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Can biking really teach us about white privilege?

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In the middle of a state such as Minnesota, where diversity is a “fancy” word that isn’t used very often, the term “white privilege” might not be offensive to use in this neighborhood. Nevertheless, the question still lingers: is “white privilege” a term that shows the supremacy of a people based on their skin color, or is it merely a punch line to be used in the mockery of this supremacy?

In a unique article written by Jeremy Dowsett, the author voices his understanding of the complex issues of white privilege and discrimination that still occur within the States through his experience on his bike in full-on automobile traffic. As a white man, Dowsett admits that he hasn’t always understood the term, as it is inflammatory and often shuts down conversation between individuals. He details his experience and realization in the following quotation:

“I can imagine that, for people of color, life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in the midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars.”

Viewing the situation from this perspective, as an international student from Indonesia, I myself am a part of those who are riding the bikes on the made-for-car roads. Nevertheless, after being in the St. Olaf community for four months, I have found that the majority of the students who demographically are grouped into the Caucasian race have actually opened their doors and let me into their cars, just to get a glimpse of how driving in a car would feel.

By involving myself in activities such as Bible studies, choir, classes, advising with professors and lunch in the Caf, I actually began to see the pace and way of life of these so-called “privileged” ones. Many St. Olaf students actually open their doors to other bike-users, or even step out of their cars to get a glimpse of what it feels like to ride a bike in the car-packed highway. They accomplish this by learning to appreciate and acknowledge racial and cultural differences in an atmosphere of acceptance.

Of course, there are those out there who still shut their car doors or even honk at the bike-riders by asserting their privileged status as a member of the white majority. In the midst of what is a well-bonded community here, if one looks close enough, he or she will spot the prejudices that are hidden under people’s tongues, refusing to be voiced in the hope of appearing sophisticated or accepting in front of others.

To think that using the phrase “white privilege” could be offensive may well be considered a thing of the past. As time progresses, so do the thoughts and ways of human beings. To call ourselves “civilized” in this century, we have to open our car doors, or even step out of our cars on occasion and see life from another point of view in order to develop a sense of empathy and understanding among one another and really move ourselves forward according to the pace of time – unless, of course, we want to remain barbaric and hypocrital human beings, the way some of our forefathers have.

In some way or another, white privilege also serves best as a mirror for our own actions. Have we been grouping ourselves to create a strong prejudice and judgment at first sight with other people? Have we taken a stroll down that bike lane, just to know what it’s like? Have we acted as civilized as we claim to be? Well, that is up for us to answer.

Samuel Pattinasarane ’18 pattin1@stolaf.edu is from Jakarta, Indonesia. He majors in political science.