I am a straight, white, lower middle class male, and as such, tend to tick “majority” boxes in the grand diversity scheme of things. Add to this the fact that I am married, mortgaged and have two children and a dog and really the whole package is not one which gets considered, broadly, as a minority. So it’s been a bit of a new sensation to be one of Them. You know who They are, of course. They aren’t like the rest of us.
My specific minority is not, it must be said, terribly put upon, although the discrimination can lead to abuse, injury and occasionally even death. The minority group to which I belong is Cyclists.
Have you stopped laughing yet? Good. Please bear with me, even though I’m not blogging about teaching today, except in a very roundabout way. Come back in a while for a bit more teaching stuff.
No, you see, the reason I’m writing this is because when I am out on the road I get a taste (and it is only a taste) of what it is like to be a member of a minority. When you ride a bicycle as an adult on the roads in the UK, you are neither motorist nor pedestrian, the two majority road user groups, and as such there are are consequences.
It’s not so much the outright abuse which bothers me. To date I’ve only ever had a couple of serious cases of verbal abuse, including one instance of such amazingly stupid logic that one middle aged gentleman in a tacky white range rover who, despite being in such a hurry that he absolutely had to shove past me at a junction and yell at me for being in the way in the process, could somehow find the time to circle back and pass me again while shouting abusive comments. This treatment from an angry, aggressive, shouting man in charge of a ton or two of high powered steel was pretty frightening, but as with any case of such abuse it’s your word against theirs, and you are already facing an unsympathetic legal system which favours the majority.
More manageable, and more amusing, are the shouted comments along the lines of “pay your road tax”. For the record, fact fans, road tax hasn’t existed in this country since the 1930s, and what is often called road tax is actually vehicle excise duty. This is based on the emissions produced by your car, so please do charge me vehicle excise duty on my bike, because it won’t cost me a penny. Road maintenance and the rest are paid for out of the general pot of tax money, to which I contribute my fair share. Alas facts and debate on issues like these are really not possible at high speeds, so the matter goes unresolved.
But all this, despite leaving you a bit shaken and scared, is survivable. Much harder, I find, is the general low grade prejudices. Comments like “They always jump red lights” “They always ride across zebra crossings” “They always pull out in front of you” are frustrating. Find the comments under any article on urban cycling in a national newspaper website and you will very quickly find some frothing loon raging about the lawlessness with which cyclists behave. I am pretty good at not running red lights. I would be lying if I said I had never done it, but certainly as an adult cyclist I am generally law abiding. So it annoys me when you get lumped in as part of some lawless mass of thugs balanced on two wheels, based on preconceptions, bias, and one or two bad examples. In fact, it’s pretty offensive that my behaviour be equated with that of a loutish 17 year old running a red light at night with no lights on the wrong side of the road.
One of the offshoots of being discriminated against and treated unfairly in the public eye is that you find yourself becoming, for want of a better word, radicalised. You start to engage with cycling action groups, go on mass bike rides at peak times (and enjoy it), you start to make equally unfair sweeping statements about motorists being selfish pinheads with no common sense, no road sense and no sense of humanity. This is not the behaviour of a calm and rational person, this is the behaviour of the radical, the fanatic, the fundamentalist. From here, it really isn’t much a jump from riding assertively to riding dangerously and aggressively, or, in the heat of the moment, planting a kick on the departing rear end of a car.
So here’s the thing (and thanks for bearing with me). Go back through that and replace any reference to cycling and cyclists with analogous references to religion. Or gender. Or race. Or sexual orientation, indeed any of the 9 protected characteristics. Read it through to the end and it gives you a feeling for what it must be like when it’s not a lifestyle choice which is being discriminated against, but some central part of who you are. I wonder how much starker and more intense are those emotions, how much more savage the final radicalisation might become. I make no claims to understand what it must feel like to be on the wrong end of bias based on these deeper things, and I can only imagine: I can always set my bike aside, take off my cycling clothes, have a shower and wash it all away, but you can’t just set aside your religion, or take off your skin. But I have a little insight, which I hope is a start.