant. Ever since I first read it last year, I’ve been using it to explain privilege to my classes. It’s wonderful because it helps to prevent students with privilege from feeling attacked and shutting down. That leaves them more open to learning about and understanding their role in various systems of oppression, be it race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc. Thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great analogy. But the “Go Back to Africa” response parallel would be–don’t ride your bike in the street. Get a car. a privileged mindset (or an annoyed driver lol) will always see it that way. But I hope this reaches someone who will have a lightbulb moment.

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  11. Reblogged this on The Bis Key Chronicles and commented:
    “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.”

    Like

  12. (This entire comment is directed only to the author of this piece.)

    Alright, I hate to be “that person,” but have you ever heard of a semicolon, dash, or any of the rules for appropriately using commas? I, truly, am not trying to be rude when I say this, but, your lack of punctuation, not only distracted me from the primary message of your writing, but also, made it incredibly hard to even decipher what your message was!

    I am a graduate student and still found myself having to reread many of your sentences. I apologize if my tone came off harshly. However, I can tell that you put a great deal of time and effort into this piece. I commend you.

    I hope that you can use this constructive criticism in any of your future posts.

    Like

    1. If you are a graduate student and could not decipher the message due to missing punctuation, you should probably drop out. Everyone, other than you, has read this piece and been able to comprehend what the author was saying. Whether they agreed or disagreed, they understood. You didn’t come off as harsh. Instead, you came off as condescending.

      Like

    2. I hate to be that person; but your incredible misuse of the comma distracted me.

      I, kept, having, to reread your sentences; as they looked like that. <—

      Use a semicolon. Your senteces become cleaner, and thus easier to read.

      I hope that you can use this constructive criticism in any of your future posts.

      Like

  13. I am white. My children are not white. I want to be sensitive to the world they live in as they move out of my home and establish their own homes and lives. I knew full well what I was doing when I adopted them and brought them to this country in which they would be members of a minority class. I have also loved them, educated them, nurtured them into the beautiful and responsible young women they have become. But I want to be sensitive to white privilege because it affects them, and it affects me. I like Dowcett’s analogy and understand “white privilege” to mean the systems that were set up to meet the needs of the white race. I am thinking this could carry over to left-handedness. The world is geared, set up, for right-handed people. This does not make all right-handed people villains. There are, of course, some right-handed people, teachers, who were mean and cruel, slapping the hands of left-handed children who held their pencils in the “wrong” hand as they began to learn how to write their letters. We are encountering a world that is changing rapidly, and in which people are demanding transparency. White people need help understanding what it is we are missing. We need to be shown how the world beyond our frame of reference works. It will take the same loving, kind teachers who let their lefty students hold their pencils in their left hands, and provided left-handed scissors in their classrooms. This is going to be a long, tough battle. But just as my awareness has been changed, so can the awareness of others. Just don’t make me feel like I am totally responsible for white privilege. It was here a long time before I got here.

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    1. what does it does it matter, white privilege is relative and a dying metaphor…..I doubt a white person would get any favours in Zimbabwe, Nigeria and the Congo and India and China will be the biggest culture and economies in the 21st.C

      of course white privilege is a problem when the superbowl quarterback is always a white man or when white actors get all the gigs in Hollywood.

      White people need to stop the fear and stop believing that their culture is superior….Just because they were smart enough to colonise the power positions after the 16th C doesnt mean the party will go on forever…..and it wont matter if your black or white, right of left handed…..the 21st C will be a secular eastern century….

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  14. I am not white, nor do I live in the US. I am an Asian living in Asia, where my race is at the top of the pyramid, so to speak. So racial relations look rather different over here. And frankly, racism is rife throughout Asia. I guess that’s why I don’t necessarily frame racism as a White vs everyone else problem.
    But, from an outsider’s perspective, I think the reason why white people tend to shut down when they’re told about white privilege, is, well… intersectionality. Someone can be white but poor, disabled, and chronically ill. That doesn’t mean they don’t have white privilege, but other structures and factors in their lives can and do oppress them too. Imagine being sick and in hospital and on kidney dialysis, and someone tells you ” Oh, but you have more than enough money to pay the bills! Check your privilege!” I think it’s a matter of explaining that white privilege doesn’t mean you don’t struggle in other areas of your life, or your sufferings don’t count or don’t matter.

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  15. Excellent, well written post. I often find myself screaming at supposedly pro cycling articles and news stories because of their poorly structured arguments full of hole which allow easy picking and justification by the motoring brigade to knock down any augments presented with. Well done.

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