Photo: Frans Lemmens via Getty
Photo: Frans Lemmens via Getty

OPINIONPoliticsJune 1, 2020

The tailwind of privilege

Photo: Frans Lemmens via Getty
Photo: Frans Lemmens via Getty

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.

Keep going!