Privilege should be a good thing but, today, it is often seen as an accusation as opposed to good fortune. In fact, having privilege is a very good thing. It breeds opportunity, it gives those who have it a better chance to succeed. It can buy quality education, good work experience, contacts, and a successful career. Those without it would be glad for it, and those with it have no reason to be ashamed.
The things that need to be changed are the avoidance of discussion around the issue, the privileged few’s blindness to having it, and an unwillingness to share good fortune with those who were not born with it.
Privilege and Money
Money and upbringing can be as sensitive a subject in talking about privilege as gender or race because, for the person benefiting from it, it can initially be as out of their control as their felt identity or the colour of their skin. After all, no one decides who they are born to, so why should one apologise for a factor in their fate for which they are not responsible?
This discussion has become important again in the wake of Conservative plans to increase the number of grammar schools – schools that select pupils, age eleven, based on academic prowess. Grammar schools are not as overtly tied to money as fee-paying schools, and May supposedly sees these schools as a vehicle to increasing social mobility: and theoretically, they could be.
However, once one begins to consider the effects of privilege on academic achievement, this theory falls apart. May’s hypothesis is based on the idea that such achievement is founded purely on personal intelligence and drive, and not influenced by factors such as money. This could not be further from the truth.
A recent BBC infographic succinctly demonstrates how grammar schools can actually hinder the social mobility of the poorest, and benefit the privileged even further.
Money opens doors, even at a young age. What is key to combating this privilege (and key to wanting to combat this privilege), is understanding that the problem is not that lots of richer children are gaining access to high-quality education. The problem is that lots of poorer children aren’t.
Of course, this issue with education stretches a long way past gaining entry to a grammar school. However, let us assume that a place at such a school ensures the hard-working pupil a successful career, regardless of family money. Why, at age eleven, is there already so much disparity in the ability of children to pass entrance exams, and why does this correlate with parental income?
Firstly, to gain a place, a child will need to have certain expectations of themselves. They will need to be confident in their abilities, and they will need to believe that they can achieve. This is what will then encourage them to work hard. A child who has little faith in their own intelligence and who does not believe themselves to be capable of gaining a place at a grammar school – or does not see the value of doing so – will not be motivated to put in any effort. This is something that is heavily influenced by parental success, and by extension, parental expectations of their children:
“…researchers have found that the average three-year-old born to a professional family has had 700,000 “encouragements” addressed to him or her, against 60,000 for a child born to parents on welfare.”
Already, children born to professional parents have the advantage. They are privileged not just in the money available to be spent on them, but in the support that they are likely receiving.
More obviously, it is also more likely that children born to richer parents are going to be able to benefit from tutors, perhaps from better living conditions, and even from their parents’ own experiences in being successful in education.
When they take the entrance exams, they have all this support behind them. They gain entry. A poorer student, without access to similar support, does not. The quality of the two students’ educations becomes even more different: benefiting the richer child even more than before. This is not social mobility.
However, the government’s sudden fetish for grammar schools is not the only issue when thinking about privilege and how it affects life chances. A popular Wireless comic takes a much broader look at the problem:
Just as parental wealth can determine the chances of an eleven-year-old gaining entry into a grammar school, so too can it contribute to a persons’ chances throughout life. Of course, this is not to say that all rich people are successful and all poor people destitute: just that one’s start in life is likely to affect the opportunities that one can take.
The last panel of the comic is what really demonstrates the problem: having privilege and not recognising it.
Of course, not every privileged person will reach the peak of success, and in that sense, Richard’s achievements should be lauded – he did work hard. However, he fails to recognise that his success is not purely driven by his work – that a person can work hard and still end up in Paula’s position – or much worse. This is a problem because, due to this mindset, Richard will not advocate for the less-privileged. Paula will not get help. Schemes suggested to help people like Paula will be rebuffed by people like Richard as an attack on hard-workers, as a ‘handout’. His company will not set up quotas for talented low-income people, it will not offer alternative pathways into the industry. It will stay closed to all who cannot take the road that Richard took.
Having privilege is not the problem. Blindness to having that privilege is.
Gender, Race and Privilege
Being privileged is not simply tied to family money, however. Factors such as race or gender, sexuality or disability, can really affect a person’s opportunities, particularly in the workplace.
For example, a report published this year found that Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) workers still have a number of disadvantages in the workplace. This includes a 12% lower employment rate than their white counterparts, a slower progression rate when in work, and a greater likelihood of working in low-paid or low skilled jobs, despite being more likely to be degree-educated. As well as implying that prejudice may well be hindering BME workers in their search for employment and in their chances of promotion, these statistics are significant when considering how parental wealth affects a child’s start in life. This disadvantage at work could easily be one part of a vicious circle with the potential to send future BME children into poverty: further and further from opportunities that might be available to their wealthier, white peers.
For women, there are similar issues. Excluding very young adults, men have higher employment rates overall. They also make up the majority of the top 10% of earners in the UK – with women over thirty making up an even smaller percentage of this group than their younger counterparts. Furthermore, female graduates tend to work in slightly lower-paid and lower-skilled occupations than their male counterparts, as well as men generally gravitating, more so than women, into professions associated with higher pay. Again, this implies a level of discrimination against women in the workplace, as well as, perhaps, a lack of confidence or aspiration in comparison to men: again, a vicious circle, with girls modelling themselves on the women who went before them, and being stunted by gendered expectations.
Just as with the problems with monetary privilege, so too can privileges afforded by race or gender be overlooked, and schemes to perhaps help boost BME, female, or other underprivileged workers be dismissed as ‘handouts’. This attitude is borne of the same skewed mindset: that having privilege is somehow shameful (and thus must be ignored). It isn’t (and it mustn’t be) – the shame lies in the neglect of those less fortunate.
It is for these reasons that schemes such as quotas, designed to increase diversity in business or education, cannot be ignored. Of course, a quota to increase the number of BME board members for a particular company might feel unfair to individual hard-working white candidates, but a quota is not designed to bar genuinely talented people from a position because of their race: it is designed to help those who also deserve the position, but might otherwise really be barred due to their race. In the same way, men could be intimidated by female quotas, the well-off by quotas and grants designed to give the poorest a leg-up, but such schemes are not meant to kick people down.
In fact, they benefit everyone. If quotas and grants and schemes can work together to put everyone on a level playing field, then success truly can be attributed to hard work. If privilege can be redressed, there is no reason why a rich white able-bodied male can’t boast of his success and claim that everything was down to his hard work and ingenuity. Because, beside him, a poor black disabled female is able to enjoy the very same success.