I Used to be a Bike Advocate

By Dana DeMaster

Dana DeMaster is a white, cis-gendered female who is married with two children. She lives in the West End neighborhood of Saint Paul. When she’s not keeping up with Quinn and Daphne, she does research and program evaluation in human services, rabble rouses for better bike infrastructure, and sews useful things. Her writing can also be found on Streets.mn.

I used to be a bike advocate. By that I mean I was a person who took leadership positions in advocacy organizations and spent more than 20 hours a week attending meetings, preparing for meetings, researching local projects, and all the things that advocates do. Then, I stopped. I stopped for a lot of reasons, including family responsibilities, a second pregnancy, and increasing responsibilities at my full-time day job. I also stopped because sexism in the bike advocacy community wore me out. When I tried to explain my experiences and why I was leaving to my cis-male friends and colleagues, I found I could not articulate the problem. They wanted specific examples of sexist things people had said or done, but while there were a few comments, I struggled with anything specific. All I had was a pervasive sense of ultimately being unwelcome. So, I stopped talking about it.

Recently, I read a blog post by Adonia Lugo called, “Unsolicited Advice for Vision Zero.” She articulates so clearly what I have struggled with for so long. Suddenly my experiences, that vague sense of unwelcome, made sense! Some time I would like to return to formal bike advocacy, but when I do, I do not want to have the same experience that I did last time. This is my attempt to put shape to my experience being a cis-gendered female and a bike advocate.

I live in a small town and bike advocacy is an even smaller community within that town. As Lugo says,

“I have a lot of friends in the bike movement,…which made me think I needed to ignore my personal experience of hurt and exclusion.”

This is difficult work precisely because it is my friends and colleagues and organizations that I respect and I think do good work that are hurtful and exclusionary. If you see yourself in this, please do not feel bad and do not apologize. Please do not get angry at me; get angry, yes, but at sexism. My intent is not to point fingers or blame you for being bad people or bad organizations. You just can’t see it. Like a stop light that cannot sense a bicyclist, you can’t see my experience of your behavior. Rather than being apologetic or angry at me, look at yourself and your organization. Do something different.

I am intentionally publishing this through Grease Rag and Wrench rather than other blogs I sometimes write for. It may seem like preaching to the choir, but Grease Rag is a safe space. It is a space where cis-men are welcome as allies and listeners. I do not need a bunch of comments from people defending themselves. I need you to listen. Social media offers such a limited discourse. I would love to have a dialogue, but let’s do it over a beer and a bike ride. Share this widely, but respect that this is coming from a women-trans-femme-centered (WTF) space and just listen. Do not try to justify things – trust me that I am your friend and we advocate for the same cause. I want things to be better and I know you do, too.

“We were expected to use our non-threatening otherness to promote a vision of the world that was determined before we came in the door.” – Adonia Lugo

Hallelujah! I read that sentence and a light went on. That sense of unwelcome made sense. I have attended so many meetings where the agenda was to set a vision or priorities for an organization, but my role was clearly laid out. The vision was decided and my role was to give my womanness, my “non-threatening otherness,” stamp of approval. The question was how to get me to support it without being able to shape it. Terms like “safety,” “bike-friendly,” or “leadership,” are all based in values and experiences. While we may share some ideas of what these things mean, my experience as a woman and as a mother shapes my values in ways that your experience does not. I was asked to change my experience of these things to fit your definition rather than to shape the organization’s definition of these things.

So many times I heard a woman start speaking only to be talked over by the men in the room. Then another woman tries to speak, only to have more male voices talk over her, too. Soon, the women don’t speak. I have seen discussions where women spoke only to not find our words in the meeting notes. It is easy to say that it is simply individual personalities – that person dominates discussions or the note taker couldn’t get everything that was said. It’s happened too many times to just write it off as individuals. It may not be purposeful, but still women’s voices end up silenced.

It is offends further when you want to use my “non-threatening otherness” to promote that vision. I have been explicitly asked to use my identity as a woman to manipulate a public hearing or to get buy-in from a larger group of women. I am fully aware of the paradigm that is woman and the emotional power behind society’s narrative about mothers. But, it is my choice to use that how I will use it (and use it I do because it is used against bicyclists). The problem is when I am told how to use it and I did not get a say in the vision I am supposed to support.

“They want my exotic face but not the brain shaped by living in this skin.” – Adonia Lugo

I may not have an exotic face, but you want my female face and my mother face. Which, brings us to tokenism. “We have our chick, now we need a black dude and a Hmong.” Yep, I actually heard that sentence in a meeting. In front of me, the “chick.” Let’s unpack that a bit. First, the “we” is clearly defined. We refers to the white men setting the agenda – they are the organization, the chick, black dude, and the Hmong are just ways to advance an agenda. Our exotic faces are just a means to an end.

Tokenism is checking off the boxes to give a patina of diverse thought. Ultimately, it is still an organization defined by white men. I am there to check off the “women” box, but still do not get to define the organization. There are lots of problems with this. First, I am a woman – not woman. I am also white, in a partnered heterosexual relationship, middle class, left-handed, vegetarian, ride a single speed with studded tires in the winter, and enjoy knitting. I have my own blinders. I am being asked to speak for all women and, while I have a better sense of what being a woman is about than you, I can’t really speak for all of us.

Gladiator movie gif, Second, in tokenism there can only be one. If you are the token female it is tempting to push other women out, rather than changing the organization to make room for others. I have done this. If I did this to you, I am sorry. I should have been making room for others, but I defended my position instead.

“Bike advocates tend to see themselves as an embattled minority, to the point of leaving little room for diversity of experience and opinions within their own ranks.” – Adonia Lugo

I hate to break it to you, but you are not an embattled minority. Yes, bicyclists get treated poorly on the road and laws and infrastructure were not built for us. As bicyclists, we are often invisible on the road – both literally and figuratively in the way roads are designed. I would hope that the experiences not being seen and being sidelined would make people more aware of how sexism, racism, heterosexism, and all the –isms make many of us invisible all the time. Get off your bike and you are a white, cis-male and get all the privilege that comes with that.* Whether I am on my bike or not, I am a woman.

Lugo asks us “to consider what silencing effects a combative tone might have on participation by oppressed groups,” adding “I’ve seen a worrying tendency among bike advocates to dismiss those who disagree with them as NIMBYs, flattening opposition regardless of whether it comes from community members who lived through the ravages of urban renewal or privileged homeowners concerned about an influx of colored bodies into their suburban sanctum. Vision Zero strategists should show their respect for meaningful inclusion through welcoming intersectional perspectives.”

Understand that women who show up in bike advocacy communities have run a gauntlet of sexism to get there. The sexism of the bike industry and community is well documented:

  • http://surlybikes.com/blog/post/our_own_two_wheels
  • http://321polo.net/2015/12/tacocat-video-response/
  • http://femmagazine.com/2015/11/17/always-use-the-buddy-system-or-sexism-in-the-bike-industry/
  • https://girlsbikingtowork.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/sexism-in-the-bike-lanes/
  • http://takingthelane.com/2012/09/17/is-this-thing-sexist-introducing-the-bike-test/
  • http://www.bicycling.com/culture/people/how-sexism-hurting-cycling

Every WTF person I know has tons of individual stories of ways we have been treated poorly by men in the bike community. From simple condescension at the bike shop; to being groped by a drunk in an alley at a bike event; to messages about how we are not as strong, fast, or able; to being called bitch when we refused someone’s advances or had an opinion at a meeting (yup, that happened to me). I personally have had a salesperson put his arm around me to direct me to the products I was looking for, had a mechanic stroke my hand while we were talking, had my hair smelled (I know), and have been told that he wished “more women came to this event because bike girls are sexy.” We get off our bikes and get cat-called, lose out on promotions, lose jobs due to pregnancy, and deal with abusive partners.

My point is not to say that the women who make it through all this and still show up are better, smarter, tougher, or anything. The point is that a lot of voices were silenced along the way. There are a lot of women who left the community or stopped biking altogether before their voices were present to define the agenda.
When you identify as an embattled minority because of being a bicyclist, it first makes me want to laugh and secondly, tells me you are not listening. Let those experiences give you empathy and some insight into what it is like to be female or brown-skinned or disabled or poor rather than be used as a badge of honor.

Lugo writes of the “silencing effects of a combative tone” and “flattening opposition.” I have witnessed this combative tone – us against them, bikes against the world (or at least Public Works) – many times. I have also seen its chilling effect on discourse and new perspectives. The message is clearly that if you are not with us 100 percent, defined by this perceived embattled minority status, then your perspective is wrong. A woman in that meeting, who has faced violence at the hands of combative men, is often silenced. It belittles our experience of invisibility.

“One day, instead of cramming our collective foot into a boot ordered for somebody else, it’d be great if a bigger group could lead the design process and end up with something we can really wiggle our toes in.” – Adonia Lugo

What can you do? Look around. If there are a bunch of white, cis-gendered males setting your agenda, take a step back and pause. Who is missing from the table? How might your agenda be more complete if there were other people at the table? Pause and find those voices and include them. Your organization will be better for it.

But, be careful not to tokenize. One woman does not represent the experience of women. Do not stop because you have a few other voices and then expect us to support your agenda.

Don’t interrupt. Not only is it rude on an individual level, but pay attention to whose voices you are interrupting. Stop and give someone else some space. If you are facilitating a meeting and see men interrupting women, stop them. There are polite ways to do this. “Steven, I believe Keisha was speaking. Let’s hear what she has to say and then we can hear you.”

Reflect on your own behavior and seek to understand. The tricky bit is that most men are not out to be sexist. They did not walk into a meeting and plan how to silence women. Your privilege is hiding from you. Talk to us. Talk to lots of people different than you. It’s not our job to educate you, but we can share our experiences.

Ask what is keeping women and brown-skinned people out of your organization. When I suggested meeting at a different time and place because only people with first shift jobs and no family responsibilities could attend, I was told that “we can’t let some special interests define the time when it works well for everybody else” and “when my wife was in labor I was working on bike stuff, can’t you just skip nursing your baby for one night?” It may be as simple as varying meeting times and places to be welcoming to people working different hours or with competing responsibilities.

Change your perspective from ownership of the organization or platform to that of a facilitator of a process. Everyone gets ownership.

Remember – I am your friend. We advocate for the same cause. That cause will only be stronger when we are all at the table. Sexism makes me tired and I would rather have energy to give.

* An aside about privilege. Here is my best example of how you benefit from sexism that you do not see. As a young woman I had a job where I was told that women were not allowed to go to trainings or conferences because we might get pregnant and quit. The organization would lose their investment. I did not get to go to a conference because I was a 22 year old female. That is straight-up sexism, right? We all can agree that is sexist. However, a young man did get to go to that conference. He got the training, information, and networking that going to conferences brings. Who knows what connections he made that helped him along. No one told him that he was going because I was not allowed to. If anyone told him, he probably would have been disgusted with that unwritten policy. He did not directly participate in the gross sexism, but he still benefited.