Diversity and the myth of meritocracy

Following on from the white privilege and heterosexual privilege questionnaires in my last LGBTQ+ History Month blog post (find them here if you haven’t taken them yet – they are really quick and I promise you will find the results of one or both very interesting!), I want to recapitulate briefly how white, heterosexual (straight) men have enormous yet invisible advantages over others. Anyone who is white, able-bodied, free from developmental difficulties, heterosexual, identifies with their anatomical birth gender, and who is male inherit an unearned position of privilege as their birthright.

The all too typical face of a company director

Many people are lucky to be born with the extraordinary privilege of enjoying all these sources of privilege. Everyone else is effectively disadvantaged to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how far they diverge from this ultra-privileged subset of society. This hidden privilege is so old that it is hard to notice it in action. Most people prefer to believe that those who enjoy success deserve it, that they have all worked hard to achieve it and that we live in what is fundamentally a meritocracy, where hard work is rewarded without fear or favour. Sadly, this is a myth. Not only are identical people with equal ingenuity exposed to different development opportunities depending on their life courses but doors are often opened for those who more closely resemble those already in power, a quick survey of company directors and politicians will show are almost all heterosexual, white men.

As a result, a black lesbian may face discrimination separately and additively because she is black, homosexual and a woman.  When seeking employment and promotion, access to services, and in everyday social interactions, she may find herself passed over, treated less well, be affronted by insults (often masquerading as humour), suffer abuse and indignities, and feel forced to conceal her sexual orientation while her heterosexual colleagues happily discuss their relationships, families and children in front of her.  For it is well known that if you are heterosexual, talking about your family is normal and healthy.  If gay people do the same things, they are often accused of ‘forcing their sexuality onto others’ and flaunting their deviance from historical social norms, norms which many people believe should never be challenged simply because they are old.  

Not the typical face of a company director

The case against tradition and social norms

The argument that traditions and social norms should be respected purely because they are established and familiar is an invalid circular argument.  Women were not allowed to vote for thousands of years and yet may now do so thanks to revolutionary action by the Suffragettes, America overthrew racial segregation thanks to the Civil Rights movement, South Africa ended Apartheid, homosexuality was decriminalised in the US and the UK following the Stonewall riots and pressure from the Anglican Church, respectively.  Many bad, old social norms have been overturned.  Just because something is old, does not make it good or worth keeping.  Change is often for the better.

Measuring everyone the same way does not make a system fair.

How you can help

We can all help change society one person at a time by:

  1. challenging systems of oppression – including those that give us power;
  2. raising awareness to the inequalities that result of unearned privileges;
  3. using our privilege to give power to those to those who do not have it and ensure their voices are heard.

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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