The Myth of Meritocracy

I read an article for an Anti-Discrimination course during my Master’s that touched me deeply. Amidst the numerous assignments, reflections, and readings; this one stood out to me. Barrett (as cited in Anderson, 2017, para. 4) reveals that “traditionally marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American ideal that hard work and perseverance naturally lead to success show a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors during their middle-school years.”

In North America, the ideology of the American dream places an onus on minorities to work harder: longer hours, tolerating workforce malpractices, and depending on welfare because minimum wage isn’t enough. A couple years ago, my aunt worked in North York and made $8 an hour. She woke at 6AM to bus to a dim sum restaurant. She pushed a cart of Chinese food to pay for her son’s university education.

The common belief that we all start from the same place with the same opportunities communicates to people that if they experience environmental, financial, or other barriers to their academic progress (or overall growth), it’s their fault and responsibility.

It’s time to think.

If we live in a just society, why are certain marginalized groups overrepresented in particular jobs and in special education? Racism, classism, and oppression operate on a grand scale. Inequities are systemic and the idea that perseverance will inevitably improve life circumstances decreases confidence and increases precarious behaviour (Anderson, 2017).

The myth of meritocracy is a deficit discourse. Barrett explains (as cited in Anderson, 2017, para. 3), “‘Students who are told that things are fair implode pretty quickly in middle school as self-doubt hits them,” he said, “and they begin to blame themselves for problems they can’t control.’”

If you’re privileged, you can feel fantastic about a “fair” system since you’ve made it. But what about the child living in poverty and relying on government aid? If a family has to worry about paying the next bill, how can an adolescent be expected to study when they have to work? How does a child from a family of domestic abuse pay attention in class? Or the student wishing for a breakfast program at school since there’s no food at home? And if they don’t ace that test, how are they supposed to feel within the paradigm of the American Dream? Institutional inequities disadvantage individuals and individual merit is not always rewarded.

I do think determination, grit, and resilience are attributes that should be supported. Of course, students should work hard! But it’s the conviction that society is fair that is problematic. Internalizing this myth causes self-blame if one doesn’t experience upward mobility. And that’s harder for some than others.


Anderson, Melinda D. (2017). Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Colour. TheAtlantic.Retrieved from zing-the-myth-of-meritocracy/535035/