3. The European Superiority Complex

The Myth of Meritocracy


Reflection 5

Before you begin the section “The Myth of Meritocracy”, consider the following:

  • Do you think you earned or deserve your particular place in this world? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever been made to feel that it was your fault you were unable to succeed, while the barriers and structures that affected you were ignored or denied?

Note: to access your reflection journal please review the introduction section of the European Superiority Complex module.


To refresh your memory, listen to the audio clip or read the transcript below from Video 3: The European Superiority Complex.

“This is where the myth of meritocracy comes into play. If you assimilate into Western culture, and become a wage labourer, you are promised access to the enjoyments and securities modernity and civilization have to offer. Anyone is able to ‘make it’ in a free, democratic, capitalist system, because everyone is supposedly on equal footing. You just have to ‘work hard.’

Let’s take a look at an episode of the series Glad You Asked by Vox (20 minutes). The host, Fabiola Cineas, explores the myth of meritocracy and how it perpetuates a white supremacist system. While the focus in the video is the U.S., consider how meritocracy is steeped in the fabric of Canadian society. And how does meritocracy play out on a global scale?

It is clear that, as described in the video above, due to racial inequities (coupled with other forms of supremacy) not everyone starts off on an equal playing field. And the inequities that persist are remnants of generations of enslavement and servitude, of colonial violence and genocide. And not only are they remnants, as we have explored previously, they are in fact required for capitalist systems to continue functioning. As many have said, the system isn’t broken, it was designed this way.

Thus the main tenets of meritocracy are faulty. First, it is simply untrue to claim that equal opportunity exists when today we are only two generations removed from state-sanctioned racial segregation. When, for example, the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan. When a white supremacist system, alongside other forms of supremacy, continues to dictate opportunity and access for Black, Brown, Indigenous and racialized communities.

Secondly, it is literally impossible within the current capitalist system contingent on racial hierarchy and colonial logic for everyone to “make it”. The system currently functions and is entirely dependent on the fact that millions must not “make it”, as their labour and the lands they call home are necessary for the production of cheap consumer goods and an accumulation-based society.

If meritocracy is a myth, then why does it continue to hold such influence?

Meritocracy masks the reality that generational legacies of colonialism, enslavement, and white supremacy created the conditions of wealth accumulation for a select few. It creates a narrative of deservingness and righteousness for those at the top, and a narrative of failure and worthlessness for everyone else. It deflects blame from those in positions of wealth and power, as all they did was work hard to get ahead (not depend on unjust and violent systems). Meritocracy places the blame on those who never really had a chance to begin with. If you can’t make it, if you “fail”, it is your own fault.

Meritocracy is one of the beliefs that sustains systems of inequity and supremacy, invisibilizing the truth about who has access to wealth, resources and power in global capitalist systems. It ignores the fact that, not only is the game rigged to benefit a select few, it was actually designed this way.

The Role of Schools and the Education System

As explored by Cineas, while ideas of meritocracy are an integral part of our economic system, they play out in very important ways in our educational systems.

On a global scale, our current educational system based on schooling at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels was created as part of the colonial, capitalist, expansionist project. Its purpose was to socialize communities into a eurocentric knowledge and belief system; to naturalize and normalize the single story. Today, schooling around the world continues to perform a similar function, particularly in societies marked as “underdeveloped” and “left behind” as they try to catch up to the advanced West.

And although the idea of merit is claimed to be based on skills, knowledge, aptitude, etc, it is much more nuanced than that. As we have discussed, what is deemed valid knowledge and what is prioritized within school curriculums, for example, is based on eurocentric thinking. There is no universal knowledge system, no skills, beliefs and aptitudes that are naturally desirable or achievable for all. The type of knowledge, the structure of learning, and the underlying premise of schooling based on Western European supremacy is set up to sustain European dominance and global capitalist systems.

The documentary “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden” explores the effects of modern schooling around the world. You can watch the trailer below (3 minutes) or watch the complete Schooling the World documentary.

Within the West, to be able to succeed, students and their families need to demonstrate their ability to perform in this particular type of educational system. Families and communities socialized into, or part of White Western European communities, are already a step up. They are also more likely to have the ability to invest additional resources in their children’s schooling. To provide tutors for their children or to attend private school. To know how to advocate for their children within the system or how to seek out the limited opportunities available to ensure that their children can excel.

Students also need to convince the arbiters of learning (teachers and school administrators) that they do indeed fit the mark. There is a lot of research available about early streaming in schools. About young children who are encouraged to take a particular educational or professional route in life, not necessarily in relation to their specific skills or aptitudes, but due to how they are perceived. Stereotypes and assumptions made by teachers -many of whom are socialized within white supremacy and eurocentrism- often outweigh or sideline a learner’s ability to succeed, regardless as to whether or not they are able to simulate the skills and aptitudes desired by the institutional setting.

Thus, early on many children experience the paradox of meritocracy. They are told to dream big and pursue opportunities available to all, but maybe just these specific opportunities that are best suited for them. They are told that in order to be a good student they must work hard and study to be able to access more educational opportunities, but they just have to be sure to pass a series of aptitude tests (designed to disadvantage them).

Meritocracy is a foundational narrative and belief that permeates our society. But it is one that, once looked at more closely, is representative of the broader cracks and ruptures within dominant social systems. While it is a narrative that is still upheld by many, it is also just as frequently dissected and challenged by those experiencing its harmful effects.

Check Your Understanding

Recommended reading, watching and listening


Reflection 6

After completing the section “The Myth of Meritocracy” consider:

  • Review the UN’s Development Goal for quality education. What type of education and schooling do you think is being referred to? (watch the Schooling the World documentary if you have time).
  • What does the idea of meritocracy hide or ignore?

Note: to access your reflection journal please review the introduction section of the European Superiority Complex module.


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Global Justice and Change Copyright © 2022 by Nisha Toomey and Emma Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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