Pure Merit: Pure as the Driven Snow

[This is another "Sunday Rerun." This post was first posted in November 2002, and has been somewhat modified from the first version]

The more privileged you are, the easier it is to envision human beings as pure individuals, unconnected to other individuals in any way that matters.

It sometimes puzzles conservatives that progressives are so concerned with what people think. What is racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, after all, other than a way some people think about some other people? And as long as I’m free to pursue my own self-interest, what does it matter what others think of me?

For someone with a lot of privilege, the rational answer is, “it doesn’t matter at all.” The more privileged you are, the less other people’s thoughts count. You go into a store, and you buy what you want, or you don’t buy. You don’t have to worry about what the store clerks think of you – what could matter less?

It matters if you’re a black woman like Debbie Allen, the very successful producer and choreographer. When she walks into a store, it matters what the clerks think of her – because those clerks might decide to refuse to sell her anything (she obviously can’t afford it). This isn’t a hypothetical situation – it really happened. Just as it really happened to Patricia Williams (a very successful lawyer who is a black woman), who once visited a high-end retail store – and the clerk refused to even buzz her in.

Those are small examples, but they illustrate what I mean. To someone with a lot of privilege, what strangers think is irrelevant. To someone in a less privileged position, what strangers think of you determines what kind of access you get to the complex network of relationships that make up our society and our economy. When strangers often think less of you because of your sex or race, you have less access to the material benefits of our society and economy.

People with more privilege, in contrast, can easily imagine that they are independent. A big mark of privilege is that social and economic networks tend to facilitate our goals, rather than block them. This makes it easier to ignore the social and economic networks around us; and it makes it easier for the privileged to imagine their accomplishments are the result of their own pure merit. Imagine two roads: one smooth, well-paved, well-maintained, the other lumpy and full of cracks and pits. Most people will drive over the smooth road without even noticing it – but that doesn’t mean that the smooth road hasn’t facilitated their driving. Nor does it mean that the person driving on the smooth road has more merit, as a driver, than someone stuck on pothole avenue.

The feminist view of the world – in which people are not independent but interlinked, and therefore what others think matters in very real and concrete ways – is much more realistic. No one is independent; we all rely on a network of social and economic ties to tens of thousands of strangers, just to get through a single day. (Who grew the food you eat? Who paved the road you take to work? Who decided to offer you your job? Who decided to offer – or not offer – you a residence where you now live? You didn’t do all these things yourself.)

I’m not saying that straight white men should be blamed for any of this. It’s not our fault if the road we drive on is smoother than the roads most folks have access to. But when the folks on the smooth road go faster and further, can we at least stop pretending it’s because they’re better drivers?

This entry posted in Feminism, sexism, etc, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

5 Responses to Pure Merit: Pure as the Driven Snow

  1. 1
    brayden says:

    Very nice essay. I need to borrow that last analogy for a sociology 101 course.

  2. 2
    sara says:

    Very well said. :)

  3. 3
    hailey says:

    Great analogy. Additionally, some more “privileged” people assume that a less privileged person’s difficulties are a result of their own poor choices. A person of privilege might say that everyone has equal access to that smooth and paved road. Their privilege is invisible to them and instead, ease in life is a result of personal accomplishment.

  4. 4
    sennoma says:

    Great post, Amp.

    It’s not our fault if the road we drive on is smoother than the roads most folks have access to.

    I’m not sure that’s always entirely true. What about those who actively seek to ensure that their roads stay smooth by forcing others to take Pothole Ave? In addition, I would argue that the beneficiaries of unearned privilege have a minimal responsibility to point out the smooth road they travelled, to recognise its contribution to their progress and make it an issue in public discourse. This seems to me to be the least we (I’m a straight white male) can do to smooth other people’s roads. To fail to do even that is to acquiesce in the status quo — to facilitate the perpetuation of unearned privilege. I hear a lot of straight white men claiming *not* to have ever been the beneficiary of privilege. Those who are doing that are, IMO, partly to blame for the smoothness of their own roads (and the concomitant roughness of someone else’s).

  5. 5
    pdm says:


    The feminist view of the world – in which people are not independent but interlinked, and therefore what others think matters in very real and concrete ways – is much more realistic. No one is independent; we all rely on a network of social and economic ties to tens of thousands of strangers, just to get through a single day. (Who grew the food you eat? Who paved the road you take to work? Who decided to offer you your job? Who decided to offer – or not offer – you a residence where you now live? You didn’t do all these things yourself.)

    I agree with this—up to a point (although I don’t think it is ONLY a feminist worldview—IMHO, it is a cardinal argument of progressive/radical thought); I certainly believe the notion of “self-reliance” is a Big Lie promoted by the dominant order of Western “civilization” I also believe that “meritocracy” is another Big Lie.

    But I disagree with the notion that what others think of you is inherently—or, more to the point
    SHOULD—”matter” in very real and concrete ways. I’m a firm believer in the idea that what you choose to do ain’t nobody’s business so long as what you do does not harm them (of course, what actions on one’s part DOES consist of harm to others is wide open to debate—porn’s a good example.). I acknowledge your point that what others think does matter way more to the social/political/econominc “have-nots” that the “haves.” But I do not buy the notion that free will or the idea of “live and let live” is in and of itself a capitalist/patriarchal/reactionary mentality—to the contrary, I feel that any progressive/radical movement worth its salt works to make that idea real for ALL people, not for just a privileged white/male/straight/wealthy elite.

    This is a distnction I feel is important, because the religious right certainly could use—no, HAS—used “what others think matters in very real and concrete ways”—to justify repealing, or eroding, Roe Vs. Wade. And censors (especially, but not only right-wing ones) use that notion as a self-justification.

    Or, to quote a U2 song: “We’re one—but we’re not the same.”