on the bicycle as a vehicle to understand marginalizaton

if you're able-bodied enough to ride a bike and otherwise have trouble understanding, from a visceral perspective, the terminology of feminist and antioppression discourse, i have a concrete recommendation: ride a bicycle as your primary means of transportation in a city where this is not the norm.

i don't claim this is a way to automatically transport the experiences of others into your head, and obviously like all analogies it's imperfect, possibly even treading on "oppression tourism" territory, but as a set of concrete experiences to discuss, i think it can help establish some common ground for the sake of getting basic terminology. by way of example, i give the following glossary.

marginalization: when riding a bike you are literally pushed to the margins of the road. if you assert yourself and drive in the middle of the lane, you are constantly put on the defensive and have to ward off motorists challenging your audacity to be there -- even when in fact it's completely legal and the place where you are safest.

victim blaming: people will constantly question your decision to go out, saying "it's too dangerous" and concluding that therefore you just shouldn't do it; anyone who does is taking an unnecessary risk, and if they get hurt, they "should have known better." what you wear (helmet? light/reflective clothing?) will get you further blamed in the case of a traumatizing accident.

[white/male]-as-default, [hetero/cis]normativity: by analogy, car-as-default. if feminism is "the radical idea that women are people," bike advocacy is "the radical idea that bicycles are means of transport." underlying assumptions in personal conversation, marketing, business planning, and urban planning, frequently make the assumption that "transportation = car", and you'll find yourself repeatedly having to think (or say) "hey, what about me?" furthermore, the fact that personal motorized vehicles are the default thing-for-going-on-roads in cities is more historical accident than the "natural" order of things.

microagression: one or two little things that happen (someone honking or yelling at you, someone passing too close or cutting you off) might be shakeable, but if you keep this activity up and endure it constantly, day after day, i guarantee it will wear on you. the person you wind up snapping at might not have even been the most egregious instance, and they may come away with the impression that cyclists are irrationally aggressive people -- because they don't have the context of every other tiny aggression you encountered across the history of your riding, making you constantly defensive and volatile.

intersectionality: it's entirely too easy to think that the issues you have a window onto as a cyclist only pertain to cyclists. and then you start catching yourself doing the same shit to pedestrians (turning in front of them, not stopping at stop signs) that you're upset when drivers do to you, and you start hearing about cyclists being dicks to other cyclists and pedestrians, or you hear a cyclist wonder why everyone doesn't just ride a bike (including the poor, elderly, and disabled?) and you (hopefully!) start to realize that getting around the city sucks for a lot of people and is a way bigger problem than just your subjective view. this is related to the idea that a workable feminism necessarily incorporates all axes of systematic oppression, not just those that incongruently affect women.

on the bicycle as a tool of autonomy

on the flip side of all this, for me personally, the bicycle has been a hugely, astoundingly critical component of my own sense of autonomy and independence. i mean, okay, in some ways it still represents a dependence, but it's a dependence on something i own and control, rather than a dependence on male friends to wait with me at bus stops at night or on someone to give me a ride home -- in other words, having my location be subject to the whims of unreliable external factors. i don't have a sense for how this would compare to just owning a car, but honestly i think it would still win, because of the increased flexibility (ability to stop on a whim, don't have to hunt as hard for parking, can go on trails, gives access to open air/adrenaline from exercise, etc).

in that sense, i think it's an incredible instrument of feminism, and certainly of my own happiness.



August 2014

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