By Annie Rochon
“I’ve worked hard for what I have. You have, too. We’re raised in a culture of hard work. When we succeed, we’re told that we earned it. ‘Put in the effort, and the results will come,’ right? We think we deserve to be where we are. Our society functions on the idea that your merits – skills, abilities, talents – determine how well you do. This is the myth of the meritocracy.” – Aquil Virani.
You might know Aquil Virani for his visiting art project, but he’s also an activist with a background in liberal arts and philosophy. He chose McGill University over art school after receiving the J.W. McConnell Major Scholarship, a full-ride bursary awarded for academic excellence and community involvement.
“Picture this. I’m eight years old, tired at the end of a school soccer practice, catching my breath on the bench. It’s a Wednesday evening. My mother pulls up in the parking lot as I yell, ‘Race to the car! Whoever wins sits up front!’ Suddenly, almost involuntarily, the four of us carpoolers are sprinting toward the Ford Aerostar, forgetting momentarily about our aches and pains. My hand reaches the heated hood of the van just before my friend Eric’s does. The two others voice complaints, too. ‘You started closer to the car!’ ‘I didn’t have the right shoes on. You had cleats!’ ‘I had to run more during practice, so I was tired.’ ‘You were already running when we started.’ My mom congratulates me as we sit in the car; I stick my tongue out at my friends through the rear-view mirror. ‘I won the race last week, too,’ I remind them with a smirk. ‘I heard the same excuses.’
“It’s much harder to admit that the race was unfair if you win. We internalize the success to reflect who we are – how great we are. We assume that the losers are just fabricating excuses to attack our greatness. We don’t want asterisks next to our name like Tom Brady. Our success blinds us to the reality of our situation. We ‘deserved’ to win. Right?
“Systemic privilege is a bit more nuanced than the story of an immature Aquil at age eight. It’s the idea that we benefit, often unknowingly, from systematic advantages based on our identity. We score higher on a test, not realizing that some of our peers had to work at their part-time job last night. We write a better paper, not realizing that some of our peers couldn’t ask their parents for help like we did. We find a good job sooner, not realizing that some of our peers don’t have the connections to set up a smooth entry into the workforce. We benefit when our parents can spend more time with us, pay for our extracurricular activities, help us with our homework, and help us find a job. This is class privilege.
“A study released in 2017 from the ‘diversity utopia’ known as Canada found that job applicants with Indian, Pakistani or Chinese names were 28 percent less likely to receive an interview request compared to applicants with Anglophone (‘white’) names, even when all the qualifications were the same. It doesn’t mean that there are a bunch of explicitly racist HR professionals; it means that subtle unnoticed biases affect the thought process of employers, small and large, to the benefit of hard-working white people. This is white privilege.
“The well-documented gender pay gap – whether adjusted or not to account for disparities in the types of jobs men and women are socialized to choose – serves as a symptom of our culture in which men are treated differently than women. Men who take charge during a meeting are seen as ‘direct and natural leaders’ while women of similar character are viewed as ‘bossy, bitchy and aggressive.’ Men are still less burdened by domestic tasks at home compared to women, either as sons, roommates, or husbands; this leaves more time to get work done and rest more. (Ask your female friends.) These are just a few benefits that accumulate over time. There are so many more examples. This is male privilege.
“The effect of privilege grows over time. My class privilege might help me score higher on a test in 9th grade because my parents were home to help me. I am put in the honors class by 10th grade. I perform better by 11th grade, winning a scholarship to a more prestigious college by my senior year. I can afford to attend this renowned college where I make amazing connections, finding a highly competitive job through networking with professional alumni. Did I work hard? Sure. Do I deserve to be where I am? I think so. Did I benefit from wealthy parents who could afford to be home, help me with my homework and pay for my college education? Definitely. Little by little, all of my privileges build and interact with one another.
“This doesn’t mean that I didn’t work hard. It doesn’t mean that I am not proud of what I have accomplished. It means that I didn’t have to punch through as many walls as others. It means that I’m not the best person to decide what is fair because many of my peers’ obstacles were invisible to me. What some call ‘checking your privilege’ starts with an awareness that systematic barriers accumulate over time and influence our ongoing paths to success. The next step is to realize that marginalized populations do not ‘deserve what they get’ because they are lazy or unintelligent. Rather, they deserve compassion, kindness, help and support, because we don’t fully understand what they have gone through.
“If you’re reading this article, if you live within the Paul Smith’s community, if you have enjoyed the privilege of going to college: consider what kinds of privileges have been afforded to you and not to others. Choose compassion. Choose kindness. Choose humility. Yes, you haven’t had it easy. Yes, you’ve worked hard. But also accept that you don’t know what others have experienced. It might change the way you see things.”
Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of Paul Smith’s College.
Highly recommended: “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” – Peggy McIntosh (an exercise on Privilege).
Annie Rochon is an Assistant Professor of Classical and Modern Languages at Paul Smith’s College. She grew up speaking French in Montreal, Quebec, and coming from a multicultural background, she is a strong advocate for diversity. She has a passion for language and for sharing it. She has a background in ethnolinguistics, translations, interpretation and terminology. She ardently believes that languages, travels, cultures and the beauty of cuisine will forever be intertwined. Rochon recently became a proud American citizen.