Headwinds and Racism

I often describe racism, sexism, ageism, etc. as a “headwind”. You may still accomplish things, but it’s a whole lot harder. And some goals you may not reach; you might even die.

The thing about headwinds, is that it’s really hard to notice a headwind that’s not in your face. They can be invisible. If it’s something that you’ve never experienced, you may not even believe headwinds exist.

Likewise, when the wind’s blowing at your back, you may not notice it. May say to yourself, “Wow. I’m really good at walking. This is so easy!”

And you might look over at someone struggling against a headwind and think, “Well, no wonder they’re behind. They’re not as good at walking as I am.”

This, my friends, is how racism (and other -isms) continue to exist.

If you aren’t experiencing a headwind, the only way to understand it is to listen to people who are. When black people tell you they’re experiencing racism, BELIEVE THEM. Do not try to explain it away. Do not say you have it tough too. Just listen. Look for the evidence of the headwind; if you try, you will see them everywhere.

If you’re not used to believing in headwinds, this can be a hard step. It can shake up your world view. It might even make you sad or ashamed.

Now here’s a harder one. You have to perceive your own tailwinds. Yep. We’re talking about white privilege here (this applies to male privilege, cis-privilege, straight-privilege, as well.)

You’re not as good at walking as you think you are.

That can be a hard thing to believe. Because it’s easy to see the things that get in your way. And easy to take credit for things you haven’t earned. We all have problems; all humans do. You will have problems and privilege too.

And if you’re white, you have some racist beliefs.

Yep. I’m talking about myself here, too. You don’t have to be openly racist to have racist beliefs. It seeps in because we live in a racist culture. It’s all those moments of looking over and seeing some not walking as fast as you and feeling good about yourself. You can be racist and not even be aware of it.

This is what is meant by unconscious bias. 

It’s racism (and sexism, other-isms) that hides in the part of your brain that reacts before conscious thought. It’s how racism continues to exist in a world where (most of us) agree that racism is a bad thing.

I had my eyes opened when I took an unconscious bias course at work. Guess what I discovered? Despite being a fierce feminist since I was eight, I had some misogynistic biases. We live in a sexist culture, and I had soaked some of that up.

And when I listened to the people of color in the room talk about their experiences, I learned about headwinds I hadn’t known existed. I spent my childhood in Mississippi in the 1970s, where racism was blatant. I told myself I wasn’t a racist because I wasn’t a person who actively abused and cursed at black people. And yet… I was (and am) living in a racist society. And yep, I soaked up some of that as well.

We all do.

Even black folks, to some degree, I’m sure. And that makes me sad. If the whole world tells you that you’re “less than” for all of your life, it’s really hard not to take some of that in. Black folks, you have my respect for having survived all that this country has thrown at you since the 1600s. And it’s a terrible thing that you’ve had to.

So let’s fix this.

I often say that the fastest way to fix sexism is for men to accept that women are as worthy and valid as they are. It’s not something that women can make happen. We can tell you about our headwind. Until we are believed, until men agree that the current situation is a problem and want to change it, sexism will persist.

The fastest way for racism to end, is for white folks to stop being racist.

How to stop being racist:

  1. Learn to see the headwinds
    1. Read books by black authors, Go to plays and movies produced by black people, Attend talks. Learn about what it’s like to be a black person in America. 
    2. If you’re lucky enough to have a black person talk to you about their experiences, listen and believe. 
    3. Also understand that it’s not the job of black folks to teach you about racism, they have enough work just surviving it. If a black person takes the time to educate you, take it as the gift it is.
    4. Look for signs of racism, obvious and subtle, in the world around you. 
    5. Learn about microaggressions. These are things that may not seem like a big deal to you. The black person (or woman, or gay person) experiences them ALL THE TIME, and that’s the problem.
  2. Learn about your own internal biases
    1. Take an unconscious bias training class if you can; a well-run one is enlightening. If one isn’t available, read a book on the subject. 
    2. When you encounter a person of color, ask yourself what you’re feeling. What thoughts pop into your head? Are you scared or upset, if so, why? Would you feel differently about them if they were white?
  3. Act
    1. When you find yourself responding in a racist way, no matter how subtle, challenge your beliefs. Is this so? 
    2. Overcorrect if you need to at first by consciously deciding to trust and like black people on sight. (Later you can dial this back, because nice folks and assholes come in all colors.)
    3. Have the uncomfortable conversations with other white folks when they say or do something racist, say it right then. LEAN INTO THIS DISCOMFORT. It is powerful to have one of your own say, “hey, cut that out.” And black folks have to stand up for themselves all the time. It’s wearying. Take one for team humanity, please?
    4. Publicly let people know racism is not OK with you.

If you’re thinking, “Wow. That seems like a lot of work” here’s some motivation:

  1. Studies show that diverse teams are more successful and profitable, and better at innovation. They make better decisions. Here’s an article from Harvard Business Review that provides an overview of the science: “Why Diverse Teams are Smarter”.

    Our world is on fire at the moment: culturally, politically, climate-wise. We need all the best people working on this. And I don’t want the young black girl who would have the best ideas about how to stop the next global pandemic to be stopped by headwinds.

    Want to make America great again? Stop racism.
  2. If you’re sticking to the bubble of people who look and think like you, you’re missing out on some great folks.
  3. Because it’s the right thing to do. If you believe in justice and “all people are created equal”. If you believe “treat your neighbor as you, yourself, would be treated”. If you are compassionate, or want to be. It’s going to make you feel so good to live up to your values.

I hope we will step out of our headwinds and tailwinds and walk together in a place of calm.

— Syne Mitchell

7 thoughts on “Headwinds and Racism

  1. Syne, this is excellent and needed. A couple of additions I would like to consider for a later post. Now I see how very hard it is to write clearly about these topics!

    I was raised with the hope that religion was not a reason to scorn anybody. I wish that we could all accept that humanity includes people with many different faiths and some who are atheists or humanists.

    In the USA and Canada, we still meet people whose ancestors lived in this part of the world more than a thousand years ago. Our governments have made so many promises and treaties that have not been fulfilled.

    People all over the world grow up absorbing the views of the dominant society. Travel helps me see that the assumptions made by my parents and grandparents are not the same as those made by societies in China or in the Middle East or in Africa or Japan. Yet we all grow up listening to our relatives.

    As a child, I did not know about transgender people. This does not mean that they are strange. Meeting some transgender people gave me reason to read more about this. Reading helps a lot and now there are also videos and films that help us to see another person’s point of view.

    • I agree, getting to know people “not like you” either directly through travel or indirectly from listening to the stories of those people is the best way to see past our own biases and recognize the humanity in others.

  2. Agree with the above.

    However I do find some differences between black and white.

    Blacks are kinder and more likely to help their fellow man than whites. This is evident in the undeniable successes of mostly black football and basketball
    teams. Blacks are less selfish whites.

    It is possible that encounters with Lions in Africa for eons through evolution has maximized this fine trait of being a team member. It is easy to believe that those Blacks that chose to fight the Lion by their self probably had less time for sex than those that enjoyed being part of a group.

    Other favorable and unfavorable traits for both black and white come to mind. But you get the point. Both white and black, male and femaie are needed for us to be our best. rdm

    • Hi Dad!

      Thanks for reading my post and commenting. We agree on a lot of things.

      I think your perspective about black folks being kinder is a good one to have. In a world that too-often assumes black folks are criminals, walking around with this opinion will open a lot of doors and increase your pool of potential friends. You taught me this when I was little and I think it’s useful.

      And yet… I wonder how much of that kindness and helpfulness comes from a power differential in our culture. In other words, is there a tailwind here?

      Are black folks naturally nicer, or is it possible that they’re acting a certain way in front of white people to reduce the threat to them?

      Let me talk from my perspective as a woman. In our culture men hold greater power and are (usually) physically stronger than us. So when a man makes a sexual advance on a woman, she’s much more likely to say, “Ha, ha, ha, no I couldn’t.” or “My boyfriend wouldn’t like it.” than what she might be really thinking: “Oh _hell_ no.”

      Why? Because she’s afraid he’ll turn violent. Or retaliate against her in some other way.

      So she soft-pedals her ‘no’ so it won’t piss the guy off. (Which the guy often interprets as her ‘no’ not being a ‘no’ at all… and that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

      The guy comes away thinking that women are nice and he’s more attractive to them than he actually is. (tailwind)

      The woman is relieved to have gotten out of that situation without it escalating. (headwind)

      I’m not a black person, so I’m going to link out to articles and stories by black folks who talk about this in racial terms:

      — Sociologist On How Black Men Try To Appear Non-Threatening As A Defense Mechanism (NPR)

      — “I fit the description” Steve Locke, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, shares a story about being stopped by the cops and how he experienced that.

      –“I’m the mom of black sons and I fear for their safety every day” a mother talks about why she raises her children to be “extremely polite” and exemplary in other ways as a means of protecting them. https://www.mother.ly/life/black-mother-talks-racism

      Now I’m not trying to talk you out of thinking that black folks are nice. I’m just sad thinking that some of that might be “performed niceness”.

      My hope is black folks get to be safe enough around white folks that they can always express the _full range_ of their emotions: kindness, snottiness, anger, sarcasm, happiness; without having to wonder how it’s going to be perceived, and acted upon, by white folks.

      (I’d also like to be able to go out in the world as a woman and be my authentic self in the workplace without being called ‘aggressive’, ‘pushy’, and ‘a bitch’. Again, that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

      As for black teamwork, if you felt white people were a threat, wouldn’t that make you feel more at ease with other black folks? You know, folks in front of whom you can be your whole self? Wouldn’t you already feel some kinship just from sharing the same headwinds?

      So is it possible that what you’re perceiving as a racial trait, is actually caused by the current power imbalance?

      In other words, it’s not lions in Africa. It’s a white woman in a park calling the cops on a black man to intimidate him, because he was birdwatching and reminded her to obey leash laws. All while knowing that although she’s the one breaking the law, he’ll be the one threatened (and possibly killed) by the police.

      I’ve spent the past 25 years working in the Pacific Northwest in the tech industry where, unfortunately, there are few opportunities to meet black colleagues. To think about this, I’m drawing analogies from my experiences as a woman and from reading stories of black experiences.

      You were a professor at a historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1970s and 80s, and have had different life experiences.

      I welcome your thoughts on what I’ve said.

  3. I love this. It’s well thought-out and pushes us whites people to start some work we should have been doing a long time ago!

    I do have one issue, however, with a sentence in 1c (Also understand that it’s not the job of black folks to teach you about racism, they have enough work just surviving it. If one takes the time to educate you, take it as the gift it is.) The use of “one” here instead of someone is grouping Black people into a group outside of us, something to be studied or feared. I would love to see it read “a Black person” or at the very least “someone” rather than “one”. That tiny little word jumped off the screen and hit me in the gut as I was reading and nodding along with everything before that point.

    Thank you for listening and—I hope—considering making a change.

    • Done! Thanks for suggesting the edit.

      I was a bit aware as writing this that it is a post mainly targeted at white folks (like myself) and in that sense a bit othering. I rolled with it, because these are things I need white people to understand.

      That said, I don’t want to gut-punch anyone, and appreciate you taking the time to call this out.

Please share your thoughts: I enjoy your comments and feedback!