The tailwind of privilege

by Mary Breheny, October 2020

‘Is there something wrong with me being White?’ a New Zealand politician recently retorted when her party was challenged about its all-White front bench. She went on to say, “We’re a party of merit and we’re a party of principle – I’m not going to be distracted about people’s gender or ethnicity.” In this blog post, Mary Breheny offers an answer to her question.

silhouette of person riding on commuter bike
Photo by Flo Maderebner on

I have never thought of myself as coordinated or physically adept, but from the first week of lock-down here in New Zealand I began cycling each morning around my rural neighbourhood. Some days I made productive use of this time, working away inside my head. Some days I mused on mundane activities. Occasionally, I did nothing but note the smells of my dairy farming district: silage, dead animals, smoke, and muck.

man riding a bicycle
Photo by Stock Photos on

One day, I found myself cycling on a dead-end road, pushing hard, breathy and heart pounding. I could feel myself flying. I started to feel smugly satisfied: how hard I had trained since I began cycling! All those hours and kilometres had paid off; I could now bike like the wind! What a feeling of competence and satisfaction! I stopped at the end of the road to sup smugly from my water bottle before turning for home.

As soon as I pushed my pedals for the homeward journey my arrogance disappeared. It was hard work. Each downward movement of the pedal took energy and effort and progress was slow. All my fitness had been a sham; I had been cycling with a tail wind. I struggled home, sweaty and slow and tired. The distinction between effort and progress clear to me; progress is not the natural outcome of effort as we have been led to believe.

Unearned privilege is a tailwind. Those who benefit from this tailwind are thrusting forward and making headway. But each downward movement of the pedal propels them further forward because unseen forces are working with them.

Unseen forces make each of their efforts count and each one takes them even further than they would have achieved without the tailwind. Because the tailwind is invisible, it is easy to assume that individual effort alone is what is producing that progress.

Structural disadvantage is a headwind. Those who are working into the wind are working hard, pushing forward and making little progress. Unseen forces are working against them, each effort exhausts and moves them forward little. Unlike the tailwind, there is never any doubt when you are cycling into a headwind. It shapes the experience of every movement. You must tuck your head down, battling all the way, blinking against the wind. You can see others sailing past, reveling in their success and oblivious to the prevailing wind.

Some people are cycling with the wind, others are cycling into the wind up an incline with a bike rusted and wobbly. Difficulties heaped upon drawbacks.

man beside bicycle
Photo by Nish Neo on

So, in response to the politician’s original question–“Is there something wrong with me being White?”: no, there is nothing wrong with being White. I am Pākehā* too, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But, it comes with unearned privilege which makes our progress through the world easier. It is a tailwind through every storm.

There must be representation at every table from people who know what it is like to cycle into the wind. It is not enough to claim that ethnicity was not a consideration when choosing the best politicians to represent the electorate. This demonstrates that those in power don’t see the forces that have enabled their success, nor can they provide solutions that will address the headwinds others battle against. No solutions will ever be found to the issues of the day from people who have no experience of struggling into the wind.

*Note: Pākehā is the term used by the indigenous people of New Zealand to refer to New Zealanders of non- Māori /non-Polynesian heritage.

About the author

Mary Breheny is an Associate Professor of Health Sciences at Massey University, New Zealand. Her research programme focuses on understanding how social and economic issues influence health across the life course.  She is interested in the ways that inequalities throughout the lifespan accumulate in later life and prevent older people from ageing well. 

This piece originally appeared in The Spinoff, 1 June, 2020 

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