Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tories look to scrap affirmative action?

Story from the Globe and Mail

Listen. I get it. I've heard all the arguments about how people should get the job they are competing for based on being the best applicant for the job (this is apparently especially true for fire fighters, but I won't get into that here). No one should get a job being the less qualified applicant because they have a vagina, brown skin, or are legally blind. Why? Because Canadians believe firmly in the idea of Meritocracy. The people who work the hardest and put in the most effort will get the most returns.

Pull yourself up by the boot straps, Canada!

But I think a nice little thing that people conveniently tend to leave out of this conversation is the role that privilege plays in this big meritocracy game. It's one thing to say "I believe in an equal playing field" and it's entirely another thing to acknowledge just what that means.

I think a person is willfully blind if they disregard the fact that they grow up with a certain amount of privilege. In a conversation with a good friend yesterday (who, on the surface, finds affirmative action unfair), he acquiesced that yes, growing up white, in a middle-class family made it easier for him to become a property owner, to go to university, and to end up in the fairly lucrative job he's currently at. He also, of his own free will, acknowledged that in the predominantly white community he's going to be working in, it was probably easier for him to get a job than someone who was "brown".

So, in all fairness, people who believe in meritocracy should be firm supporters of affirmative action in the workplace; they should support special scholarships that are targeted at women, Native Canadians, or young people who grew up in poverty. As these are the attempts to address legitimate and systemic inequalities in our proverbial playing field. I mean, I grew up dirt poor and struggled my way through school, but I also had an easier go of it than an Indigenous girl from the West side of Saskatoon, or a young middle-class trans woman who's in the process of transitioning, or the immigrant teenager who's still learning the nuances of english, but dreams one day of being a biologist, or even the young adult who's been keeping up with their peers despite having cerebral palsy. Don't they deserve to play on this mythical level playing field too? Don't you think they've worked extra hard in getting to the same place as you? The same goes for jobs. Maybe you think you have better qualifications, but it's not all that unrealistic to acknowledge that the woman who got hired instead of you is only missing the year of experience you hold over her head because she was sexually harassed at her last three jobs and had to leave (It's happened to me at almost every single one of my jobs, so let's not bury our heads in the sand and pretend it doesn't happen anymore). Or that society made it clear that she was expected to stay home and have a baby while her husband did the bread-winning?

Maybe that's not the case, but it's statistically likely. Let's not forget: this is the business world, and no one has time to coddle your personal feelings. Affirmative action is the cold-hearted method of creating a semblance of equality.

People who believe in meritocracy who, at the same time, eschew the logic behind affirmative action are being disingenuous. But that's the true definition of privilege: the ability to acknowledge you have it, while simultaneously ignoring its implications.