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.