Understanding Privilege in a Traffic Jam

There is a psychological bias we all have that makes us notice the cars that pass us, in a traffic jam, but not notice when we pass a car. When you are in a traffic jam, it seems like that blue Toyota keeps passing you; the only way that could happen is that you keep passing them, too.

We notice people who get ahead. That awareness can cause resentfulness, especially if the advantage does not seem deserved. Getting ahead in traffic is a mundane problem–a tiny advantage. Yet people do get exercised about it, even to the point of road rage.

The first camp–let us name it after the bumper sticker that says practice random acts of kindness–viewed early mergers as virtuous souls doing the right thing and late mergers as arrogant louts. “Unfortunately, people suck,” wrote one Random Acts poster. “They’ll try whatever they can to pass you, to better enjoy the traffic jam from a few car lengths ahead of you. . . . People who feel that they have more pressing concerns and are generally more important than you will keep going, and some weak-spined schmuck will let them in further down, slowing your progress even more. This sucks; I’m afraid it’s the way of the world.” [Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic]


There are highway systems that throttle the number of cars that could come onto a given highway when traffic is heavy. There is a red light at the ramp. Drivers have to wait until they get a green to enter the highway. In the real world, this is a first-come, first-serve basis.

Suppose that only late-model cars (3 years or newer) are allowed to go on that highway, and older cars remain behind the red light until traffic on the highway abates, or until all the late-model cars have gone through. This is not so farfetched. There are VIP services at airports that let people avoid lines and eat better food, for a fee.

This imaginary new-car system privileges wealthier people, who own newer cars. Those older car owners would have longer commute times, some would lose their jobs, because they are late for work. The older car owners would need to decide whether to prioritize buying a new car to get them in the fast lane. Buying a new car may shrink the budget for housing. They would live in less expensive places with not-as-good schools.

The children of the old car owners would see their parents an hour or two less, every day. The children in families who didn’t have a late-model car would grow up with less parental time, or a worse education, or both.

If the state or municipality that set up the new car on-ramp system decided to stop prioritizing those new cars, it would disrupt the new car owners. Some would think it is unfair. The new car owner could rightfully say that they work hard to be able to buy a new car every three years. Some might feel they deserve to have the fast lane (their cars are better and less likely to break down, their jobs are important, their time is paid at a higher rate….).

See how creating equality may be creating resentment? How would the old-car owner who just bought their first new car feel?

The solution is to stop fast-tracking people with more money, but when the fast-track is taken away, it feels like a loss. Equal feels like less. That doesn’t seem fair. The more sustainable solution is to build more roads or plan our cities more efficiently, so workers can get to work on time. If cars are not competing for open lane spaces, everyone can get to work.

Privilege 101:

Privilege is not just your place in line. People with more privilege than others have more opportunities for the things that make them healthy and wealthy, such as good food, medical care, physical safety in public places, or access to education.

Privileged people have fewer experiences of needing to hide who they are, or change who they are, in order to find work or safety. Privileged people are comfortable in public spaces; the police will help them if there is trouble. Privileged people have support — financial and medical — when times are tough.

Watch this video. It is a primer on privilege for Americans. Think about how you would feel about doing this exercise. Think about how friends who did this felt when they found their friends behind or in front of them. (link)

Here are the questions. There are 36 of them. This isn’t a study, it’s a video. The questions are a little random. There is no score key.

Where do you think “very privileged” ends and “darn privileged” begins? Where does “not so privileged for an American” end and “you are not privileged for an American” begins?

Their Questions:

  • If your parents worked nights and weekends to support your family, take one step back.
  • If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward.
  • If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward.
  • If you have ever been diagnosed as having a physical or mental illness/disability, take one step back.
  • If the primary language spoken in your household growing up was not English, take one step back.
  • If you came from a supportive family environment take one step forward.
  • If you have ever tried to change your speech or mannerisms to gain credibility, take one step back.
  • If you can go anywhere in the country, and easily find the kinds of hair products you need and/or cosmetics that match your skin color, take one step forward.
  • If you were embarrassed about your clothes or house while growing up, take one step back.
  • If you can make mistakes and not have people attribute your behavior to flaws in your racial/gender group, take one step forward.
  • If you can legally marry the person you love, regardless of where you live, take one step forward.
  • If you were born in the United States, take one step forward.
  • If you or your parents have ever gone through a divorce, take one step back.
  • If you felt like you had adequate access to healthy food growing up, take one step forward
  • If you are reasonably sure you would be hired for a job based on your ability and qualifications, take one step forward.
  • If you would never think twice about calling the police when trouble occurs, take one step forward.
  • If you can see a doctor whenever you feel the need, take one step forward.
  • If you feel comfortable being emotionally expressive/open, take one step forward.
  • If you have ever been the only person of your race/gender/socio-economic status/ sexual orientation in a classroom or workplace setting, please take one step back.
  • If you took out loans for your education take one step backward.
  • If you get time off for your religious holidays, take one step forward.
  • If you had a job during your high school and college years, take one step back.
  • If you feel comfortable walking home alone at night, take one step forward.
  • If you have ever traveled outside the United States, take one step forward.
  • If you have ever felt like there was NOT adequate or accurate representation of your racial group, sexual orientation group, gender group, and/or disability group in the media, take one step back.
  • If you feel confident that your parents would be able to financially help/support you
  • If you were going through a financial hardship, take one step forward.
  • If you have ever been bullied or made fun of based on something that you can’t change, take one step back.
  • If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward.
  • If you studied the culture or the history of your ancestors in elementary school take one step forward.
  • If your parents or guardians attended college, take one step forward.
  • If you ever went on a family vacation, take one step forward.
  • If you can buy new clothes or go out to dinner when you want to, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever offered a job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
  • If one of your parents was ever laid off or unemployed not by choice, take one step back.
  • If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke or a statement you overheard related to your race, ethnicity, gender, appearance, or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.

What they left out tells another story. These questions have their own bias. What is missing? The working poor’s economic existence. The extent of exclusion from public space experienced by minorities.

My Questions:

  • Did you ever sleep in a homeless shelter or on the street because of inability to find or pay for housing, take one step back
  • Did you always have access to clean water in your home, take one step forward
  • Did you ever run out of money to the point where there was no heat in the winter, take one step back
  • Did you ever leave school or drop out because you had to work full time, take one step back
  • Have you had a stranger insult you using an ethnic, racial, or gender/gender-choice related slur in a public place, take one step back
  • Have you ever been caught doing something objectively wrong (like being caught shop lifting) and been questioned and released without being arrested, take one step forward
  • Has your house or workplace or personal property been vandalized with hate graffiti, take one step back
  • Do you have a family member or close friend who was murdered, take one step back
  • Do you have a family member or close friend who was incarcerated, take one step back

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