The Poster Child for White Privilege? A Straw-Man Rant About Meritocracy

I was promised a mind blowing, and all I got was a white boy at Princeton ranting about meritocracy.

He claims that being asked to check his privilege in conversation “threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits” and “assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it.”

He claims the privilege narrative means he is “governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies.”

It’s odd that he got into Princeton without the ability to distinguish between “governed/runs on” and “influenced by.”

The most interesting part, of course, is when he details his family’s history of struggles, from Nazis to immigration and poverty. This, we’re supposed to believe, somehow contradicts the privilege narrative, because his white relatives, some of them male, had to struggle.

That’s the problem with calling someone out for the “privilege” which you assume has defined their narrative. You don’t know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are.

Well, no, dear. That’s the problem with your simplistic conception of the privilege narrative. To acknowledge privilege is actually the opposite. It means to recognize that you don’t know anyone else’s struggles. It means to recognize that challenges such as stigma, shame, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. exist, and affect us all differently, depending on a host of factors, including our identities. What it means is that for people who think, the inevitable conclusion is that the only way to know how and how much someone else has struggled is to ask them, and listen to them.

It’s a small mind which dismisses an idea based on the worst, least-useful, most narrow, simplistic version of it.

The only thing our author gets close to right is his claim that privilege checking casts the “very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth.” Again, it’s hyperbolic. Our friend isn’t good at nuance. But he has a point. Anything resembling pure meritocracy is an absolute myth. In truth privileges and disadvantages, for which the beneficiaries and victims have no responsibility abound, and influence outcomes.

That doesn’t mean our author didn’t work hard. Even if he’s not good at nuance, I’m sure he’s good at other kinds of thinking. But to claim he got to Princeton and everyone else who didn’t, didn’t, completely untouched by stigma, shame, racism, sexism, etc.? It’s a claim I certainly hope he isn’t making. Surely, these factors, outside of any individual’s control, influence outcomes. And surely there is privilege in the various ways and extents to which we must face them. To deny that reality, because to really understand it and take it seriously makes you uncomfortable, that would be the only thing mind-blowing about the piece.


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