World Trust

Mourning the American Myth of Meritocracy in Diversity Training

Posted by Lisa Abbott on November 4, 2014

Luke Visconti, CEO of Diversity Inc wrote in a recent blog post: "On the subject of diversity and inclusion, I Peggy_McIntoch_playersee the most mourning from good-hearted white, heterosexual men with no disabilities. Good people who don’t intentionally discriminate themselves and have a vision that America is an honest meritocracy and who resist information that would tell them otherwise."

What we are taught
In diversity & inclusion workshops, we often find that participants do resist information that challenges that vision of meritocracy. We are brought up to believe that, regardless of the color of your skin, all it takes to succeed in America is hard work.  Americans take comfort in stories of people of color who have "made it" through their efforts and talent. The succcess of Oprah Winfrey and Sonia Sotomayor are two good examples.

What we are not taught
In the film, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, antiracist activist Peggy McIntosh talks about the American "myth of meritocracy," where the unit of society is the individual. In this view, whatever you end up with must be what you wanted and worked for, earned and deserved, individually. Meritocracy is "part-way true," McIntosh says, "Your individual effort from your own sacred center does matter. But, also, huge systems that one's born into will bear on what one can do with one’s life. And that’s the part that has been missing from education."

Resistance can take the form of blame, shame and guilt.
When well-meaning white people who have never thought about privileged systems take a diversity workshop, it is common for feelings of blame, shame, and guilt to arise. To move past these emotions into productive dialogue, they need to understand, as McIntosh says in the film, "They were born into circumstances they didn’t invent, history they didn’t invent, but that big systems exist that they didn't know about." They need to understand the systemic nature of inequity.

Offer diversity workshop participants a simple frame that explains how systemic inequity functions.
Focusing on the system of inequity both depersonalizes and empowers. All forms of oppression intersect and operate in the same systemic fashion. So, this same frame applies to all “isms,” from racism to sexism to ableism. The system is composed of internal components, such as bias, privilege, and internalized “-ism” that play out externally through relationships that are interpersonal, institutional and structural.  A simple frame helps ensure that everyone can see the bigger picture and share a common language for the topic of inequity. This is critical for supporting analysis and for participants to be able to begin to answer “What is really at play here, and why?”

Providing a frame de-personalizes the topic.
Participants can see that inequity is not caused by “bad people.” Rather, it is a self-perpetuating system; One we are born into, one that is embedded in history, culture and identity. By using a frame it is also easier for people to see how, despite good intentions, internalized beliefs and institutions create structures that do perpetuate inequity. Participants can then choose how they can personally or collectively act to promote equal access for all. When the focus or "blame" is on the system, people are more easily able to move from "mourning the myth" to  accountability and action.

World Trust has developed a diagram that quickly and simply frames how the system of inequity functions. Learn more and download it below.

 Download pdf of System of Inequity


Topics: System of Inequity