Social Infrastructure of White Privilege and Bike Lanes

Posted on January 12, 2010 by


I felt very aware of my race and ethnicity almost all the time during my most formative years.

I knew that I was Filipino before I began going to the “puti” high school. It was going to be different from the more homely Filipino-dominated grade school.

I knew that I was one of only a few Filipinos in my college dorms. I didn’t have too many white friends going to what was called the “puti” high school.

I know that I am one of the few Filipinos interested in pursuing anthropology and science studies as a career. I come from an environment swarmed by nurses and future nurses. In my stage of liminality called grad school, I keep getting pulled towards a career like that. And that feels like a glass roof, like a very limiting obstacle I want to overcome.

There’s quite a bit of a “disconnection” between where I want to go, and what has surrounded and currently surrounds me. They don’t match up at all. Where I want to go is academia, which will give me enough authority and power to yield back to the people, but what I see and surrounds me everyday is cart vendors, unemployment — not bad, but no one doing exactly what I want to do.

I use the word “disconnection” because that’s exactly how I feel when I become “aware” of my race/ethnicity in a setting. I feel “disconnected” from the people who inhabit the space, like we share almost nothing in common. And so feeling “disonnected, I mean that I feel that I have no “belongingness.”

I can become “aware” of this lack of belongingness when I’m in downtown amidst the mid-day bustling with different suited people. I become aware of this lack of belongingness when I’m at a wine-tasting shop in Silver Lake. I become aware of this lack of belongingness when I’m in an academic conference and the older and younger white guys are making key speeches and asserting, bending, stretching, flexing their expertise.

I don’t become as “aware” of my lack of belongingness when I’m on the basketball court in Glassell Park.

So in a nutshell I don’t feel like I fit in at academic conferences or wine-tasting shops, but I know who generally does.

I’m talking about the demographics. It ain’t a secret to concede the fact the conference is packed and it ain’t filled with blacks.

So what exactly fosters that fitting in or “belongingness” in a powerful setting?

I think it’s this object that we call infrastructure.

“Infrastructure” fosters connection, which makes for fitting in and belongingness.

“Infrastructure” is used mostly in the context of public works projects. It is defined as the “basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.” I use the term “infrastructure” to mean “a collection of connective strands used to maintain a system.” Basically, it’s stuff that connects things in societies. Infrastructure is freeways, roads, power plants, power-lines, water sources, the internet, phone lines, other forms of communication….and BIKE LANES.

So infrastructure — stuff that connects things in societies.

Certain people have “infrastructure” that connects them to things in society.

Me, I feel disconnected to some things in this society, the things that are connected to power. I feel like there isn’t infrastructure for me. Me, somewhat privileged, but not white.

When you are a white American, and probably male, you have a “social infrastructure” that enables you to fit in almost any setting.

You see your likeness reproduced in all kinds of public discourse and in almost any space you wander off to. You see yourself in movies, academia, arts and “high-class theater”, corporate jobs. You can literally identify with being almost anything cause you know that no matter where you are, someone with your identity is there and you could probably talk to them.

The total sum of the different social systems relieve you of the second-guessing of who you are, your intelligence, your social power, your “belongingness.” After all, you’re the embodiment of human, you belong every and anywhere. You know that your opinion counts and you will be predisposed to giving it even when not asked.

So if there is “infrastructure” working so well for a white American male, what does the “social infrastructure” for a person of color look like?

There isn’t as much infrastructure that would help a person of color fit in almost anywhere. There isn’t as much social infrastructure that would help a person of color forget the negative parts of their identities.

There are infrastructures that help people of color, but are more insular (or at least can be perceived that way).  The demarcation that something like a Scholarship fund is for blacks, or Asians, or Latinos makes it seem to plenty of non-critical folk, black, Asian, Latino, white that there is just all this opportunity for people of color. They always lament the fact that they can’t open up a “White scholarship fund.”

The very naming and labeling of the organization makes it very explicit that it benefits who it does.  There is very little respect for it in popular discourse.

However, there is no formal or catchy label or naming if any involved in the process of a white guy having loaded ass parents, or getting into a business or a high position because he “fit” the culture or “knew someone”.  Without that formal naming, is an informal network. It assumes the labels of “natural” or “normal”, labels which carry signs for you to stop questioning. Every time someone tags something as “normal”, or “natural” it’s like they’ve passed a limitus test and are no longer subject to questioning.

And so this whole process of “fitting in” is not really labeled for everyone to see, it can be attributed to this myth of meritocracy.

So there is very little social infrastructure for people of color. And there appears to be plenty of infrastructure for white people.

So infrastructure.

Allow me to make a metaphor. I am not trying to oversimplify anything, I am trying to make one movement understand one another. The bike movement and the anti-racism movement.

Here in LA, our transportation infrastructure had been built around the car. LA can be an ideal place to ride a bike, it’s mostly flat, there’s good weather, and yet what we are perceived to be is a collection of freeway traffic and smog. Domain of cars.

Here in the world we live today, our societal infrastructure in terms of demographics had been built around exclusionary practices against people of color. The United States can be an ideal place to be a person of color, we’ve got the Civil Rights laws and 14th ammendment, we just got a Black, mixed race president, and yet what we are perceived to be is a collection of mostly white people. Domain of white people.

Allowing this metaphor to take place, white people would be car drivers with streets and highways dedicated to them. Not too many people question it. It’s only normal to drive in LA. Why wouldn’t you drive in LA? They’ll just keep driving away with little regard for everyone else except other cars and things that get in their way.

People of color would be bicyclists with only a few bike lanes dedicated to them, and shit just made difficult for them to get around. If they happen to get on the road, which they are supposed to by California law, people will honk, people will yell. And most of the time, people will just speed up and self-righteously cut them off to establish that they as car drivers are indeed dominant.

Like the BIKE LANES in LA that last for one block, the infrastructure for people of color is piecemeal and far and few between.

Bike lanes are built only on certain streets. Bike lanes would be like scholarships for people of color. Remember how there’s very little respect for it? People will obstruct it by use of their car doors, put their trash cans in the way. Of course no one does that specifically to block bicyclists, they just don’t think it matters.

No one really blocks the way to scholarships, but people carelessly dump on it, they don’t think it matters. They cry for “merit-based” scholarships, which negates the history of systematized exclusion of people of color and the social norms that have been allowed to continue and not integrate people of color.

Even without any BIKE LANES/ on streets and avenues, a few people will still bike, but there is a culture here in LA that expects them not to bike, or at least do it in the periphery where they won’t get in the way of traffic.

People could technically go anywhere with their bikes without bike infrastructure or “bike lanes.” But the pervading culture of car-drivers don’t expect you. Expecting and expectation is the key word. It’s been the norm here in LA to drive, though that norm has only existed for 100 years, since the introduction of the car. But when you’re in the car, operating your vehicle you don’t care, that bicyclist asshole is in YOUR way, what is rightfully YOURS!

Notice the ownership or sense of entitlement implied when a car driver yells at a cyclist.

Even without social programs, a few people will still succeed, but there is a culture here in US society that expects people of color not to.

People of color could go anywhere without social infrastructure or social programs. But the pervading culture of white people doesn’t expect you. Expect and expectation is the key word. If you step to where the settings where they dominate, they’ll probably ignore you. If you should happen to succeed, they’ll probably keep ignoring you. However, if you talk or hint about civil or even human rights that you and your people deserve, then, they’ll yell and complain, “go back to your country if it’s so nice there”

Ownership and sense of entitlement.

As both a person of color and a bicyclist, I don’t care, this is where I was born, I belong on these streets, and spaces that are here, and this is where I’ll ride.