Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Don't Make a Chipwich Out of Me

I'm a chipster, a Chicana hipster.

I grew up wearing vintage clothes and lying on brown shag carpet behind the ripped up screens of our 1970s stucco apartment in a Mexican ethnoburb, whose suburban lawns and pools didn't keep white outsiders from calling it a ghetto. I wore Converse two sizes too big for me for several years because they were the only kind on sale at Costco. I use my long brown legs to ride a 1980s Panasonic road bike.

And, make no mistake, I fucking love the Smiths.

In some ways, my existence has been charmed. I get to think across many worlds: bicycle advocacy, cultural anthropology, bicycle research, Latino urbanism, and I've been trying to find a place in environmental justice. My career has given me a ridiculously specific and exciting opportunity: I get to help show that while bicycling lives at the poles of "Entitled White Man's Toy for Running Red Lights" and "Invisible Person of Color's Mode of Last Resort," it also exists in the vast continents in between. Chipsters like me also use bicycles. Us in-betweeners know that the world is a complicated place, and we've got some pretty good ideas about how to make things better.

For example, I understand why it is frustrating to see a lot of white men running red lights on their bikes. But you know what? My frustration doesn't stop there. As a woman of color, historically and structurally relegated to the role of observer, I know that power and privilege fill our roadways. I know that you can be a jerk with a car, a bike, or just on your own two feet. I know how cutting someone off on the street connects intimately to larger structures of domination and power. I know that the ability to influence infrastructure investment has a lot to do with power. That's why I've focused my energies on working with bike advocates to envision what equitable bike policy and planning should mean.

In short, I don't need anyone to explain to me that white male privilege is at work in the street. I got this.

What motivates me a lot of days is the knowledge that a lot of people in this world have no voice, and the more conversations I join, the closer (incrementally, infinitesimally, achingly tinily) we are to justice. But lately I've been feeling kind of compressed, like my existence isn't appropriate for mainstream consumption.

The reality is, a lot of activism is still about white men fighting each other for dominance. This week I had the bizarre experience of a white man telling me that biking can't possibly be a space for social justice because (wait for it) all bicyclists are privileged white men.

Where do people like me fit into that framework? If we've got white saviors running around yelling about white privilege, what are we for? Are we just puffy oppressed puppets you can put on your hand before you sock that jerk who dared to think differently from you? Are we just sand to fling in the eyes of your white rival on the playground?

I may be a chipster, but I am not a chipwich. I'm not the filling in a sandwich where white men squeeze me into oblivion so that they can get at each other's throats.

My troubled brown father didn't have much to give, but I will always be grateful for the freedom that comes from knowing that I don't need a white man to tell me right from wrong.


  1. I know you don't need anybody telling you to please, please keep doing what you do, but please do. As a white guy in a white place I am spending way too much time in rooms with other white dudes talking bike infrastructure, and I'm often the only one to bring up equity. I'd much rather help create the space for others to demand equity, because I know my position speaking about this stuff as a white guy is tenuous. For now, the misstatements and casual race/class/gender blind spots are obvious enough for me to call out, but it's a much more complex challenge than I can comprehend or more importantly, communicate.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! One day we'll get to a place where people can see how backward and boring it is to think that only one group should influence public investment that affects everyone. Street life is much too rich to boil down to some regulations defined by a privileged group of experts. More to do!

  2. Yes, keep it up, Adonia! You do great work, and you are building such an amazing community that can and will challenge these dominant playground dynamics. Though it might not feel like it sometimes, you are not alone!

    1. You know how much I value your perspective, so thank you, friend!

  3. Adonia, you are doing good work, so keep going. One of the things that frustrated me about the NBSummit was that in the end, when we broke into smaller groups, there were very few white men who self-selected to be in the group that was exploring diversity in biking. They were in the other groups where people were talking about stuff that equates to money and power. And these are other bike advocates! How do we get that money and power to stay in the room and collaborate? Somehow, we have to convince them that it's worth their while. Most of them won't do it because "it's the right thing to do". They'll do it when they see the economic benefit of doing so. How we get to that point, I'm not sure. I'm still beating my head against that wall out here in the suburbs of DC.

    1. As a white woman here are my guesses why the white men skipped the diversity sessions.
      (a) Diversity and social justice aren't real issues in bicycling. The real issues are getting laws and bike infrastructure built!
      (b) I can't go in there. I'm not an expert on diversity. I might say something that offends them. You know how sensitive they are!

      So you're right that this an issue, at least as long as bike advocacy groups are lead by people who think this way. The good news is that I see more and more people of color and women involved than ever before. And we're bringing a different perspective that's very different than the MAMILs who have been the voice of bicycle advocacy.

      In California, the major bike coalitions have women at the helm and in many I see more focused efforts in lower-income neighborhoods and under-served populations in places like Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego than ever before. As for the bike *industry*, we have a lot more work to do there.

  4. Well said. I hope you keep working for advocacy and blogging about it.

    I've ended up being a minority voice of sorts in the advocacy world - a white woman living in an integrated neighborhood surrounded by majority black neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago. I ride with friends who live in many of those neighborhoods. I've gotten a wheels-on-the-street perspective of why bike infrastructure is desperately needed on many south side streets. I've argued for equity during public outreach periods about bike infrastructure and made contacts to follow up on those plans.

    Little by little we're getting that infrastructure. I'm going to keep fighting for the key pieces that are still missing. We need more people of color and more women in advocacy.

    I'm sorry that we didn't get to meet during the Bike Summit. Your blog has been an inspiration.

  5. Regarding bicycles and ethnic background. This is admittedly a small sample, but last year when I was visiting the northern suburbs of Chicago, it seemed like the majority of cyclists I spotted were young African-American men, none of whom looked very prosperous. Here in the Southern California suburb where I live, we do have a more eclectic assortment of cyclists--Latino workers at the commercial nursery under the power lines, Mormons in pairs (white shirts and black trousers, of course), kids going to the nearby school, one guy who has that "left over from the 60s hippie look", and lots more.