The Dirtbag Professional: Vol. 4

Let's Talk About Dirtbag Privilege

Hey friends - 

I hope you’re all doing OK. The world is insane right now (you don’t need me to tell you that), but know in my absence of writing the last few weeks that I’ve been thinking about all you lovely folks that support and hold space for my voice in this world, and feeling very grateful for it. 

It’s a privilege and a blessing to have the support, platform, and means in my life to write the way I do, and it’s really easy during times like this to focus too far inward and use our mediums to reflect on how the world out there makes us feel in here. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to do less of that publicly, and instead, use my energy and platforms to signal boost BIPOC voices in my community and the world at large. I haven’t wanted to take up precious bandwidth in a world and culture that are already washed out in a floodlight of whiteness. 

However, I’ve been balancing this desire to make room with a recognition that it’s my job as a very-white individual and a writer to have uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege with other white people on social media, in my community, and in my life. This is a fine balance, one I know I’m not the only person struggling to strike right now. But I’d rather be doing things imperfectly than never make progress in an effort to wait until “the right moment.” 

So, this week we’re talking about dirtbag privilege. 

If you know me IRL, you’ve heard bits and pieces of this week’s articles over the last two to three years. It’s one I’ve been kicking around since I first dreamt up The Dirtbag Professional. If you’re a member of the nomad, dirtbag, or vanlife communities, I hope this spurs some thoughts, feelings, and opportunities for reflection. If you’re outside our bubble of (at times problematic) radness, I hope you take this as an invitation to reflect on how you opt-in to privilege in whatever communities and subcultures you belong to, and fuel the dismantling of unfair socio-economic and racial power dynamics wherever and however you can. 

Stay weird and love each other. 


P.S. I’ve also been thinking about ways I can put my money where my mouth is, as it were. So starting in July, 50% of all subscriptions will be donated to the ACLU and the other half will be put in a fund to pay interviewees for their time and expertise for future pieces. 

Let's Talk About Dirtbag Privilege: Choosing Non-belonging 

Most parents hope that their beloved children will take all the second-hand gold they’ve been neatly presented and turn it into the steps to upward mobility. We, as a species, do everything we can to set our progeny up for a better, brighter, more “successful” future. 

At least, that’s what I imagine “normal” families do. 

When you’re raised among the counterculture--particularly around folks who were not brought up in it by their parents before them—“normal” is a kind of dirty word. 

My family members weren’t always dirtbags. In fact, they were, in their childhoods, basically the opposite. My dad, the oldest of five, grew up affluently in Cleveland and benefits from generations of hard--but deeply privileged--work. Their family home adorns a couple of historical books about the region, and slideshows of family photos feature ivy-covered colonial buildings, sailboats, and seasonal homes. 

After his father died, my dad, his siblings, and his mother moved west to Colorado where they, in their own ways, separated themselves from intergenerational wealth and comforts. My dad would trade in creature comforts for days spent suntanned on whitewater rivers, making next to no money, and living in an old gas school bus named Stego until well after he met my mother. 

He--and his siblings--would choose to suffer recreationally. 

This is a great privilege, in some ways more so than simply having access to money and resources in the first place. The act of being so stable, so taken care of, so able to buy into a system of “normalcy” that you’re in a position to opt-out of it is a radically unique station in life. One that the nomad and #vanlife communities writ large seem to forget or deny more often than they acknowledge. 

We too often forget in the moments of fumbling for pee bottles at 3 a.m., stumbling into small cafes 7-days deep into a lack of showering, or stringing together strange backcountry dinners that we choose this. This is a lesson I’m tremendously grateful my dirtbag father instilled in me from the jump.

When I was a teenager, there was a borderline-out-of-place value put on my education by my father. I was surrounded by folks who didn’t have traditional educations, living in their vehicles, and who vilified any semblance of normalcy. I didn’t understand why he was so adamant that I graduate from my New England prep school or go to college and try my hand at a “real” job. 

That is until he passed down some wisdom that sticks with me today and comes to mind whenever I consider the different ways folks in this country experience homelessness: 

“There’s nothing wrong with being a dirtbag, but I want you to be able to choose to be a dirtbag.”

That right there sums up the privilege those of us who #vanlife recreationally or work as digital nomads carry with us. Ever since I started this journey to escaping rent and getting more adventure out of life, there’s been a noticeable and willing ignorance among the nomad groups, forums, and get-togethers I’ve seen. A blindspot that likes to center folks who chose vehicle dwelling out of necessity as either nonexistent or responsible for “bad rep” vanlife gets. This willful ignorance tries to block out the fact that most of the folks in this country living on the road or in their vehicles are doing so out of survival, not recreation, and that no matter how inconvenient, dusty, or frustrating we find the nuances of road life, we don’t really have shit to complain about. 

The reality is that the vast vast majority of folks living in their vehicles are not doing so because it’s instagrammable, or there’s some sick climb they want to tick off, or the road is calling them. In cities like L.A. and Seattle and all across America, people trade four walls for four (if they’re lucky) doors because they have to, and they’re doing so at an increasing rate.

But the privilege that plagues our subculture isn’t just a socio-economic one. Race plays a gigantic role in the ease with which I and my white friends can cross state borders, interact with small rural towns, park illegally for a night, and stealth camp in big cities when need be. My whiteness has broader reaching implications that I’ll probably ever wrap my head around, and I’m working on filling the echo chamber of my own ignorance with the stories and experiences of BIPOC who are out there doing to the damn thing and claiming space in the #vanlife movement. 

A big part of this internal work is coming to terms with the fact that no matter how “outside” the norm I feel, 90% of the reasons that I get weird looks in public are entirely of my own creation. I’m often loud, sharing risque stories, covered in tattoos, and rolling out of a van at 6 a.m. outside your favorite cafe. These are all things I chose to bring upon my identity, and when I feel ostracized or judged, to a certain degree, I only have myself to blame for my “otherness.” 

I don’t have to know what it’s like to further put myself on the radar of other people’s prejudice simply because of the color of my skin and other people’s shitty biases. I get to choose non-belonging as a way of claiming my space instead of grappling with it on the way to the person I want to be in this world. 

I’m careful of pretending to know how difficult it is to navigate vanlife or digital nomad life while Black. There’s a metric ton of nuance and lived experience I can’t begin to imagine (further magnified in the latter community by inequity in the professional field of tech that often supports remote work for vanlifers and travelers). 

But when I feel frustrated about the condescending looks I get in the morning sometimes as I climb out of my van, or by the odd double-takes of conservative town folk in response to my tattoos or loud political views in their diners, I’m working to remember: This is such a fucking privilege for me to choose non-belonging as a recreational lifestyle. 

If you’re looking for more information on how you can help diversify vanlife, I recommend checking out the work of Noel Russell, Noami Grevemberg, and Jamye Serbell