This isn’t explicitly bike related, but I’ve been thinking a lot about equity lately. In part, it’s because of a post over at BikePortland, the blog for bike-related news and thoughts here, that describes a newly-created position in the Portland Bureau of Transportation: an Equity and Inclusion Manager.
As I write this, many of the comments left by various readers can be summed up as “what a humongous waste of money” — which in some cases sounds a lot like shorthand for “equity is not worth prioritizing.” Which worries me.
I get that nobody ever wants another manager, or that maybe something like equity can be prioritized without creating a whole new high-paying job. What I’m worried by is the bigger picture.
I’m using the BikePortland article only as a jumping-off point. As I re-read the comments I see that there are many people on either side of the issue and for various reasons, but that article is only a really small example of something I see over and over, often in online commentary but really anywhere in this world: the denial of privilege and the tacit perpetuation of the status quo.
It sounds like this: we don’t need to explicitly think about things like equity or equality or inclusivity; we’re already trying hard enough.
Or like this: if people want the same “privileges” that I have, they should work harder for them.
Or like this: people who yammer on about equity are bleeding-heart liberals just getting off on feeling guilty about past issues that we’ve long since moved beyond.
In short, it’s the (false) assertion that everyone in this world really does have an equal shot at success.
The uncomfortable truth is that we’re still really, really far away from that ideal in the US, and if we look globally, we’re even further. As things stand now, everyone does not have an equal shot at success. Everyone doesn’t even have an equal shot at survival. But saying so threatens the self-concept of privileged people, including me, who feel they have worked hard for their success. Most of us have worked hard for our success. But hard for a person from the dominant culture, especially if that dominant culture crosses racial, class, and gender lines (i.e. a white, well-educated, well-off, straight man), does not take nearly as much work as it does for someone who does not experience privilege in those areas.
It’s like the adage about the triathlete who has trained really hard for his race. He’s prepared for months, and as he swims along he feels strong and powerful — until he turns around and realizes that he’s been swimming with the current the whole time. Privilege is like that current, helping you in mostly invisible ways that nevertheless support your own efforts. The triathlete did train, after all, and did work hard to get in good physical shape, but the swimming was still much easier when the outside world was working with him instead of against.
Does that mean every white, straight, educated, middle-to-upper-class male is going to be conventionally successful, or even that life is easy for him? No, of course not. But it does mean that he has way fewer barriers to “success” than someone who doesn’t experience the privileged positions he’s born into.
All of this makes privilege a hard issue, because no one wants to believe that they haven’t earned what they have. But you know what? It’s kind of true. Many of us have not earned what we have, not really, not the way others have. If you asked me, I would say that I’ve worked somewhat hard to be where I am in life. (Not that I’m the epitome of success here, either;) But I know that mostly, I’ve just been the recipient of unwarranted benefits because I’m white. Because my parents were able to feed me, clothe me, and send me to a good college. Because I had present, healthy, loving parents. Because, heck, I was raised in a middle-class part of the United States instead of Sub-Saharan Africa. Because I’ve been insulated from war, from disease, from hunger. I am an incredibly lucky woman, not an incredibly deserving one.
There’s absolutely no reason why I should be the lucky one and someone else shouldn’t. So what worries me, to get back to the BikePortland comments and thoughts about equity in general, is that when people are unwilling to acknowledge their privilege — when people maintain that the average person really can pull herself up by her bootstraps regardless of any social context — it dismisses entirely our entrenched, institutionalized systems of oppression. The systems that incarcerate black people at nearly 6 times the rate of white people, or that allow us to buy delicious and fresh organic produce on the backs of undocumented, uncared-for migrant workers. Essentially, discounting privilege is like saying that if someone hasn’t become as successful as you are, it’s because they, personally, didn’t work as hard. It removes everyone from their context, but more perniciously, it also works to totally erase any responsibility you may have for abdicating your own power so as to share it more equally.
There are always anecdotes. The boy from the hood who was able to leave behind the gang life, start a successful internet company, and make millions. The poor kid who got scholarships to go to school and now lives comfortably teaching other poor kids. The insert-your-feel-good-story-here. Sure. There are cases like that. But individual cases do not the whole system make. There are always outliers. And those anecdotes are exactly that, anecdotes, because they’re not normal. Because it’s so damn hard to overcome the layers and layers and layers of oppression that are systematized into our society. Especially when people with privilege, people who benefit from that oppression, are unwilling to accept that it’s even a problem, or even that it’s something worth thinking about.
I’m a little reluctant to post this not only because it’s a crazy deviation from the usual bent of this blog but also because I feel like if I spew all this I should also be prepared to offer a solution. And I don’t have one. But I think the hints of one begin with awareness. With a willingness to acknowledge my privilege, to look hard at it and what it’s won for me, to acknowledge that not everyone has the same experience of life and that for some people, it’s a whole heck of a lot harder. And here’s the most difficult pill to swallow: I and maybe you benefit from the fact that it’s harder for some people — because that makes it easier for us. It’s not individually our fault; we’re part of a humongous system that has existed way longer than we have. But we still play a very important role in either perpetuating or preventing it.
It’s a fricken privilege to not have to think about this on a daily basis, which is why it irks me so much when I see people pretending like it doesn’t exist, and why some of the BikePortland comments annoyed me so thoroughly. If I and many other people never think about our privilege, we will most likely happily go about our normal lives feeling good about the work we’ve done. We will simply embrace the fact that our outlook, our worldview, our skin color, or our gender identity will be accepted and shared by a majority of people, without remembering that for some people that is decidedly not the case. And those people can’t not think about privilege on a daily basis, because every day it’s rubbed in their face that they don’t have it.
But the privilege to ignore is not a privilege that I have to accept. Like I said, I’m a little reluctant to post this, but I’m going to, despite the fact that I’m still and always learning about this, despite the fact that I’ll probably read it later and marvel at how naive I was — I’m going to post it, because I don’t want to accept the privilege of being able to stay silent. For me, this is not a matter of life and death. But for some people, it is. Equity is a seemly thing to talk about if you’re in a position of power; it’s a determinant of your very quality of life if you’re not. We owe it to each other to remember that.