The Racist Highway

Of all the metaphors I have heard attempting to describe institutional racism, there is one that has always stuck out in my mind: Racism is like riding a bike on the highway. It is not necessarily that the cars are out to get you, or actively trying to push you off the road. It is simply that the infrastructure was not designed for bicycles. It was designed for cars- and just by using the roads as they were meant to be used, the cars impose on the bike riders and make it very difficult (not to mention incredibly stressful) to arrive safely at their destination.

The main idea here is that not all whites or other majorities are pro-actively racist. Very few actually are, and these are the ones that are easiest to notice and dismiss. It is the mass majority driving unassumingly down the road of privilege that is most dangerous. They do not feel racist, and often they even embrace diversity, but just by being born with the keys in their hand and taking their right of way they perpetuate racial and ethnic inequality.

The solution requires an active donation of privilege. Driving slower (maybe even below the speed limit) or waiting before passing a bike to make sure there is enough room on the shoulder are merely modest beginnings. Maybe you could drive a little less and make use of other modes of transportation. Better yet- give your car to your poorest neighbor and get a bicycle. See what the ride is like from the other side.

This is what Christine Labuski is getting at with the “gender studies perspective” she asks her classes to take and her “Universal Precautions” (UPs) approach. Developing sincere empathy for another person or group’s experience/condition, and assuming that everyone you talk to could be a member of that group, is crucial. While some conditions (like sexual orientation or infection) are not immediately obvious, race nearly always is. As Shankar Vedantam argues in “The Hidden Brain”, we must be more aware of the subconscious judgments we associate with race, all the stereotypes and preconditioned behaviors instilled in us through constant societal cues. We must work even harder to combat our racist “autopilot” reactions by treating everyone with a level of open and equal respect.

Our schools, just like our roads and our society, are designed for the majority. It is not that you cannot make it through the educational system as a minority, but it is often much more difficult to do so. The odds are stacked against you. While children from racial majorities coast through with the support and the resources they need to succeed always readily accessible- minorities can often struggle. The minority student has to significantly outperform his or her majority competition even to be considered. I have friends who have changed their ethnic sounding names and noticed significantly higher rates of acceptance for interviews and applications. The difficulties of cultural and linguistic fluency compound these challenges, especially for immigrant children.

At the end of the day it will be on us as educators to design our classrooms as havens of equal opportunity. But in order to do so we must proactively seek to see through our own prejudices and preconceptions as well as those imposed upon us by the institutions we are a part of. We must proactively strive to provide any curious, motivated student an opportunity to thrive and to learn. It will ultimately be our duty as teachers to make sure the road to educational success is designed for all types of students, regardless of race or background or the vehicle they use to get to class. (I leave it to the civil engineer majority of our class to make sure our roads are more bike friendly for those who wish to commute by bike).



10 thoughts on “The Racist Highway

  1. Hi Zach, I like the metaphor. I also like how you brought up the topic of names, specifically “ethnic sounding names.” I’ve heard the term “ethnic” thrown around quite often – ethnic names, ethnic looking, ethnic food, etc. I’d like to ask…just exactly which names are not ethnic sounding? Just who exactly is not ethnic looking? I’m not blaming you in any way. The point is that the way we use language has much to do with our perception of the world. Words like “ethnic” used in the context of describing someone or something creates a boundary between “us” and “them.” I think as instructors we need to deconstruct these invisible barriers, and be deliberate and conscious in how we teach and speak. Like you said, “the difficulties of cultural and linguistic fluency compound these challenges,” and indeed “we must proactively seek to see through our own prejudices and preconceptions.” Thanks for the great post!


    1. Grace- I agree we should be aware of word choice. “Ethnic” has several definitions but the one I intended was “characteristic of or belonging to a non-Western cultural tradition”. It is certainly relative and I believe the word can also be used to denote any origin by birth or descent that differs from a present residence or nationality. The word can certainly have negative connotations but its divisive quality actually reinforces my point. Our reaction to and perception of this “ethnic” diversity is what is important, and some of my friends have been forced to change their names because of the deeply engrained prejudices our culture has about race.


  2. This discussion of “ethnic” names is interesting. I will admit that I tend to call on some students by name more than others. Sometimes I know your name because your a great student and ask interesting questions, or maybe I know your name because you cause me grief or worry. But I am less likely to call on students who have names I am not comfortable saying. I want to say people’s names correctly but I don’t put in as much effort to learn how to say everyone’s name and to try and call on everyone in my class. I also have friends who have changed their names to more English versions, but I really enjoy being able to correctly say and use their real name. This is something I will change to make my class more inclusive.


  3. Thank you for the post! I really enjoyed reading it! Do you remember where you first heard the metaphor? You bring up so many valuable points in this post and one that really resonated with me is the idea that when we are in the majority, we often do not see what it is like from the perspective of someone who does not share that privilege. When this is the case, I think it is important that we active role, take ourselves off autopilot, listen, and learn from those around us.


  4. Hi Zach, great post! Being both a driver and a bicycler, I really resonate with your metaphor. It is always easier to see what is beneficial or convenient to oneself, than to realize what are the other people’s experience and preference. An inclusive culture that highlights embracing diversity can help people to recognize each other and be more considerate of each other. In term of naming, I also have changed my name informally because it is difficult to have people pronounce it, and I was also having difficulty in quickly responding to people who tried to spell my first name. So now I always use Julin or Julie which is close to the pronunciation of my original name. I liked it either way whether people were trying to correct their announcement every time or people call me Julin because I understand an unfamiliar name is not easy for either side.


  5. This post really made me think about “the american dream” and how this idea is really meant for those that are born riding in cars. I also agree that this is one of the best metaphors for institutional racism I have heard. Far too often people born with privilege try to directly compare their own success to others without considering the vehicle that they were born in. Or not recognizing the heroic work that it can take for someone born on a bicycle to survive, let alone succeed, on a highway packed with cars.

    Your statement in the third paragraph, “the solution requires an active donation of privilege” is so true and I really like the idea of donating privilege. I think that every person has different privilege and disadvantage. When people are exposed to their own privilege, it can be difficult and create feelings of guilt. Looking at this as an opportunity to donate that privilege is a great way to shift that perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is so excellent. Thank you, Zach. Yesterday I talked to my students about cultural appropriation, especially in terms of race, ethnicity and religion. It was a very heated conversation, and I wish I’d had this metaphor handy to help facilitate the conversation.

    I think an important thing to note is that this is also an ongoing conversation — even if we design our classrooms to be spaces of inclusion and empathy, issues can (and probably will) always arise with xenophobia. Times will also inevitably change. Twenty years from now the conversation on these topics may or may not be more enlightened, but we need to prepare ourselves to keep an open mind for whatever is to come.

    I also want to point out that this metaphor brings up a form of xenophobia that is very relevant at Virginia Tech, which is ableism. In this case, talk of “designing roads” (and even classrooms) is not a metaphor. Students with physical disabilities can literally have a hard time getting through college — and this has been a concern as the Master Plan for the school’s future brings issues of physical accessibility to light. The way that we think about different bodies, minds and perspectives needs to be addresses at the most concrete level, as well as in contexts where it’s less immediately visible.


    1. Whoops, my apologies. The above comment is from me (Emma). I need to remember to log out of the ASPECT Conference WordPress before making these comments!


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