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.”
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.
“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?
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.
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…? 🙂 )
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.
Can’t say I understand how to respond to this. I don’t really “get” what is being asked…
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.
From the time I was 16, when I moved to live with my Dad, I have never gone hungry.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.