The tailwind of privilege

I read this excellent article today in The Spinoff by guest writer Mary Breheny. Dr Mary Breheny is an Associate Professor of Health Sciences at Massey University (New Zealand). I obtained permission to share the text of the article here on my blog and sourced the image from Pexels – by Markus Spiske.


The tailwind of privilege | Dr Mary Breheny

— the text of this article is from The Spinoff

No, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with being white. But it comes with unearned privilege which makes progress through the world easier. It is a tailwind through every storm, writes Mary Breheny, associate professor of health sciences at Massey University.

I have never thought of myself as coordinated or physically adept, but since the first week of lockdown I have been cycling each morning around my rural neighbourhood. Some days I make productive use of this time, working away inside my head. Some days I muse on mundane activities. Occasionally, I do nothing but note the smells of my dairy farming district: silage, dead animals, smoke, and muck.

Yesterday I found myself cycling on a dead-end road, pushing hard, breathy and heart pounding. I could feel myself flying. I started to feel smugly satisfied: how hard I had trained since I began cycling. All those hours and kilometres had paid off; I could now bike like the wind! What a feeling of competence and satisfaction! I stopped at the end of the road to sup smugly from my water bottle before turning for home.

As soon as I pushed my pedals for the homeward journey my arrogance disappeared. It was hard work. Each downward movement of the pedal took energy and effort and progress was slow. All my fitness had been a sham; I had been cycling with a tail wind. I struggled home, sweaty and slow and tired. The distinction between effort and progress was clear to me; progress is not the natural outcome of effort as we have been led to believe.

Unearned privilege is a tailwind. Those who benefit from this tailwind are thrusting forward and making headway. But each downward movement of the pedal propels them further forward because unseen forces are working with them. Unseen forces make each of their efforts count and each one takes them even further than they would have achieved without the tailwind. Because the tailwind is invisible, it is easy to assume that individual effort alone is what is producing that progress.

Structural disadvantage is a headwind. Those who are working into the wind are working hard, pushing forward and making little progress. Unseen forces are working against them, each effort exhausts and moves them forward little. Unlike the tailwind, there is never any doubt when you are cycling into a headwind. It shapes the experience of every movement. You must tuck your head down, battling all the way, blinking against the wind. You can see others sailing past, revelling in their success and oblivious to the prevailing wind.

Some people are cycling with the wind, others are cycling into the wind up an incline with a bike rusted and wobbly. Difficulties heaped upon drawbacks.

Why is this point so important just now? Last week, in response to the announcement of the National Party line-up, we heard Judith Collins ask whether there was “something wrong” with her being white. I would like to offer an answer to this question. No, there is nothing wrong with being white. I am Pākehā too, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But it comes with unearned privilege which makes our progress through the world easier. It is a tailwind through every storm.

There must be representation at every table from people who know what it is like to cycle into the wind. It is not enough to claim that ethnicity wasn’t a consideration when choosing the best politicians to represent the electorate. This demonstrates that those in power don’t see the forces that have enabled their success, nor can they provide solutions that will address the headwinds others battle against. No solutions will ever be found to the issues of the day from people who have no experience of struggling into the wind.

Posted by Liz; Exploring Colour (2020). Article text used with permission

15 thoughts on “The tailwind of privilege

Add yours

  1. I’m reminded of a song from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, “South Pacific.“

    You’ve got to be taught
    To hate
    And fear
    You’ve got to be taught
    From year
    To year
    Its got to
    Be drummed in your dear little ear
    You’ve got to
    Be carefully
    You’ve got to be taught
    To be
    Of people
    Who’s eyes are oddly made
    And people who’s skin is a different shade
    You’ve got to
    Be carefuly
    You’ve got to be taught
    Before it’s too late
    Before you are six
    Or seven
    Or eight
    To hate all the people
    Your relatives hate
    You’ve got to
    Be carefully taught
    You’ve got to
    Be carefully taught
    Emile De Beque –
    This is just the kind of ugliness I was running away from
    It has followed my all this way
    All these years
    And now it has found me
    I was cheated before
    And i’m cheated again
    By a mean little world
    Full of mean little men
    And the one chance for me
    Is this life I know best
    To be here on an island
    And to hell with
    The rest
    I’ll cling
    To this island
    Like a tree or a stone
    I’ll cling to this island and be free

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Unfortunately, I think it will take several generations to fix this if we start right now. A very good place to start would be making sure that everyone – everyone – has an excellent broad and deep education.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And not just educational opportunities at the lower levels but continuing right up through the various levels of education at university – and right up to the top.

      Liked by 1 person

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