The Invisible Wind: A Metaphor for Racism in America
It seems like race is in the news a lot these days with the Black Lives Matter movement, the Abigail Fisher UT Austin Supreme Court case, and protests against racism at colleges and universities across the country this fall.
Many people are reluctant to talk about race, but it’s a perennial subject because it is so relevant, and also always changing.
As an Asian-American, I have my own take on racism. Today I’d like to talk about my concept of bicycling in the wind as a metaphor for systemic racism. I will also talk about the “knapsack of white privilege”, “microaggressions”, and how we can use what we learned as Toastmasters to fight racism.
Biking in the wind
One day I was on the bike path by the arroyo. It’s fairly flat, and I was just cruising along. Biking felt so good. I thought, “Wow, I’m in great shape, this is fun, I like this!” At some point I even thought, “Gee, there’s no wind!”
But at some point I turned around, and I realized, oh, there was a wind, but it was a tailwind. Now with the wind in my face, biking was a lot harder. Not only was I doing all the work, the wind kept pushing me back. Every pedal took effort, and I felt like I was moving only inches at a time. With a headwind, biking is no fun.
Wind is invisible. A person looking at you biking can not see the difference. Racism is like that. There is a massive difference in the power afforded to the privileged people in this country that is virtually invisible if you are the one who benefits. from. that. difference.
But if the force is against you, it can be overt or it can be subtle. When the force is working for you, you feel you are progressing under your own power. But in fact, you are getting a tremendous boost. You have to look very hard at the effects of that force on others to perceive what they are going through. Be the force that pushes everyone forward, rather than the wind that keeps people back.
The Knapsack of White Privilege
In 1988, a feminist named Dr. Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. She wrote,
“As a white person, I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”
She wrote a list of some of those aspects. For example,
- I can arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time
- I am never asked to speak for all people of my racial group
- If I ask to talk to "the person in charge" I will be facing a person of my race
- If a cop pulls me over, I haven't been singled out because of my race
- I can take a job without having coworkers suspect I got it because of race
- If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones
What are Microaggressions?
Words describe and shape reality. In 1970 Chester Pierce, a Harvard professor and psychiatrist coined the term “microaggressions” to describe the casual and sometimes unconscious belittling, insults, or racist assumptions that minorities constantly face.
By definition, microaggressions are subtle. For instance, when Joe Biden, in 2008, described Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”, the subtext could be that black people are dumb, dirty, and despicable.
Sometimes it can be as tiny as a look, or the way someone shifts their weight, or reflexively recoils, to indicate the deep-seated prejudices everyone has. There is a test called the Implicit Association Test, which reveal your assumptions that operate on a subconscious level.
However, even if the person doesn’t mean to be insulting, it still has the impact of an insult. Our own member, Mark Worthy has stated that microaggressions are like “a needle being pushed into your side all the time”.
Take for example the phrase, “Where are you from?”
It seems innocent.
I’ve asked it myself.
Yet when I was living in Southern Illinois, I got asked it at least once. A. day.
It got old.
I started to read all kinds of meaning into the question, like, “You’re not from here”, “You don’t belong here”, and “How come you look different?”
How can we fight racism?
We all have prejudices, even if we aren’t aware of them. It’s just what we are.
If someone says you committed a microaggression, thank them for bringing it to your attention, and apologize. Really listen, not just to what people say but also their non-verbal cues. Watch people’s body language and watch your own. Pause rather than say something inadvertent.
It can feel awkward to talk about race. But if you think about when to speak, when to be silent, and when to listen, you can be the solution to race relations.
To reiterate, be the force pushing everyone forward, rather than the wind that impedes progress.