Today, Laine told me a story about sitting on a bus to Ypsi in rush hour.  The bus was packed — 52 people, mostly poorer students or hourly-wage workers who live paycheck-to-paycheck.  En route, a BMW roadster decided to make an illegal U-turn and was clipped by the bus.  There was minimal damage to the BMW’s front bumper, but the straight, white, wealthy couple in the car flipped a shit.  Though the bus was packed with people on their way home from work, and the BMW just suffered cosmetic damage, the couple demanded the bus stay and wait until police arrived so each passenger could testify as a witness to the accident, ostensibly so the couple could get legal and financial reimbursement for their sufferings.

The situation these people were in is very interesting.  Clearly, the upper-class white couple saw it as their entitlement to get testimony from witnesses so that they could get insurance money for the damaged bumper.  It’s not as though this isn’t uncalled for: I’ve exchanged insurance information with people in fender-benders where neither vehicle nor occupants suffered any visible damage, just in case.  The bus passengers weren’t so interested in the outcome, of course, and I can imagine more than one sighing and rolling their eyes at the insistence on police reports.  But interestingly enough, it wasn’t the bus passengers who lost their cool being delayed on their way home after a long day of work.  It was the BMW driver and his partner.

It’s surprising, as Laine pointed out, that two people could feel so much entitlement that they would hold up overy fifty others on their way home to partners, possibly children, dinner, and hard-earned relaxation.  I pointed out that the passengers on the bus, being members of oppressed groups in society, probably didn’t see it as their entitlement to take matters into their own hands and demand to be taken to their stops.  She pointed out that it was weird that the people who had control in the situation, though, decided to flip out instead of keeping their cool and dealing with the situation like adults, whereas the bus passengers chose not to show any sense of feeling wronged when their bus home was delayed for nearly an hour for the police to arrive and take testimony.

I don’t think this is the case.  I think that calling groups with privilege and power in society agents is a misnomer: the rich couple in the BMW had just as little choice in their reaction to the situation as the bus passengers.  To the point, they expect — and are expected to — react to situations like that with a sense of entitlement, a sense of self-righteousness, and the know-how to get what they want out of others, especially members of oppressed groups.  They don’t have the agency implied by the name.  They are not making or doing anything: in fact, their not-making and not-doing is characteristic of their social privilege.  Certainly there is an extent to which they have the “choice” to change their actions and stand up against the unjust expectations of society and act like adults, but there isn’t as much of a choice in the fact they’ve been socialized to react that way, and that their experiences may be limited just to an upper-class, straight, white one.

My point is this: I think that calling social groups that have privilege and power agents is misleading, and blames them for their lack of experience and socialization.  This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be held accountable in these situations to realize that they are not the only stakeholders in an outcome, nor are they the only ones affected by their decisions.  But it’s hard to hold someone accountable even to know what they don’t know when their experience is limited just to their social identities.  Largely groups that hold a great deal of privilege are very insular.  I want to argue that they don’t have any actual agency in this situation, and others like it.

Attribution of fault is different from holding individuals accountable.  There is no reason to attribute fault to these specific individuals, but we can and should hold them accountable.  Their reactions in this story were clearly self-involved and rooted in a privileged-class sense of entitlement for the world to pause and take care of them.  Unfortunately, I doubt that without anybody pointing this out to them, the couple in this story didn’t learn anything about the effects of their actions other than getting an insurance settlement to have their bumper repaired.