I was in a dumb argument on Facebook recently about, yup, whether or not privilege exists, and I wish I’d had this example to work with at the time, but it only came up yesterday.
So, Kat and I are on vacation. There’s a little Texas Gulf island town called Port Aransas that we visit every year — this is year four now. If you come after Labor Day, you’re in “off-peak” days, and you can rent a one-bedroom condo right on the beach for $500 for an entire week. That is a lot cheaper than most week-long beach vacations run you, and since Port A is only about three and a half hours from Austin, it really becomes a very affordable way to spend a week off and away from home.
(Three privileges — that is, things that not everybody gets — in that above paragraph: $500 is affordable to us, when to some people coming up with an extra $500 each year for a vacation rental is an impossible dream; we have a car, which makes a three and a half hour drive doable; the work we do allows us to take a week off every year without it being a thing.)
So, yesterday we were driving in to Port Aransas for our yearly vacation. We decided to take our bikes, since it’s a vacation and riding bikes is fun. I strapped the old bike rack we’ve had for years on the back of the car, dropped the bikes on it, and we started off. About an hour into the drive, as we were on a tollway (with an 85 mile an hour speed limit — Texas is crazy), Kat’s bike flew off the bike rack and spun off into the lane. Amazingly, there was no one behind us; I pulled over, backed up about 500 feet (which is terrifying to do on a highway) and observed as cars all changed lanes to avoid running over the bike. I did my best to secure it more effectively to the rack, and drove off, feeling pretty shaken.
(Privilege in that paragraph: We are able to afford nice bikes! We could afford to take the tollway which — sorry, TXDOT — is barely used, so nobody ran over the bicycle while it was in the lane, or me while I ran onto the freeway to get it.)
We got back on the road, and about forty-five minutes later, as we were driving along a country road (with a big shoulder on the right), the bike rack disappeared from the rearview mirror. I immediately pulled off to the shoulder — the rack had slid all the way down behind the car, because the straps that secured it to the trunk had snapped. So we were on a country road about 15-20 miles from the nearest town with two not-inexpensive bikes, in a car that had no extra room because it was packed for a vacation. But we’d passed a Walmart in that nearest town, so after we caught our breath, I called the Walmart to ask if they sold bike racks. They did. We locked our bikes to a speed limit sign, turned around, and headed back up to that town to buy a bike rack.
(Privilege in that paragraph: We had cell phones.)
So we go to the Walmart. They’ve got a really durable-looking bike rack for $99 that is guaranteed for up to 70 lbs. I check out the website for our bike manufacturer, and they say that each bike weighs about 30 pounds. Great, we’re in business. I buy the rack, go out to the parking lot, and open the box. It’s unassembled, and the assembly looks very complicated. I’m not very good at this stuff generally, either. There’s a list of required tools. I briefly contemplate buying those tools at the Walmart, before it occurs to me that I can google “seguin tx handyman” and see if there’s someone who is good at this stuff available to help.
(Privileges in that paragraph: We can afford a $99 bike rack without worrying about it too much. Our bikes are by the sort of manufacturer that has detailed information available online. I have a cell phone with a data plan that allows me to look all this stuff up.)
I call the first number that comes up, and it’s a real nice guy. He’s just about to go out of town for the weekend, but he thinks about it, decides he could use some gas money for the trip, and texts me the address for his garage. I ask him what a fair price is for this so I can grab cash at the Walmart, and he says $80. We drive over to his garage. There are a bunch of dudes there — coincidentally, they’re also going to Port Aransas, to camp on the beach and go fishing — and they’re all real friendly to us. Two of them begin work on putting together the bike rack, while another one gives us a tour of the property, which is — it should be noted — really neat. He’s got a giant fish pond that he built himself, an external game room that he built from scratch (“The only thing I bought was that pool table!”) and an aviary for birds. Dude was in a motorcycle accident three years ago, he tells us, and the guy who hit him “must have owned a bank or something.” He got a $500,000 settlement and only has a light scar on his leg to show for it, even though he had to be airlifted to San Antonio after it happened. He’s very proud of this — still has the motorcycle, as well as two others he bought with settlement money. “I’m retired,” he explains. The handyman business is his, but he’s mostly turned it over to his buddies now.
(Privileges in that paragraph — there are a whole bunch, so I may forget some. But they include: I was able to withdraw $100 from the ATM without incident. I figured I should tip the guy since it was a Friday night on no notice, he was delaying his fishing trip, and he was helping us out of a desperate situation. I was comfortable just driving to some strange guy’s garage in a town I’d never been to before! I’m white, and straight, and cisgender, and average-looking, and I was with my wife and a dog. As soon as we stepped out of that car, these dudes all knew exactly what to make of us — we were non-threatening folks like everybody you see on TV. It might have been an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where they go on vacation. These were very nice guys who may not have harbored a bigoted bone in their body, but if we’d come out of the car and been black, or a gay couple, or if one of us were trans and looked unconventional, the first thing that they asked us may not have been, “Do you guys want to see my fish?” But it goes beyond even that — the fact that I was comfortable just showing up in a stranger’s garage is because dangerous things aren’t really that dangerous for a guy like me. If Kat had been there by herself, just showing up in a strange man’s garage would have carried very different overtones. If we were a gay couple, we’d have the constant knowledge that sometimes people — especially in small towns — get violent with gay folks drilled into our heads. If we were trans, given the overwhelming threat of violence trans folks face, it would have been a completely different situation than it was for us. But in our reality, the way this shook out, we went and had a fun conversation with a friendly guy who bragged about his fish and his motorcycles while his friends built our bike rack for us.)
Anyway — they did a good job. We all listened to “Blurred Lines” out of some guy’s truck while they put it together. The bikes made it the rest of the trip without incident, and the bike rack feels like a tank. It took us seven hours to go 200 miles, but that’s life sometimes. (Imagine how long that trip took 200 years ago!) We’ll have a very fun week of not doing very much and sitting by the beach and generally enjoying some rest after a stressful and busy past year.
But let’s look for a minute at exactly what all that privilege up there means, and what it doesn’t. It does not mean that everything is easy and awesome for you all the time. We were in full possession of a big set of privileges, but when your bike goes flying into the right-hand lane on an 85-mile-an-hour freeway, that still sucks. No part of that becomes easy just because you’re white, or just because you’ve got a little bit of money in your wallet. You still have to make sure no one is going to run it over, reverse up the highway, flash your hazards, and then run out onto the freeway and grab it, re-secure it to your car, and drive away very aware that it could happen again. Dealing with all of this is never easy. Your life doesn’t suddenly become stress- and hassle-free just because you possess these privileges. It’s just that some things that would be much harder without them are not as hard.
People who deny that privilege exists tend to do it because they recognize their own life’s difficulties: Here’s the story of my really hard and stressful trip down to the beach! I felt like Chevy Chase! I had to run out onto the freeway! Don’t tell me how privileged I am when I know that my afternoon and evening yesterday sucked!
But privilege has nothing to do with your life being easy or perfect, or with you never encountering any struggles or difficulties. It has everything to do with the fact that when you do encounter those things that are a normal part of the human experience, the way that you move through the world in dealing with them is fundamentally different from the way that someone without your privileges will. It doesn’t take away your difficulties, or your cleverness in addressing them, to recognize that you have privileges. But it informs the way you move in the world, as opposed to the way that other people without those privileges might. You don’t need to feel guilty, but you do need to recognize it.