Sunday, June 5, 2016

Tailwinds of Privilege

It was a gorgeous fall day and, having escaped my responsibilities for a few hours, I rode my bike east through the Colorado plains. My muscles were ready to work hard and I felt like I was flying past the brilliant yellow cottonwood trees. As I enjoyed being completely self-propelled and using my body to its capacity, I noticed I was going faster than usual. Congratulating myself on getting in such good shape, I considered for the first time entering a bike race.

When I turned around at the half-way point, the wind started blowing. My ears and fingers were quickly chilled and, despite how hard I pushed, my pace had slowed. My legs ached with the effort of pushing the bike forward against the wind. My lungs were bursting and the gusts knocked me from side to side, one time almost blowing me to a stop. People in the cars passing by must have thought I was a beginner. Or drunk. Who was I kidding, thinking about doing a race?

As I cursed myself for weakness and the wind for its antagonism, it occurred to me that this headwind I was now struggling against probably hadn't started at the moment when I turned around. It had likely been there the whole time and was the real explanation for my earlier, record pace.  I was astounded to realize that I hadn't noticed the tailwind at all while it was helping me. It was only when I experienced it head-on, immediately afterward and on the same course, that I was forced to admit I'd had help. Before that, I'd given myself full credit for the increased pace.

On a there-and-back bike ride, one person can experience what it's like to be helped or hindered by the wind. But it is difficult (in some cases impossible) for one person to experience the other side of their societal privileges. 

In life, the person I'm passing with ease might have an intense headwind, but since I don't feel it, I assume I'm just stronger. And it's not to say that I'm *not* strong. On the bike, I was certainly working harder than the person cruising up the road in their car, exercising only than their ankle to push the gas pedal down. I could have stayed at home lying on the couch. I get some credit.  I just have to be careful about claiming all the credit.

(As a side note, I also cannot claim to be the first person to use this analogy. After having this experience, I also read it in the eye-opening Waking up White by Debby Irving. I haven't researched if there was an earlier published version).

Up next: Given how hard it is to recognize the existence of a tailwind and how easy it is to take sole credit for our achievements, how do we know when we are finding our path eased by privilege?