Friday, April 23, 2010

speaking on behalf of Bicyclists…

When I brought up the Backbone Bicycle Network at my regular Bicycle Kitchen shift last week, the other volunteers looked at me blankly and asked, "What's that?" Their response reminded me of the astounding diversity—specifically within our views towards bicycling and bicycling activism—in our community. I’d forgotten the scores of bicyclists I knew who could care less about what I, or anyone else wrote, on a blog, or in a plan. I remembered how potentially false and damaging, or possibly impossible, it was for people to speak on behalf of Bicyclists (capital B).

I was particularly bothered by this when I first heard some advocates claim that, “cyclists are considered to be the 'indicator species' of a healthy community.” Although I agree that bicyclists are important to healthy functioning communities, a wealth of places feature bicycling as an accepted, normal and common mode of transportation, while simultaneously being riddled with other enormous problems. A good example of this is the City of Portland. While it is touted as a city that has successfully parlayed a superior bicycling infrastructure into a dominant travel mode, in 2006, the Washington Post labeled it the whitest city in America, and in 2008, the New York Times cited the ongoing racial homogenization.

Besides the arrogance and self-righteousness that pervades the indicator species claim, the idea, itself, isn’t the primary issue. I am more concerned with the presumptuousness in the way the idea is presented as “by the community for the community.” People have taken the liberty to claim that the community, that I am part of, endorses this fallacy.

This practice occurs commonly within minority groups. A member has an idea; it circulates, and sooner or later, someone claims that the idea encompasses the community’s interest. The motivation to claim representation of others is simple. Homogeneity has an allure of power, a seemingly predictable and ordered uniformity. It can appear to be a source of strength, especially when a small group cites the support of a larger one to pad the numbers of their cause. On the flip side, outsiders, members of the majority, will sometimes identify a single minority member’s idea or behavior as indicative of a community’s stance. Then they’ll use that assumed stance to critique and/or persecute the minority group.

When I initially became active in the Los Angeles bicycling community, I found the diversity within the community electrifying—not just the mix of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, age, class, etc., (which is all there), but the varying relationships bicyclists had to bicycling. Some were captive riders, who came to bicycling as a purely economic decision because they couldn’t afford a car, or the time involved with transit. Others had the luxury to choose to ride. The bicycle mechanics I worked with varied to even more extremes. Some of them were car free and purposely living at sustainable subsistence levels. Others were massive consumers and incredibly fanatical cyclists, who rode everywhere for purpose or pleasure (or both!).

As bicycling becomes evermore popular, more nuanced perspectives emerge. I am still learning to deal with one in particular: occasionally, when I meet new people, a person will light up when they find out that I am an avid rider. After they identify themselves as a bicyclist, they’ll say, “Hey, call me next time you go for a ride.” I am at a loss for a reply because almost all my trips are made for transportation purposes—riding to work, meeting friends, or running errands. Is this person suggesting that I call them every morning before my commute?

This diversity has always inspired me because it suggests that bicycling can enter into a multitude of lives for a plethora of reasons, from economic to whimsical. But there is a more instructive lesson to be drawn regarding our community’s organizing.

Our diversity necessitates an open dialogue that encourages people to share their thoughts and insights. We should not make blanket statements on behalf of all bicyclists, especially in situations where we haven’t actually reached out to the whole community, or even worse, where we’ve subsequently dismissed or loudly drowned out divergent points of view. We have to work extra hard together to find the common ground within the myriad perspectives.

If we neglect to work through the complexities of our own group and brazenly promote an agenda as monolithic, we allow others to consider us monolithically. And that is truly detrimental because then we encourage people to imagine themselves apart from us, rather than a part of us.

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