5.30.2020

See The Wind

I ride a bike. Not a spandex pants and special shoes kind of bike. Not an aerodynamic helmet with wrap-around sunglasses kind of bike. I don't identify with bike culture or talk to anyone about my bike. It's a mode of transportation I'm perpetually thankful hasn't been stolen in totality. I've replaced the rear fender a half dozen times, purchased five or six pairs of LED lights, and lost the rear wheel a time or two. It's a real urban ship of Theseus. I use it because owning a car in the city is a punitive and punishing exercise. I despise traffic and parking tickets. So I bike. And over the years, my commutes have been varying degrees of horrible. Weather, traffic, ceaseless construction, and my own laziness have all impeded my efforts. And on one particularly exhausting and painful commute, I got a fractional amount of clarity on the nature of privilege.

It was a criminally humid day and my swamp-ass was redlining. The stickiest, grossest, and ugliest version of myself arrived at work. An uncommonly brutal headwind molested my travel. As I was locking up my bike, my coworker rolled up from the opposite direction, dry-assed and all smiles. He locked his bike, gave the coworker nod of acknowledgment, and waltzed into the office. His bike was a functionally identical copy of mine: single-speed fixed gear, steel frame, handsome. I stood there feeling beads of sweat pooling at the top of my ass and wondered what the fuck was going on.

In the perilous and absurd journey of human existence, not all roads are created equal. And while I subscribe to the notion of radical freedom posited by existentialists, I'm forced to reconcile with systemic and cultural practices which run to the very foundation of a social existence. Philosophically, I've been wrestling with concept of privilege. I am not an expert and, as a cis-gendered male, should likely let the marginalized speak on the issue. It will certainly do damage to the idea and the hubris of attempting to codify privilege is not lost on me. The following investigation is not meant to be exhaustive, but to highlight an essential component of the concept, particularly the curious denial of its very existence.

My coworker biked the same distance to work on a virtually identical bike. Why was I wrecked? Then it dawned on me: he had the wind at his back. An invisible hand, to purposely misappropriate Smith's notion, aided his journey. Those with the wind at their backs rarely recognize it. They attribute their swiftness to personal strengths: their fitness, determination, and resolve. And why wouldn't they? Pedal for a moment and be rewarded with momentum. Coasting allows you to save your strength. The next hill is easily taken with fresh legs. Suddenly you've gone farther than others. Others marvel at your endurance and fortitude.

And your journey ought to be celebrated. You worked as hard as was necessary to achieve your goal. You did it. You struggled on the big hill but persevered. They were your legs that carried you to where you wanted to go. Congratulations.

But those who bike into the wind live a vastly different existence. Onlookers see nothing out of the ordinary, no obstacles. How could we expect them to understand unless they, too, have limped up a nonintimidating hill accosted by an invisible wall? A molasses blanket dangles between your endeavor and goal. Legs taxed by the most mundane hills have nothing in the tank for what would otherwise be a manageable incline.

The most intrepid riders, despite all odds, succeed. And those with the wind at their backs are quick to point out that some people can make the journey despite the wind. The few who make it are shown to be examples that the journey isn't impossible and that anyone who fails is either lazy or unfit.

Our American meritocracy depends on the notion that our successes and our failures are ours and ours alone. To acknowledge privilege is to undermine one of the deepest held American values. This is perhaps why we are so reticent to recognize it. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, assuming you were born in a family that could afford to buy boots? It doesn't have the same ring to it.

Even if we were to assume this was the extent of privilege, it would still demand our attention. Even if we leave aside the idea that a black biker is more likely to be stopped by police, those situations are more likely to result in heartbreaking escalations where lives are lost. Even if we leave aside issues where women are knocked off their bikes and assaulted, if they did make it to work, they would be paid less than men. Even if we leave aside hate crimes committed based on who you fuck when you get off your bike, many refuse the very notion that privilege exists.

Until we are ready to acknowledge that not all journeys are equal, and that many struggles are invisible, we can never begin to approach a solution. Until we can admit our country isn't a pure meritocracy, we will forever be doomed to overvalue our successes and downplay the plight of others.

Admitting privilege is not a solution. It is a bare minimum for understanding our relationship to the world. And to those with the wind at your backs, try to imagine why your friends and coworkers are sweaty and exhausted by something so effortless for you. Your calves aren't that majestic.

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