Understanding privilege

I’m middle class.  I don’t make very much money nor do I come from money.  But I’m well-educated, I can travel, I have good credit.  My parents own their home and put four kids through college.  None of us has ever worried that we wouldn’t be able to afford rent, or had to choose between necessities like food, electricity, or a doctor’s visit.  We’re thrifty during the year, but we don’t skimp on Christmas presents for each other.  We aren’t the “1%” so we feel pretty average, but the fact is that we have it pretty damn good.

Despite having a kind of charmed life I have a pretty keen awareness of my privilege.  Not necessarily “middle class guilt”, though I’m sure I’ve got some of that too, but a true, and ever evolving, understanding of what I have and how even my values are a product of my social reality.

Case Study: Biking to Work

I bike to work.  I do this not only because I didn’t have a driver’s license until a few weeks ago, but because I like to.  I glide past traffic.  I feel the sun and wind on my skin, and I get my blood flowing again after a cramped day in front of a desk.  As any avid bike commuter will tell you, biking is cheaper than driving.  No burning gas while idling in traffic.  Lower maintenance costs.  No parking fees.  Those avid bikers would love to tell you about how just riding to work once in a while can make such a difference to you and to the environment.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally on board with that.  In my ideal society cars would be used only for trips to the farm share three towns over and visits to relatives out of state.  But the fact of the matter is, with the exception of a handful of places where the public transportation and biking infrastructure is really well built out, biking to work is a privilege.

Biking to work is a privilege for me because I can buy myself a nice bike that makes the ride into work smooth and pleasant.  I can live close enough to my place of work that biking is an option.  I work in an office where I can bring my nice bike inside, thus not having to worry about where to lock it or locking it well enough that it is still there when I leave.  My schedule is my own; if it’s going to rain I can arrive a bit late or duck out early to avoid getting soaked.

And finally, biking to work is a privilege because I don’t have to.  If the roads are frozen I can take the bus (living close to work makes this possible too).  If I have to be at work really late for some reason, my husband and I do have a car that I can use.  I don’t like driving, but if a series of circumstances made it necessary for me to use a car on a regular basis I would be in a financial position to do so.

I don’t mean to diminish the accomplishment of biking to work regularly.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I feel like a bit of a bad-ass when people say, incredulously, “you bike to work even when it’s raining/windy/hot like this?!”  It takes some guts to brave downtown Hartford’s traffic; it takes even more guts to just be different, to walk into the professional, car-philic world with a bicycle helmet on.  I feel a bit pleased with myself for shaking my tiny fist at society’s preconceptions and saving the environment one pedal at a time.  But I cannot forget that this good feeling, physical and emotional, is made possible by my class status, by circumstances that are not available to all.

So what? What’s the point?

This is what is so easy to forget about privilege: that it isn’t a bad thing, a character flaw, or something possessed by only fat-cat bankers and Russian heiresses.

Why is this important?  What is the difference between awareness and guilt?  What does awareness do for us?  Being aware of what privileges you take for granted gives you a moment to be grateful, of course.  But more importantly it is an opportunity to exercise tolerance.  Knowing how much goes into being able to do something as delightful and beneficial to myself and to society as biking to work, I find myself less judgmental of people in cars.  Sure, I wish more of these fools would just use their damn legs to get around, and I wish they’d be more considerate to me while I share the road with them, but even as I judge them I catch myself wondering what I’m missing.

I find that rather than being pleased with myself for pedaling to work I am instead profoundly grateful for all the little circumstances that make it possible for me to travel about town as I do.


4 responses to “Understanding privilege

  1. Linda Fitzgerald

    It’s hard to not feel guilty about having advantages others don’t have, but it is important to recognize them as advantages and be grateful. The simplest things like safe neighborhoods, clean running water, a job where you get vacation time and health insurance, a choice in what to do with your life, are not universally shared. One thing we can do is vote for the politicians most likely to promote those advantages for all. Vote Obama!!

    • Nice political plug, madre :o). I think all sorts of community involvement are important; voting yes of course every 2-4 years, but also the myriad ways of more regular participation. The more advantages you have the easier it is to sequester yourself away from the rest of society, shielding yourself both from inconvenience and from awareness of other people’s problems.

      The bike example works here too. On a bike, you can’t roll up the windows and turn on the A/C. You are out in the world with the sights, smells, sounds, and general interference of all those other people.

      So vote, to be sure. But also ride a bike or take a bus somewhere even if it seems vaguely inconvenient because you believe in alternative modes of transportation not as a theory but as a way of life. Volunteer somewhere, not because you think you are going to “save” anyone but because you feel you have something to share and something to learn. Join a local club/association/group so that you can exchange ideas with other people. Etc.

      In other words, don’t just sit at home with your gratitude, let your gratitude inspire action. Sounds a bit preachy, but I think our family is rather good at this actually…but I’m biased…

  2. But by choosing to live close enough to my work to walk, bus or cycle, I also ‘choose’ to live in a small flat, and to have a shared garden, and the annoyance of neighbours. there’s a sacrifice involved. If people ‘choose’ to live out of town, with all the convenience of suburbs, then i don’t think they should complain that they ‘have’ to commute to work, or ‘have’ to sit in tailbacks.

    • Absolutely! …if you have those two options (lots of your own space vs the convenience of being close to the center of city life).

      But I’m talking more about people who don’t have that option, who don’t have the means to be so selective about either their place of work or place of residence. The service industry is a great example: nice hotel on Magnificent Mile in Chicago…do all of those employees have the option to live near their place of work? Probably not. Great restaurant in trendy neighborhood? Same thing.

      So yeah, I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for people who look cranky as they sit idling in their SUVs at rush hour. Tough luck folks! But I’m also aware that I’m not quite the same as someone who can’t afford a car or can’t afford to chose a convenient place of residence.

      I make some sacrifices to be able to bike to work (and hats off to me and you and others who do the same, it’s not always easy!). But I chose those sacrifices, they aren’t forced on me. I think that’s the big difference.