The Affordability Of White Privilege

It’s Black History Month here in the UK and I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy so maybe I’m a little more tuned in at the moment. But I cannot get over the idea of the affordability of white privilege.

Let me explain. I was on a London bus recently when I witnessed the following scene play out: A white man got on. He didn’t have fare for his journey and the bus driver asked him to get off. The man then became indignant. What’s the big deal? He’s not going that far. How much is this bus ride really worth?

In the real world, the bus ride is worth £1.50. A single fare on a London bus will take you as near or as far as you want to go — two stops or twelve—it doesn’t matter. Unlike people who might humble themselves in such a moment, this man shouted about how useless the whole transportation system was for failing to accept cash. Never mind the fact that he didn’t have the cash or correct change to pay if it did or the fact that London buses have not accepted cash since 2014.

No matter. The bus driver asked him to use an alternate payment method, like an Oystercard but this man was having none of it. It was as if this was his personal bus and he was offended that his driver deemed to ask for money. I was both impressed by and simultaneously in awe of his commitment to rebuffing the generally accepted notion that one tends to catch more flies with honey. Here he was, drowning in vinegar.

As he rudely, nay, adamantly insisted on riding this bus without paying, the driver faced a hard choice: either close the doors and let him ride for free or do something about it. At 8:00 in the morning with aggravated commuters now shifting their weight and shuffling newspapers, keen to continue their journeys to their respective places of employment, he chose the former. This terrible, terrible man would indeed ride the bus for free. Torn from my book, I suddenly found myself inexplicably seething and unable to concentrate until the root of my anger surfaced.

Because not only would this man ride the bus for free but he’d go on to cause a scene, on a crowded bus full of commuters who were gladly paying their share. The TfL didn’t deserve his money, he said. We were idiots for paying. You got the distinct feeling that this wasn’t the first time he’d pulled this act. So he was above the TfL, above its rules and regulations and thus above the law. As a black man, I do not have this luxury and I know because the source of my anger stemmed from how different my reaction had been in the not-too-distant past when I found myself in a similar situation, albeit unwittingly.

A few months back, I boarded a bus, tapped my Oystercard and continued walking back to find a seat. “Excuse me.” Someone tapped my arm and gestured to the front of the bus to let me know the bus driver was summoning me. I returned and the bus driver informed me that I hadn’t paid for the journey, impossible I thought, I‘d just done it online. I tapped my card again only to realise it hadn’t actually updated after all. I apologised and said I would sort it out when I got to the the train station but he didn’t care. “Either pay your fare or get off the bus.”

I immediately understood in the tone of his voice that his suggestion wasn’t up for debate. There would be no scene playing out where I verbally abused him and then got to ride the bus for free. And so I got off the bus and walked to the train station where I did indeed top up my card. But during my walk to the station, I contemplated two other choices. I thought about how I could have caused a scene or begged the driver to let me ride.

Had I caused a scene, my mind’s eye can now easily see how such a simple situation could have escalated to involve the police, which likely wouldn’t work out well for me. Had I begged and gained access, I’d have spent the entire bus ride thinking about what the other riders thought of me: A walking stereotype who can clearly afford a pair of Air Maxes but can’t afford bus fare.

Ultimately, I chose neither because as a black person, breaking the rules is not an option. Now, I’m not saying I’ve never gotten on a bus and seen the opposite happen. Someone doesn’t have the fare and a bus driver waves them along despite it, I’m sure it happens a lot.

But what you’ll never see is a black person get on a bus without bus fare, cause a scene and then actually get to go anywhere without a serious problem unfolding first.

We can’t afford it.