At my core, I am a storyteller. I think in story. I see story. It’s my most instinctive language. And thus I have a story today, about you.
You work at a company you love and today you get to choose a new hire. You have two resumés in front of you. The two applicants have the same degree and graduated the same year. Thomas graduated from a state college with decent grades, but not a lot of extracurriculars. William graduated from an Ivy League with stellar grades supported by a solid list of internships and glowing recommendations.
William seems like the obvious choice, right? After all, he worked hard enough to earn excellent grades and invested in his future through internships. He’ll certainly be an asset to your company.
Let’s go back a little. Back to high school. Both Thomas and William grew up in two-parent homes, the oldest of three children. Were you to administer an IQ test, they would score about the same. They’re both intelligent and hard-working.
But there are a few differences.
William attended a private school where he excelled. Every night he studied and completed his homework. On the weekends, he did volunteer work, and in the summers, he participated in unpaid internships. When the time came for him to take the SAT, he had a tutor who helped him with the latest tips and techniques.
Between his excellent grades, stellar SAT score, and impressive internships, he had his choice of top-tier colleges. Because he had a college fund, William was able to focus on studying during college instead of working. Thanks to his grades, he was offered competitive summer internships. By the time he graduated, William had both excellent grades and the praise of his professors.
Thomas attended a public school. Neither of his parents had college degrees, so they both worked lower income jobs that covered basic expenses, but not much else. To help his family and earn some money for college, Thomas got a part-time job in the afternoons after school. On the weekends, he babysat his younger siblings any time his parents had to work.
Because of limited study time, his grades were decent but not extraordinary. When the time came for him to take the SAT, he studied on his own and earned a slightly above average score, enough to earn him admission to a state college and a small scholarship. To cover additional costs, Thomas worked part-time while attending school full-time. Because of his work schedule, he wasn’t able to take advantage of additional study groups or other extracurriculars, but he managed to make solid grades.
Two intelligent young man. Two incredibly different experiences resulting in unequal resumés.
It’s tempting to believe the U.S. is a meritocracy, that the smart and talented people have the opportunity to rise to the top. In some ways, that’s true. Both William and Thomas had access to education and the possibility of college. They were given access to the same mountain. The difference was, thanks to William’s family’s wealth and connections, William had a ladder to help him start the climb, and a safety harness, so he was able to go for what he wanted without risk. Thomas, however, had to start climbing from the ground and he was free climbing the whole way—no harness to ensure his safety.
That, my friends, is the impact of privilege. And it can be a perpetuated, and often invisible, cycle. If everyone looks at the resumés and digs no deeper, William will get an excellent job and Thomas will get an average one. If Thomas has any school loans to pay off, he’ll have even less to live on and if he hasn’t had a credit card, his credit score will be low or non-existent, meaning he won’t be able to buy a house. If he buys a car, his interest rate will be higher, which means even less money.
These two young men started the same climb with different supplies. And when the resources and tools are different, the entire journey can be different. What seems like a simple financial advantage—a private school education and a college fund—can impact an individual’s entire life.
And that’s before you even consider the impact of other discriminatory factors like race, gender, age, and appearance.
So then the question becomes . . . how can we fix the problem?
To be honest, I don’t have the answer. I’m not an expert in the impact of socioeconomic factors. But I do know we can’t fix a problem unless we see it, stare it in the face and acknowledge it. It starts with looking past the surface, past the resumés, past the summary points of a human. That’s something we can all do, an opportunity we all have the power to offer.
And maybe one day, generations from now, people will start climbing that mountain with roughly equal supplies. Heck, maybe they’ll even give each other a hand up that mountain. Now that would be something, wouldn’t it?