Waking Up White: Chapter 11

The Reading: Headwinds and Tailwinds

I really love the analogy the author developed for this chapter. It is such a terrific explanation of how systemic bias works. She started by gathering up the things she recognized had been “handed” to her from the start.

“My life is built on family members able to get citizenship status without a fight, land grants for free, GI Bill benefits, low-rate loans, good education, and solid health care. “

“I received a whole host of intangible benefits. In addition to developing a sense of optimism and confidence, I developed an unshakable faith in the idea that anyone could make it with hard work., in the freedom that comes with choice, and in the thrill that comes with high expectations. And I developed a sense of trust in American institutions and the belief that the future was mine for the taking. My life had been built on more than a diploma,  a paycheck, fresh fruit, or medicine when I needed it; it had been cemented with a sense of access, belonging, and optimism. “

“By the time I graduated high school, not only did I have a top-notch education and a wealth of social connections, but I had a couple thousand dollars (A lot in 1979) in the bank, work experience, and letters of recommendation.  Yes, I was willing to work hard, but that tailwind sure helped.” 

Tailwind.

Like an airplane or sailboat – we’re all travelling in the same direction – but she has tailwinds that help speed her along.

I had seen the Unequal Opportunity footrace video but I don’t like it as well. The concept of “everyone starting at different places” or having to run farther to get to the finish makes it harder, I think, for people to see the difference between a poor white kid and a poor black kid. It puts the focus on “starting place” and  “finish line.” But Irving’s analogy gives a different – and, in my opinion, more helpful – visual: identical vessels, all travelling the same way, with equally skilled crews, but some are moving faster because invisible-but-detectable forces are speeding them along.

The Nature of Privilege

“The system doesn’t make an achievement impossible for someone affected adversely by the barrier, but it makes it harder. In the case of racism, which relies on an invisible belief-system barrier and has compounded over hundreds of years, I would say it makes it not just harder, but exponentially harder. “

As they say, “privilege doesn’t mean you don’t have hardships. Just that the color of your skin isn’t one of them.” White skin is a tailwind. And while you might not travel as fast as the author – you’re still going just a twitch faster than the otherwise-identical person of color. They may even have tailwinds that you don’t – money, or connections, or skills – but the color of their skin is a constant headwind.

In a conversation with a colleague of color, Irving reaches another insight about what sets the U. S. (and a few other modern nations) apart:

“All racial groups have problems with people in other racial groups,” she said. “White folks have not cornered the market on that. The difference between white folks and everybody else is that they have the power to turn those feelings into policy, law, and practice. White folks run everything in this country” I realized that while power is an age-old issue, attaching it to skin color is not.

And this coalesces, for her, into a simple but powerful equation.

Race Equation: Skin color symbolism + Favoritism + Power = Systemic Racism

“Take away any one of these three factors, and the kind of racism that makes and breaks lives would not exist.”

The author was finally able to understand that, like a Giant trampling unseen lives beneath its feet, a group that holds the power is capable of making decisions that have dire impact, not from malice but from sheer blindness. Decisions that work in their lives – but not in the lives to which they have banished others.

The Study Question

Consider each of these tangible and intangible aspects of your life. How easy or hard has it been for you to attain each?

Work

Including the Army, I’ve had 7 full-time jobs. One of them was basically “handed” to me (a colleague who needed someone he knew was both trustworthy and competent in a specific technical skill gave my name to his boss and requested it). Two more are jobs I found out about because a colleague mentioned them. Not family or friends, but people who had worked with me and developed confidence in my skills.   So I guess half of my jobs have been due to “connections.” The rest have been basically “cold calls” to places where I knew nobody and nothing about the organization except the job posting.

The skills were easy – I am fortunate to have a natural affinity for the work I do. I had an easier time getting hired, I think, because the skills were in demand and supply was short. Once in the door, credibility was hard. The men around me had a tough time conceiving that I might be competent, and I spent a lot of time “proving myself” over and over. I had been in the field over a decade before I met another female technician – but in 25 years in the field, I have only ever met four black men – and no black women.

Sense of Belonging

When I first joined the Army – at language school and intelligence school – I felt like I finally “belonged” somewhere. The next time I felt that was a decade later, after my husband and I got together.  When it’s just the two of us, I still feel that way – not always, but most of the time. I can’t recall any other time or place that I have felt as though I “belonged” – anywhere,  or to anyone/thing outside my immediate family. (Or does my husband count as “immediate family” now, too…? 🙂 )

Social Connections

I am terrible at social cues and unspoken rules.  This is the most difficult thing in life for me to manage, and I work at it constantly. My husband says I can make friends anywhere – but that’s “for ten minutes.” I can be very genial with a total stranger in the grocery line, for example. But – that’s for a few minutes at a time. I don’t have “childhood friends” – heck I don’t even remember where I lived half the time, much less who was around me and where they are now. I have a few friends from high school – but they are mostly people who were in the same school with me – we didn’t become buddies until years later. I have to force myself to “network” at professional events. I find “social connections” about the most difficult thing in the world. But it’s important, so I just keep trying; over time it seems like I am gaining skill here and there.

Choice

Can’t say I understand how to respond to this. I don’t really “get” what is being asked…

Education

I relate well to “book learning” and found school easy.  Accessing secondary education was tougher, as I described in an earlier post, but I did eventually manage it. The military helped, with free or inexpensive access to equivalency exams and correspondence courses; they also go to a great deal of effort to ensure that their courses are assessed for college equivalency credit.

Healthy Food

From the time I was 16, when I moved to live with my Dad, I have never gone hungry.

Legal Protection

“Protection?”  Interesting word.

Since the time that Detective Nakamura sent my brother away, I have only ever turned to “the legal system” once in my life. While serving in the military, I reported a crime. With clear evidence, the JAG (military prosecutor) and investigators pursued it. The chain of command quashed it, the guy was allowed an honorable discharge, and for the entire remainder of my time in the military (over two years), I experienced near-constant harassment, abuse, and other negative repercussions. It is THE reason I abandoned my original goal of serving in the military until retirement.

I am married to a (civilian) police officer. Today, departments are rushing to send officers to Crisis Intervention Training to learn how to deal with subjects in altered mental states caused by such things as drugs or mental illness. He first sought out that training 20 years ago. He has been a negotiator, a detective specializing in crimes against children, and now serves as a School Resource Officer. He’s the man I wish every policeman was. Twenty years of listening to his frustrations have taught me that, even where there are concentrations of good officers, in good departments, with positive cultures that focus on actually “protecting and serving” citizens – our judicial system and prison profiteering make it nearly impossible to see true justice. It’s rarely about “guilt” or “innocence” – just about whether you can afford an attorney good enough to win or are stuck with an overburdened and inexperienced public defender, or play golf with the judge/his friends.

Housing

I can only remember being out-and-out homeless a couple of times, and only for brief periods – mostly after my sister left, when mom started to pay less attention to the fact that there were kids – well, “kid” – in her household. Even so, we were usually able to couch-surf with friends for a few days. Only spent a night or two here or there in the car. Didn’t always feel “safe” before living with my husband, but was “sheltered.”

Transportation

Public transportation still kinda bites where I live, but as an adult I have always been able to afford a working car and basic insurance.

Medical Care

I’ve been really fortunate here.  As kids, we had health care available to us through the Navy. Although our parents had divorced, we were still dad’s kids, so they still covered us. Whenever mom was willing to take the time to take us to the Navy hospital, we were able to get care, and she did so whenever there was an emergency. Although she couldn’t be bothered to deal with the fuss around the eye surgery I needed (finally got that when I moved to Dad’s), she was pretty steady about more-or-less-annual eye exams and glasses, and the occasional trip to the dentist.

As an adult, I have had medical insurance through my employers, and have lived in areas where health care was available. It has sometimes been a challenge to get doctors to pay attention to what I am telling them or take it seriously, which has resulted in one decade spent dealing with and fighting an incorrect diagnosis, and a different decade spent trying to get attention for a problem which was minor and easily addressable, but was ignored til it finally required major surgery. Even then – at least I was able to afford the surgery, take the time off from work to have it, pay the bills while I was out – things I recognize as luxuries not available to many people.

The Blog Challenge: Waking Up White

Stephen’s Chapter 11 Post

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3 thoughts on “Waking Up White: Chapter 11

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  1. It can be hard to “feel” the tailwind because it just seems like it makes sense. And maybe the tailwind stops being apparent when we’re all going the same speed.

    I honestly take for granted that my accomplishments have come entirely due to my own intelligence and perspicacity.

    And yet…

    Just because I use my wit and my social techniques to get a foot in the door doesn’t mean that someone else with exactly the same attributes will have the same opportunities.

    We all know this simply isn’t true.

    For me, one huge, huge advantage has been that I got in early into the tech field through the need to reduce my time managing my restaurant. I bought an Apple ][+ computer back in 1977 or so for the then astonishing price of $3000 (that of course I had saved up because I’ve been employed in one way or another since the 5th or 6th grade). I read the manuals and wrote my own business analytics programs and my own inventory control programs. I have no higher math skills or education but I hammered out the ideas of statistical analysis mostly without any idea that there already existed this body of knowledge.

    Doing all this literally changed my career because having done this enabled me to do my “work” as a manager in about 10% of the time when compared to other people in the same position. I’m telling you, taking my boring repetitive tasks off my calendar because I had intelligent controls in place was revolutionary in my life. I started working about 2 hours a day instead of 12, and my stress level went down. I turned that into a chance to get into the formal manager training program *as a trainer* & then used *that* to get into the technical consultation business as a speaker and corporate trainer, and I used *that* to get into jobs working for Boeing, IBM, and other high tech industries where talent plus achievement were enough for the initial qualifications and not a degree–and yet, there were other people *equally talented* who never got even near those doors because all along the way I never saw the way the doors were unlocked because I looked like the people I’d be working for–straight white male.

    “Hard work”? Yes, hard work. I have a few college classes in topics that interest *me*, but no degree. I read a lot. I try to seek out vastly different experiences and friends all the time. But the hard work paid off *because* of the initial advantage of being a white male.

    I regret bitterly my inability to see this earlier and my blind selfishness in not reaching out to others with my abilities *but* without my advantages to give them the same leg up that I got, over and over again. It is especially painful to look back and realize how much I thought I was “good” and yet how little I administered compassion and grace and acceptance.

    1. Well – of *course it makes sense. That’s the whole point. 🙂 The tailwinds that push you along faster were *designed to push someone like you along faster, and to make it ‘make sense’ that you would be in that place. Stereotypes of ‘what right looks like’ become a headwind or tailwind. Cultural norms.

      I am pretty sure I got that first ‘good’ job as a secretary to four executives because I was interviewed first by the sales analyst – a girl who was straightforward and analytical (she’s the one who made me computer tech, in the end), and then an outspoken woman who had worked her way up (skill along with some family connections) from being a secretary herself. I think i reminded them of their younger selves. When I got the call for the second interview with the more-powerful men, I also got ‘tips on how to do those interviews right.” The girls wanted me in that office. The computer training center hired me because the guys were busy with important work and they needed a woman to do the “woman’s work” – secretarial and paperwork – and to teach “fluff” class that were beneath the guys’ skill levels (office programs, for example) but which also brought in solid money. (Yes, the guys got paid a lot more than i did. because they had those high-end skills and could teach technical stuff. I left there to become a network administrator lol). But there weren’t a lot of women available to them. This was Albuquerque, and one could say a great deal about how the majority population (descended from Spaniard and natives) felt about women teaching male professionals how to do something. There would be a certain truth to it – or so it seems to me from later jobs in that town. But One could also note that this was a white-owned business, which did a lot of trade with the local Air Force Base, National Lab, and affiliated nuclear research folks. Even as “token women” go – I had a lot of advantage in that space in terms of being white enough to pass as an expert on ‘secretary stuff.’While I was always happy to “help a girl out” with her skills, in order to help her get ahead, the systemic messages were a combination of weird and invisible. New Mexico was a space of its own, where the federal structures reflected the world I had come to know, and the local/state structures reflected a reality rooted in Spanish colonization of natives and 2/3 of the population reflects that. (Political power in the local structures is often still held by the descendants of the Spanish Land Grant families).

      That’s one of the reasons that I love Irving’s analagy so well. A tailwind is strong, if you are positioned for it, your sails are already set so you never feel it as anything but the motion of the craft, and it’s utterly invisible – you have to have skills to really track it.

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