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How understanding privilege can create a more level playing field

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that people who grow up in disadvantaged areas need to work harder to succeed at university. There are many factors intrinsic to where you grew up and went to school that, put simply, make your life easier or more difficult.

Unfortunately these things often go unacknowledged. Students from disadvantaged areas might encounter struggles at university that they are completely unprepared for.

Yin Paradies, Professor of Race Relations and Coordinator of Indigenous Knowledges and Culture in the Faculty of Arts and Education, says that understanding how unearned advantage works can be a step towards creating a more even playing field in higher education and, in turn, broader society.

The secret handshake

Did your parents go to university? And did their parents before them? What about your older siblings? If your family studied at university you probably have some insider knowledge about what to expect from higher education. ‘Having parents who know about what studying means and how to do it is an advantage,’ Prof. Paradies explains. ‘There is a cultural context to education and if you haven’t had experience with that through personal, intergenerational or family-based contexts then you may struggle.’

Institutions are aiming to better recognise where people are coming from. ‘There is the First in Family program for people who are the first person in their family to go to university,’ Prof Paradies says. ‘The idea behind it is to provide basic familiarity skills and support. People pick this stuff up but often in the meantime they struggle to understand what the expectations are of assignments, studying and learning.’

Your family’s financial situation and cultural background also play a role. ‘The culture of higher education and universities is a very white middle class thing,’ Prof. Paradies says. ‘For people from other cultures, or those with English as a second language etc., there is going to be some culture shock.’

Prof. Paradies explains that if a student comes from a background of financial struggle this may lead to impositions on their time. ‘Students might need to work and they may have family commitments and people they have to support. There are all sorts of different factors that impact on whether you actually have time to study.’ Scholarships can lighten the load but the student’s whole situation needs to be taken into consideration.

'There is a cultural context to education and if you haven’t had experience with that through personal, intergenerational or family-based contexts then you may struggle.'

Professor Yin Paradies,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Privilege can be hard to see

For many of us there can be an initial resistance to accept the role that unearned advantages play. ‘Privilege is about opportunities in life that are difficult to see,’ Prof. Paradies says. ‘People think, “I worked hard to get where I am so don’t tell me that I have unearned advantages or privileges.”’

It’s worth noting that no one is saying that you haven’t worked hard or had other difficult experiences in life. It’s just that hard work is only one part of the equation.

‘The reality is that a lot of people work hard in the world and only some of them actually get the job they want or to live where they want to or have enough money to go on holidays,’ Prof. Paradies explains. ‘There is a lot of luck involved in life that is on top of the hard work that you do.’

‘It’s a matter of understanding that while life is about how hard you work, it’s also about whether you are lucky enough to be in a place where that hard work pays off,’ Prof. Paradies says. ‘Privilege is about being within those contexts where there’s opportunities to get an education, get a loan from your parents, understand what studying is about and have social networks where people can refer you to opportunities that are available.’

For those who experience disadvantage, it is very clear that life is often about who you know, not what you know. ‘These things seem invisible to people who have those opportunities but for others in society who are struggling, it’s very obvious that they are not getting exposure to this cultural context where power and money, for example, reside,’ Prof Paradies says. ‘For a lot of people who don’t have these unearned advantages due to where they are born and who their parents are and what country they live in, it’s not about hard work it’s about those contexts of opportunity.’

Awareness is the first step

Prof. Paradies says that when people start to become aware of unearned advantage it often motivates them to work towards a more level playing field. ‘A lot of people are really into the idea of meritocracy and equality. When you “burst the bubble” and explain that we don’t really have these things at the moment, people see that there is work they can do to make that happen.’

We can all benefit from working on our own implicit biases. ‘Each of us privileges certain people based on the way they look or their background and we can change that,’ Prof. Paradies says. ‘We can change institutions so they are not coming from a monocultural place and they are able to respect and grow from other people’s perspectives whether that’s gender or race or something else.’

Life isn’t a level playing field and people start at different points in the race with different advantages and handicaps. According to Prof. Paradies, once we are aware of this we are on the path to change. ‘I think invariably that awareness can lead to motivation and action that can help make the world more equitable.’


Check out this video of a Privilege Walk – an activity that aims to visually demonstrate how privilege can either benefit or marginalise people in society.

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Prof. Yin Paradies
Prof. Yin Paradies

Professor of Race Relations and Coordinator of Indigenous Knowledges and Culture, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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