“I hate it when the guys on e-bikes zoom past me when I’m cycling up a bridge! It’s like cheating.”
I was talking about the absurdity of NYC’s electric-bike laws and its impact on delivery workers with a male NYC cyclist when he exclaimed his disgust with e-bike riders. Other bike activists have also told me that many male cyclists complain about e-bikes because they are “cheating” or not “real” cyclists.
It’s not hard to find this sentiment in the bicycling world. From Outside Magazine in 2014:
But the biggest flaws with e-bikes are physical and psychological. The bicycle is meant to be an endorphin-multiplier. In my mind, bike commuting’s big draw is burning calories on the way to your destination. Yes, an e-bike is better for the environment than your car, but in the end, you forgo a crucial part of the experience. You make yourself better, and stronger, when you ride a real bike.
By doing the hard work for you, e-bikes cheat people out of that accomplishment and ultimately make them lazier. They enable entitlement to motion and a sense of false accomplishment.
This description of e-bikes as “cheating” disturbs me because of its language of exclusion that idolizes the able-bodied, bootstrapping, hyper-competitive male cyclist as the “real” way to bike. This perspective invalidates and erases other ways, cultures, and experiences of biking. It suggests that if you don’t behave as “real” men who ride “real” bikes, you are lazy and undeserving. By this definition, the Chinese delivery workers in their 50s and 60s with all sorts of leg injuries and other health impairments from years of delivery work who need to ride e-bikes to be able to deliver food for 12- to 16-hour work days are cheating themselves of becoming real men. This is an example of how toxic masculinity can manifest in cycling, which undermines the conditions for wholeness and inclusion in the bike movement.
Hunger, not love
“The women in Korea loved me!” he exclaimed.
Last October at rush hour, I squeezed into a packed uptown 6 train. As the train doors closed, the briefcase of an old man got caught in the door and both he and I grabbed the briefcase at the same time and yanked it in. We laughed and he cracked a joke about how his wife complained about the large size of his briefcase.
After a moment, he asked me, “Where are you from?”
In my head, I was like, oh great, this again. I replied that I live in Queens and he shook his head, “No, I meant, what’s your ethnic heritage?”
I sighed and told him that I’m Korean by ethnicity. To which, he replied, “Oh great, I was a military pilot in Korea. You know, when I was there, the women in Korea loved me! They would always beg me to take them to the officer’s club!”
Stunned, I had a frozen fake smudge of a smile on my face while he kept chatting about hooking up with women in Korea. I was taken aback by the aggressive subtext of his words that sought to form a poisonous masculine bond with me while simultaneously trying to emasculate me as if my Korean male ethnicity implied ownership of Korean women. Who does that?!? On a packed public subway train no less! This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to me, but for some reason, I hadn’t been able to fully name it beforehand and saw how I was being expected to fulfill a particular role within a toxic and racialized system of masculinity.
Thunderstruck in my dawning realization, I slowly managed to detach myself from the old man as anger, shame, and hurt boiled inside. In retrospect, I wish I could have told him that the women almost certainly “loved” him because they were hungry. They were starving because the Korean war devastated the country, which poisoned and destroyed the land. They were hungry because the American military often decided that they wouldn’t distinguish between “good” South Koreans and “bad” North Koreans and many times, they killed all the gooks that moved. They were hungry because the American military became the only way to get food. They also “loved” American GIs because providing sex workers for the American military by Korea was seen as a way to bring dollars into the country. I wish I could have told him that what he was describing is violence, not love.
The Painful Hierarchy of Toxic Masculinity
Recently, on my bike commute home, I got into a cursing and screaming altercation with a couple of pedestrians who looked to be a middle-age Latina and a young Latino man, who may have been her son although I don’t know any of this for certain. Biking home in my neighborhood in Astoria (Queens), I saw the crosswalk countdown start ticking down. I instantly started pedaling hard as I calculated that I could just beat the light if I tried. As I crossed the intersection, I saw a couple of pedestrians in my path slowly crossing against the light and I planned to veer around them. Then suddenly, I heard a car rev up behind me and speed through the light next to me leaving me no room to veer. I slowed down just enough for the two pedestrians to finish crossing as I passed them closely. As I passed, the guy reared back with his hand curled up in a fist as if to hit me! He didn’t punch me, but I was momentarily shocked and then really pissed off. I stopped my bike and started cursing at them demanding to know why the guy pulled a fist at me. He started screaming at me that I was going too fast and wanting to know if I wanted to man up and fight. Unwilling to back down with my own enraged manhood, I yelled back that I wasn’t going too fast and that I had the light – at which I instantly winced inward as it came out of my mouth.
I winced because I hate this argument – that we absolve our responsibility to others just because we have the “light” or the “right of way.” Much like drivers who often reduce cyclists (and pedestrians) to mere objects in the way of speed, and we cyclists can be susceptible to reducing anybody in our path into an annoying obstacle and subject to our aggression. Having it come out of my mouth makes me feel ashamed about how much I have internalized the abusive inequalities, fragmentation, and exclusions of car culture. In retrospect, although I wasn’t actually going very fast because the intersection was on an uphill grade, I suspect the pedestrians were startled because they were not looking at me and only noticed me at the last moment and thus it seemed to them that I appeared out of nowhere and thus seemed to have been going very fast.
I kept cursing at them though and the woman came over to me and yelled at me too and accusingly asked me, “Think, if we were in a black neighborhood, would you have stopped?” Aside from wielding a horrible stereotype about black neighborhoods, the woman was asking a question about power that is laced with pain and trauma I cannot know. Perhaps the guy or someone they know had been hit by a driver. Or perhaps by a cyclist. Perhaps they were sick of feeling discriminated because of their skin color. Perhaps they saw me as an honorary white person, as many Asians have been complicit in anti-black and anti-brown racism. Perhaps the guy simply reacted as many man do when they experience fear – with violence. Perhaps they were frustrated by gentrification and how financially precarious many of our lives are in NYC. Are these things likely? I have no idea, but hearing their story wasn’t possible in my fury.
But equally, she and the other guy had no idea about the trauma I brought into the altercation. Crossing into that intersection, I carried the fear of street violence from close calls or worse on a bike and from endless news about cyclist deaths. They had no idea that I had just come from working with Xiaodeng and Katie for hours of collecting surveys with Chinese delivery cyclists who told us heart-breaking and infuriating stories. In one example, a Chinese deliveryman told us his frustrations of trying to get his e-bike back after being confiscated by the police. He paid the $500 fine and the police told him to go to storage facility to get his e-bike back. He went, waited in line for an hour, and the facility couldn’t find his bike. He went back to the police department and they redirected him to another storage facility. He went and again that facility couldn’t find his e-bike. This happened twelve times before he finally gave up. While these stories didn’t happen to me, I find it difficult to hear these stories and not feel a kind of empathetic rage. And this rage bled freely into our confrontation in the street. And in their anger, they couldn’t hear my story.
Thus when I rode near the pedestrians and the guy raised his fist, we might not have collided physically, but our traumas crashed in that space.
This eruption of misdirected pain and potential violence is part and parcel of the damage inflicted by toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity requires hierarchies of power enforced by violence or by its potential – and this violence is almost always directed downward to those more vulnerable rather than at those more powerful who cause you pain.
Paulo Freire writes:
But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.
When I first read this a few years back, I primarily thought it meant that we learn toxic forms of oppressive power and that we often reproduce it the day we gain power. But now, I also understand that power is always contingent, situational, and relational, which means that all of us have relative forms of power depending on the context. One of the oldest truths is that people in pain also inflict pain. In hierarchies of violent masculinity, pain is almost always channeled to those more vulnerable. We all have degrees of power that vary by time and place, whether over other people, other species, the land, or failing all else – ourselves. This is why we often hurt the ones to whom we are closest with, because we can. This is an extension of what I talked about in terms of Han – that the powerful energy fueled by collective oppression can be channeled into action for social justice, but instead this energy is often expressed as destructive fury because of the inability to resolve structural oppression.
This hierarchy of pain requires us to compete with each other endlessly to climb a pyramid scheme in order to be safe from pain inflicted down upon us. But to scramble upward, we have to step on others. To justify stepping on others, we have to dehumanize others. It wasn’t right that the guy raised his fist at me and I wasn’t right in my over-the-top reaction and cursing. But we each exploded at each other as we saw each other as that asshole stranger we would later tell our friends about.
In a street constructed upon a hierarchy of pain, those with greater speed and power (e.g. drivers) often marginalize and harm other users (bicyclists, pedestrians) without repercussion or responsibility while also erasing other uses and possibilities of the street. To do so, the street becomes fragmented and filled with hierarchies and inequalities of designed infrastructure and social norms that coerces more driving and its perceived ownership of space. The spatial greed of driving often marginalizes bicyclists and pedestrians to fight over the small leftover spaces. Within leftover spaces, bicyclists (or e-bike riders) situationally can become perceived as the oppressor by pedestrians. Both pedestrians and bicyclists carry the weight of car trauma and all too often the resulting anger is directed at each other rather than channeled into a social movement for our collective liberation. This is why I am so discomfited in my reaction above – that part of my outrage stemmed from of a deeply internalized feeling of righteousness that I HAD THE LIGHT and the pedestrians were just obstacles in my way for whom I shouldn’t have to slow down.
Embodying something different in my life and bicycling practice from the toxic patriarchy I grew up with and continue to experience all around me is damn hard work. This work involves struggling with painful reflection and emotional processing rather than do what we men are often rewarded for, which is to deny deny deny.
At The Untokening, a female bike activist told our discussion table that as a fast cyclist, she frequently experiences male cyclists freaking out when she passes them on a bike. She then introduced me to the term of getting “chicked,” which male cyclists (or other athletes like runners) use to describe the poisonous shaming and emasculation when men get passed by a female cyclist.
Getting “chicked” demonstrates the impossible demands made by toxic masculinity. On one hand, toxic masculinity demands that everyone behave like an “ideal” male (able-bodied, rich, straight, white man). This is the underlying meaning when male cyclists say, “riding an e-bike is for wimps.” Which is just code for “don’t ride like a girl.” But on the other hand, should a woman (or other non-“ideal” body) take this advice and act like “ideal” men to achieve parity or even surpass “ideal” men, then it’s an insult of emasculation.
These kinds of impossible conditions of inclusion fuel the exclusivity that upholds toxic masculinity in cycling and society. This system demands that “ideal” men be always strong and never vulnerable. It demands that people gain status in never-ending competition with and domination of each other, which means that we can never be secure in our masculinity. It also coerces cyclists to overvalue speed and efficiency while other values, needs, and experiences of cycling become lessor. As Elly Blue notes, U.S. bikes are predominantly designed for light weight and speed. To define “ideal” people is to also simultaneously create “undesirable” people that we fear. Thus, toxic masculinity requires ‘ideal’ men to strive toward living emotionally incomplete but privileged lives built upon the masses of “undesirable” bodies. In this sense, when we talk about incomplete streets, we are fundamentally talking about incomplete people, particularly men.
To Dismantle the Master’s Streets
To dismantle a streetscape and car culture underpinned by toxic masculinity, we must heed the famed words of Audre Lorde:
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.
Bicyclists may be able to win space by using the tools and values of car culture and toxic masculinity, but it will then reshape the abuses of car culture into new and different forms of harmful hierarchies, exclusions, and inequalities. It is a devastating car culture that creeps into bike culture that demands the bicycling be homogenized into a single “correct” form that emphasizes able-bodied speed and exclusion. This form of cycling reproduces and re-inscribes hierarchies and fragmentation of the streets built for cars. This is a reminder of the radical but uncertain potential of bicycling. It is a reminder that as Zach Furness notes that bicycling was responsible for the “economic, technological, and legal developments that metaphorically and literally paved the way for the automobile.” It is a reminder that the bike was also originally a powerful vehicle for women’s empowerment in the 1890s. The bike is a tool of radical possibilities, but as a tool, it is not inherently good, it’s only as good as we’re willing to enact it.
bell hooks writes, “We cannot love what we fear.” To dismantle the master’s street, we must cast off the tools of fear and domination. Rather, we must use tools of love that intentionally address current and historical collective traumas and social injustices in shaping more inclusive and just streets. To do so, we must center our focus on the body as Sahra Sulaiman advises. To do so is to recognize that our bodies have distinct stories of experiences, needs, fears, and capabilities that do not fit within prescribed monocultures. To listen to people’s stories and to honor their stories is slow hard work, but it allows us to begin to build relationships and trust. It is often the deepest truths of our very own bodies that we fear the most. As men, we must experiment with manhood and re-imagine it in ways that allows us connect with our deepest hardest stories within our bodies and with other bodies to approach wholeness and heal our traumas.
The Price of Hope
I had written a different ending to this post when Jennifer’s panicked “Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no!” rang through the air as she saw blood. At the hospital, I felt momentarily relieved when I heard a rapid fluttery heartbeat of our baby until the doctor inspected Jennifer and gently told us, “I’m so sorry but Jennifer is dilated and it’s inevitable now, but the baby’s coming and it’s too early for us to save the baby.” At 22 weeks and 5 days, Nadia Iris Smith-Lee came into the world too soon to live – with just two more weeks she would have had a chance in the neonatal intensive care unit. We’ve been calling her Nadia since the beginning of this pregnancy: this beautiful name is short for the Russian word “Nadyezhda,“ meaning hope. That our little Nadia passed away with this name of hope brings our grief into sharper relief. We picked Iris as her middle name partially because it is a Greek word for “rainbow” and partially because is a lovely spring flower that will always remind us of our sweet girl.
I had written a different ending. I had written some trite words about hoping in the face of pain and how I hoped to take Nadia on bike rides. I had imagined her in a little child seat behind me as we sailed through the world with laughter. I had seen her riding on her own bike with such unbridled glee and fearlessness that made my heart sing.
At the hospital as Jennifer went into labor to deliver Nadia, I kept thinking, “This again?” It felt like such a brutal form of déjà vu. Weeping and holding a dead baby in our arms as we could feel her body grow colder. Calling our parents. Struggling with Jennifer in the face of a tsunami of heartache, shame, anger, and guilt. When I went to the same funeral home to make arrangements for Nadia, the funeral home director jolted at the sight of me and asked if I had been there before and I had to tell her that we lost another baby. Akin to being trapped in a loop of horror, I surreally recognized her oh-so-long painted fingernails as her pen again scratched out the details of our baby’s cremation.
I had written a different ending.
This past Saturday, I joined the ghost ride and ghost bike installation for Gelacio Reyes, a food delivery cyclist killed on his way home from work by a drunk hit-and-run driver. I wept as Flor, Gelacio’s wife, spoke of her pain and loss. I wept too because their newborn baby girl was cradled in her arms. I stood there feeling lost and broken with my bike holding me up like a crutch.
We rode his route that would have taken him home. We rode around Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a ride that Gelacio loved. As I pedaled, I thought of the Chinese deliverymen who told us of the pain they felt in being separated from their families. Men who told us of leaving behind their wives and little children in China to come to the USA to try to provide something better for their families. Men who left in their twenties and thirties and are now old, weary men in their fifties and sixties still delivering food on e-bikes. Men who are trapped in their jobs because they can’t go back to China as their families rely on their wages. Men who feel deep pain because their children are now grown up but don’t know their fathers and won’t return their phone calls. Men whose mothers and fathers die and they can’t go home to grieve and honor them. Men who still fight and hope for a bit more human dignity even as the police come for their e-bikes.
To hope in the words of Rebecca Solnit is to embrace uncertainty about the future. Thus, to hope is to be vulnerable to the (im)possibilities of life that bring both miracle and tragedy. As I pedal and feel the city, I feel vulnerable as a man, which makes me uncomfortably confront what kind of man I want to be, rather than the man I should be. In many ways, reflecting on my manhood also makes me think about what kind of dad I’d like to be.
Last year, a few weeks after we lost Rohan, I was riding my bike on the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. Near the end of the bridge as it ducks underneath an overpass, I was flying down the steep descent into the shadows of the city when my front tire hit a pothole at just the wrong spot, speed, and timing. Abruptly, I went flying over my handlebars, slammed into the concrete, and skidded to a stop. Aside from being too embarrassed to respond much to passing pedestrians and cyclists, I was a bit scraped up and bruised, but nothing broken. I slowly picked up my bike and started riding again. A couple of weeks later, I was flying down this same path and suddenly, I hit the same damn pothole again and as I landed with new scrapes and bruises, I wondered, “This again?” I had crossed this bridge hundreds, maybe even thousands of times without an incident until those couple of weeks. I slowly picked up my bike and feeling angry with myself, I began riding again into a future I can’t write.