One of the most common forms of privilege is the privilege of not having to think about or see something. The privilege of being able-bodied is often not having to think about how you’ll get somewhere. The privilege of being male is not having to think about whether your gender will affect how people treat you or respect you. I think we all know this, but it was driven home to me in a conversation I was having yesterday. I was talking to a friend about public transit, and he said that he didn’t like to see the crazies on public transit, or the moms trying to juggle a bunch of kids, or all the other sad things that you often see on a bus. I mentioned that those things don’t go away if you don’t see them, and his response was that he still didn’t want to see it.
There’s a huge amount of privilege in being able to say that and then hop in your car and drive yourself to work so you don’t have to notice things like poverty, mental illness, or disease around you. It is the amazing privilege of being able to choose your spaces, and put yourself only in situations that you feel comfortable in. I have always thought that space and the ability to own a space is one of the most important forms of power. Space is sacred for many people: even acting in certain ways in particular spaces is considered dirty, wrong, or sacrilegious. Someone who is “in your space” immediately feels threatened. And for those people who feel they can’t take up space, they often feel invisible or useless.
Being able to create and choose spaces is a huge privilege. These spaces allow you to choose what to see and what not to see. You can choose where to erect walls, who to let in. And often these spaces are created by how we get from place to place. Now more than ever we have all kinds of people mixed together in cities. But if you don’t have to take public transit, you don’t have to interact with those people one neighborhood over or see anyone from the district that isn’t so healthy. You can keep to those places that bar who can enter based on money or on status or on appearance. This is why I believe that everyone should try taking public transit for a while. No, there’s no way to enforce this and no particular real reason to, but it would be an intensely interesting social experiment to see what happens if you require an entire city to take public transit for a week or a month. See how people’s perspectives of each other and of their city change when they start to come into contact with all sorts of people.
As someone who used to take public transit regularly and now doesn’t, I know that I have become much more sensitive to difference. After spending 3 years at a heavily white, upper middle class, private college, I became far more aware of race and of difference, more afraid of it, more worried about it. I had never had that hyper-sensitivity, that innate sense that I would treat someone differently because they are different. I’m still not worried about taking public transit or being around people who are different from myself, but I have to be more conscious of it. I have to say to myself that this isn’t my space, it’s space for everyone and everyone deserves it. I wish others had the experience of simply being in space with people of difference. It changes your perspective. It changes what you view as normal. It changes how you see the world. I wish that there were more obligatory spaces that belonged to everyone. I see how privileged my friends are to NOT see the spaces where everyone mixes together and how afraid they are of those spaces and that makes me so sad. Those spaces are to be celebrated.