Sep 04 2014

Guest Post: What my bike hasn’t taught me about white supremacy

I am thrilled to have this post by my friend Lewis on the blog this morning. The piece was written in response to this.

What my bike hasn’t taught me about white supremacy
by Lewis Wallace

I once rode my bike across Michigan. I have also ridden it across Illinois, the San Francisco Bay Area and around parts of rural Ohio. I’ve gone through cornfields and tiny towns, camped by myself, met people, bought stuff at gas stations, gone out to diners, and generally had a grand old time.

Biking is dangerous, exhilarating, and for me, it was and is a choice. I’m white and come from a class-privileged background, not to mention I’m able-bodied and able to comfortably ride the thing. So whether I’m cruising through Chicago or rural Michigan, I carry a level of safety that is written all over my body. I think about being harassed, attacked, hit by a car even…and then I think about my dad who’s a lawyer, the support and consequence that follows white people with money into any tragedy or even any slight disturbance. That’s a big part of privilege—being able to choose, to move freely, to take risks with limited fear of consequence (something I’ve written about before). When I ride my bike alone experiencing joy and impunity, I think about what it might be like for my comrades and friends who are people of color, particularly when they are visibly trans or queer. I think it’s important to think about that.

Here’s the thing, though: when I read this essay, I also thought about how frustrating it is when we white people feel we need to have—or perhaps feel we deserve—an “ah-ha” moment in which we feel we understand what it’s like for any one person of color. I really do think it can be a useful exercise to try to put ourselves in others’ shoes, on our own time and not in a way that tokenizes people or wastes their time explaining shit to us. But really “getting it”—as if being a person of color in the U.S. is a monolithic experience—is impossible, and presumptuous to boot. I’ve been thinking that whole framing doesn’t get at the core of what we white folks need to be striving towards right now, particularly as we white folks are absolutely surrounded by examples of systemic racism.

‘Cause here’s the thing: privilege is a symptom, not a cause. That’s why I use the term “white supremacy”—this isn’t just about a daily experience of having my body judged as safer, more pure, or more deserving than people of color, and white supremacy actually doesn’t require that I believe in those things myself. White supremacy is about the underlying conditions that support my experience of privilege, conditions that have worked to serve and protect power for wealthy white people by institutionalizing divisions between poor people and peoples of color, making poor folks of color into a permanent underclass at the bottom of that hierarchy.

Today more black people are under correctional control (including probation and parole) in the U.S. than there were black people enslaved in 1850. Today brown people are detained at the border by the thousands, their images plastered across TVs and magazines as “illegal,” lesser and undeserving humans. Today we exist on land that was systematically stolen from indigenous peoples. People who are fleeing unspeakable violence are painted as anonymous and general, a “stream” or a “flood”. Safety and dignity are not on offer for countless people of color in this country and around the world, and that reality expresses itself not just in terms of individual interactions—it’s systemic. It comes from and extends to the very top, and elements of the safety, comfort and visibility I experience as a white, able-bodied person with class privilege come directly from institutions and practices that systematically deprive other people of the same.

Biking is at least in part about choice, agency. But privilege isn’t only about how pleasant or unpleasant it is to move through the world or momentary experiences of agency. These things people are calling “microaggressions” are certainly real—I can tell you about that first hand, all day long, as a visibly transgender person (it’s a microagression party over here). Still, it’s too easy to get it twisted; being rubbed the wrong way, or even deeply offended, is not the same thing as being consistently marginalized politically, physically, spiritually, and in terms of health, freedom, and basic human rights. They are often related, but they’re not the same.

Plus, we are all more than the sum of our parts, a list of experiences. People of color, trans people, and especially trans and queer people of color are often summarized, in the mess of underrepresentation, turned into a set of bullet points. A discussion of privilege that puts other people’s oppression onto a checklist just misses the point.

As a white person, I think one of my most important roles is to listen, to strive to understand the shifting landscape that is white supremacy in our culture. I try to understand it by listening carefully to the voices and experiences of people of color, by recognizing multiplicity, leadership, creativity and strength and not just victimhood in oppressed people. I try to listen and respond to the calls of POC activists and leaders pushing for systemic change. Recognizing and naming my own experiences of privilege can be a step, an opening, but it’s not an end point; we need so much more than that in this moment.

When we white people watch while young black folks are gunned down, when we don’t bat an eye at trans women of color being killed or folks in prison being abused, and when we then turn around and don’t manage to listen to the black folks and trans women of color who are speaking, who are demanding change and laying out a path, we lose our own dignity and wholeness. When we wait for the next disaster to strike rather than facing the daily dehumanization that’s going on our schools, prisons, workplaces, and at our borders, we give up our ability to perceive our surroundings with clarity and truth. This isn’t a pity party or an oppression olympics; this is about all of us. This is a broken culture continuing to shatter, and a whole race of people acting like everything’s perfectly intact.

Riding my bike, I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect, to re-learn the day-to-day ways that white supremacy makes my ride easier. But by talking, listening, reading and engaging with other people, I’ve learned that in order to take action, I don’t always need to put myself in someone else’s shoes, to comfort myself with the false sense that I “get it”. I’ve learned my most important lessons, period, by listening to people who are oppressed in ways that I am not, and then striving to act in solidarity even when I don’t understand their experience.

Black and brown leaders who have long been articulating ways out of what we white people have sown in this country. The consequences of inaction now are permanent and global. I don’t believe in silver bullets or think taking action is easy; this is not me calling on you to suddenly do better. This is me vowing to try to do better myself.

In this moment, some things white people can do, not a comprehensive list at all but hey, there’s a lot of work to be done, gotta start somewhere:

Help put an organizer on the ground in Ferguson, MO

Follow these campaigns from Color of Change that center on basic human rights for black folks in the U.S.

Support or join organizations like this one in Chicago that are taking action against police brutality

Give to grassroots funders that center the leadership and experiences of people of color

Speak out by making art, writing letters, taking risks

Involve yourself with prison abolition or support a prisoner directly

Fight for access of every kind for people whose bodies are marginalized

Support art, creativity and self-expression by people who are oppressed in ways that you are not