The Fallacy of Meritocracy: Wrapping My Head Around a Concept

The Fallacy of Meritocracy: Wrapping My Head Around a Concept

The other day, the posting of this article caused something of a buzz among my Facebook friends who are involved in theatre. I myself linked to it, with the (admittedly naive) observation that I agreed with parts of it, but other parts left me scratching my head. The discussion the article engendered was, shall we say, spirited. In particular, some artists (who are white) got defensive and tried to argue that they have been doing their best to encourage diversity and inclusion by insisting that when their companies hold auditions, actors are chosen not by the color of their skin but because they are “the best person for the job.” This prompted responses from several artists of color who rightly pointed out that the white artists were A) being defensive, and B) trying to argue that they’d already done their part. Taking some time to think about and re-read the responses, it was clear that I and several of the other white artists were looking for some sort of absolution for the whole issue. We wanted our fellow artists to say to us, “No, you guys are cool. We’re not talking about you. It’s those other assholes who still haven’t gotten the message.” We believe we are deserving of this absolution because we think we operate as a meritocracy.

It was literally two weeks ago that I learned there was a “thing” about this idea of meritocracy, and it bugged me for days. A meritocracy, in simple terms, means, “the best person for the job.” How, I wondered, could that be a bad thing? Wasn’t that the goal? If it’s not the goal, then what is?

Here’s the thing: Like capitalism and communism, meritocracy looks great on paper but you run into snags when actual people are involved. The problem is bias.

“But I’m not biased!” you say. (You did say it. I heard you. Or at least you thought it quite loudly.) And I like to think that most of my white friends, are, like myself, progressive thinkers who make an effort to avoid consciously judging a person based on the color of their skin. But it’s that “consciously” part that is at issue. It’s easy to post an audition notice that says actors of any ethnicity will be considered for a role. And it will feel good to say that you saw a broad cross-section of the Chicago theatre community at your audition. And you will be proud to say you gave the role to “the best person for the job.” Even if that person is white. Which they very well might be. And because of inherent bias – the kind you probably aren’t even aware of but which instinctively tells you which train someone is likely to get on at a downtown L platform – it’s probable that they will be.

That’s not an indictment. I’m not accusing every white theatre artist of being a closet racist. I’m saying it’s how our brains work, because of the culture in which we were raised, because of our education, because of the entertainment we’ve consumed, because of who our friends and family were when we were first conceptualizing the ideas of “us” and “them.” And I know for a fact that it happens because I thought back on the various audition processes I’ve been a part of over the past few years and realized to my own horror and embarrassment that I have done this exact thing. So many times I thought I was being hip and progressive by saying, “Yeah, sure, this role could be played by all sorts of people!” But when it came down to it I retreated to my comfort zone and chose the person who was the most like me.

So, here’s something I can do: From now on, if I’m casting a role and I think it could be played by a person of color, I need to just go ahead and fucking cast a person of color. If not enough people of color are coming to audition for me, then I need to go find them. If I’m serious about diversity and inclusion, and I really want that reflected in my work, then I need to rewire my liberal brain and embrace the idea that here and now, the color of a person’s skin can actually be one of the things that makes them “the best person for the job.”

It’s a small step, but I feel pretty confident about it. I would certainly welcome any further thoughts about it.

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One response to “The Fallacy of Meritocracy: Wrapping My Head Around a Concept”

  1. Katie says:

    Another small step we can take, as allies, is coming to accept that greater inclusion will very likely entail reduced opportunities — at least, within the context we have grown accustomed to. Sometimes that is the thing that keeps us from listening or being able to hear things without taking them personally. Letting go of the need to hold on to what I perceive as “mine” has helped me engage in the discussion more than anything else.

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© 2016 Christopher M. Walsh