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The Black Hole

A few thoughts about privilege and how we get to where we are


The summer months are often a time for reflection and it is important for us all to take stock every now and then. For many of us, this means deciding whether or not to begin a new line of work, move residence, or to spend more time with family. In this time of reflection, I have stumbled upon two excellent articles that prompted me to think a little more deeply about how we get to where we are – I started to wonder about privilege.

Over the last couple of weeks, this topic has been tackled by two clever (and privileged!) people who have fought this battle and come out the other end with an incredible perspective that I think many of our readers would enjoy.

The first of these is from a Canadian emergency room doctor who shared her story about the people she meets on a day-to-day basis and the struggle to empathize with them. More than once, it seems, this particular doctor is moved by the situations in which her patients find themselves. Senior colleagues tell her it will wear off and she should try to ignore it – to stop feeling so bad for people who have made the wrong choices. However, this doctor (correctly, I suspect) thinks that she’ll be much worse off when she reaches that level of numbness.

More importantly, however, she points out the flawed logic that guides people into making such statements: that they made the “right” choices to end up as doctors and the down-and-out people in terrible situations made the “wrong” choices. The reality, as this doctor points out, is that people in the good situations were very fortunate to end up in the right school, with the right teacher and right colleagues who supported them along the way – she was given the opportunity to make the choice at all. The “narrative of privilege,” as she dubs it, is very damaging and limits compassion. We convince ourselves that we worked harder or were more clever than others to get to where we’ve gotten when the reality is that we were presented with opportunities to seize – often through circumstances that we had nothing to do with.

The second of the articles hits a little closer to the academic heart – an article about the uselessness of merit-based monetary scholarships. Written by another medical doctor, this open letter to the University of British Columbia chastises the university for not restricting its scholarship money to those who really need it. The story from this doctor is very honest – he received numerous awards and scholarships throughout his training and hardly even remembered getting them. As he puts it, “I’m still being given more money than I know what to do with.”

Surely the easiest thing then is to turn down the award money and put it back into the pot. But, as Dr. Gray points out, this just means that someone else who doesn’t need it will get it and put it in the bank. He argues for systemic change that will help more of these generous donations get into the hands of those who actually need it. The comments on this blog even brought up the fact that many Ivy League schools have steered away from merit-based financial awards. This could be extended to many facets of the scientific training system (e.g., stop funding trainees from well-funded labs to attend conferences that their supervisors can afford to fund).

All of these solutions sound great, but one massive question remains: how does one determine financial need? Do we simply leave it up to a numerical calculation (e.g., how much money one’s parents make, as is done by many provincial student loan programs)? I knew several students in my time from well-off families who were simply cut off from any sort of financial help and were also unable to get a student loan. How does one navigate these weird and wonderful circumstances?

Secondly, I wonder about the motivation that a merit-based scholarship might provide – perhaps good students (privileged or not) actually work harder and dedicate themselves more in order to get a small financial bonus. Are we all so noble to not be motivated by a little extra cash? I mention motivation and financial gain in the same breath in order to highlight another wonderful treat from the Internet: Dan Pink’s RSAnimate on motivation. Perhaps scholarship-awarding committees should have a listen.

Overall, I think both these young writers should be commended for sharing. It’s not easy to tell the Internet your dirty secrets, but sometimes it’s the only way to get the discussion going. For many of our readers, you’ve probably been lucky and you’ve probably been supported to get to where you are – try not to hold it against those who haven’t.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. David Lynch / October 14, 2015 at 09:35

    Mmm, is our good fortune primarily driven by our privilege and the wise decisions we’ve taken? This debate resonates with me currently, as I’ve recently changed my target audience from vulnerable adults living with a brain injury to privileged university managers. Both audiences have chosen to engage in communications training (my profession), however the apparent invulnerability of the manager persona can often be a barrier to the learning process, thereby becoming a disadvantage in change management. I’m wondering how much a privileged manager might learn from the disadvantaged brain injured student, and improve his performance by embracing vulnerability.

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