This past weekend, I binge read the first three books in Lauren Dane’s Whiskey Sharp series. Lauren is one of my go-to contemporary romance authors. I adore her books so much. But in the second book, Whiskey Sharp: Jagged, there was a problematic issue with privilege that I want to turn into a learning exercise for all authors.
In this context, privilege means the author used something that she doesn’t have personal experience with but twisted it to fit into her story. However, anyone who does have personal experience with it can tell the author does not know what she is talking about.
This is by no means a call-out of Lauren Dane. Like I said, I adore her books. I will always read her books. But no one is perfect, and everyone can learn from this mistake.
Rachel, the heroine of Jagged, went through a traumatic experience years before and struggled to reclaim her life and her independence. And she did it! She started a new life, a new career, had new friends and finds the perfect man. (Seriously. Vic = perfection.) However, one of the ways Rachel reclaimed her independence was by riding the bus to work. It was stated repeatedly that she rode the bus because it gave her control. Control over her life. Control over her choices. Rachel and her sister owned a house in the suburbs, would walk down the block to the bus stop and take the bus directly downtown to their respective jobs. There was no reason for them to take the bus other than Rachel’s claim of control.
As someone who has relied on public transportation for several years of my adult life, I can tell you right now that you are never in control when you take the bus. You are at the mercy of the bus driver, Lady Luck, and whatever demon wants to ruin your day. And that’s on a good day.
This is Lauren Dane showing her privilege. Dane is using an activity to make her heroine seem strong and independent, when in reality, people who ride the bus don’t have a lot of options. They are either struggling financially, are legitimately terrified of cars, want to be more eco-friendly, or whatever personal reason they have. Rachel doesn’t have financial problems. She could easily drive herself to work every day. She could carpool with her sister or neighbors. The only reason she uses the bus is to claim control. Yet, you lose all control when you ride the bus.
Buses are never on time. They might arrive three minutes early. They may arrive ten minutes late. Or they might not show up at all. Unless you planned it, you probably won’t live within walking distance of the bus stop – so you have to walk to the nearest one. And from there, transfer buses until you get on the correct line to where you need to go. (Which means, using public transportation to get anywhere can take over an hour, even if your destination in only a 20-minute car ride away.) The bus could be empty, or it could be at capacity, standing room only. You have no personal space. You get harassed by creepy men. It’s baking in the summer and freezing in the winter. And depending on where you are, (i.e. riding through the sketchy parts of town) you may see more of your fellow passengers than you want to.
I could go on and on, detailing my years of horrors riding the bus to school, to work, running errands, or going to visit friends on the other side of the city. But my point is: you have no control when riding the bus. Over anything.
So, how could Lauren Dane have prevented showing her privilege? By doing the research on buses. One option would be finding an adult woman who is reliant on public transportation and asking her for personal experience. Or by relying on the bus system herself for at least a week. That firsthand experience would have taught her that Rachel would have lost all control, would have felt helpless, would have hated being controlled by so many other elements.
If Rachel had owned a car, she would have had complete control over everything. She would have been able to control exactly when she left, control who sat next to her, control the routes she took, control the music and the air conditioning. A car would give Rachel all of the control she claimed to have with the bus. And Dane could have used any other number of activities to show Rachel reclaiming her life and being in control of everything.
Research is key to keep from showing your privilege. Research, research, research! If it’s not something you have innate knowledge about, then find someone who does. This goes beyond simply riding the bus. It applies to everything from gangs to football to shooting guns. If you’ve never stood in a court room before, talk to a lawyer about how they would address a judge. Then find sensitivity readers and editors who call you out on problematic issues.
Nobody is perfect. And like I said at the beginning, I adore Lauren Dane’s books and will continue to read them.