By Fraser Raeburn |

I recently read an article about unthinking privilege in the arts – the slow realisation of a writer that rich kids don’t just grow up to be doctors and lawyers, but also dominate the artistic world, because of course they’re the ones who had the training, the spare time and the security to pursue those dreams. It’s a great piece. Go read it.

Mulling over it inspired me to think a bit more about privilege in my own world. I think academia is at the very least more aware of the issue, if nothing else because the ingrained habit of criticising everything eventually gets turned inward. Yet while we all know the issue – underrepresentation of minorities and working-class backgrounds – we only ever seem to think of it in an abstract sense.

I think there are a few reasons the conversation remains abstract. At least part of it is because whatever our backgrounds, few of us find this lifestyle easy. Most of us are chronically short of money for our work, let alone our lives, and need to try incredibly hard to keep our heads above water. It’s hard to think of yourself as privileged when you embark on a career path that offers little reward now, perhaps never.

Relativity plays its part. We all, by definition, went to university, and have friends who are doctors and lawyers, who earn actual money and know how to wear suits. We all knew people who were richer than us growing up. It’s easy to assume that you’re in the middle somewhere, because that’s almost always our lived experience.

What’s more insidious is the culture of academia. No one wants to admit that they are here for any other reason than pure, unadulterated talent and hard work. We earned our places in PhD programmes, earned our funding, otherwise what the hell are we doing here? Academia likes to think of itself as a meritocracy – which is great in some ways, but also promotes the illusion that merit is all that got us where we are. No one likes to voice the thought that maybe we had help along the way, not just because it’s embarrassing for a bunch of left-wing liberals to admit that we aren’t one with the labouring classes but because it’s also a tacit admission that maybe we don’t measure up. If we had help, maybe we don’t belong here – and believing that we belong is about the only thing that gets us through the day sometimes. Arrogance isn’t a luxury, it’s an occupational necessity.

It doesn’t help that academia still fetishises privilege in many ways. In history, it’s often visible at conferences – the number of times I’ve been jealous of an attendee’s immaculately run-down historian tweed! We put independence on a pedestal. Not just independence of thought, but independence from the vicissitudes of grant applications, of publication targets, of research evaluations, as if one can disdain those things without implicit personal security.

My current retirement plan is selling off my tweed collection to hipsters

There’s bugger all I can do about this problem – we’re talking about fixing something that has been inherent to academia from the very start.  What I can do is openly admit that I got a hand up. My parents were financially comfortable, and sent me to a good school. They supported me at university – I still worked the crappy jobs, did my time at the supermarket checkout but I did it to afford luxuries, not the basic needs of life. I couldn’t have done my Masters without their providing the fees. Even now that I have a fully-funded PhD and don’t rely on their support, I know that if push came to shove they would still help and I’d be fine.

I still think I belong here, and that I’m good enough to earn my PhD and hopefully get a job. But it’s time to stop pretending: without all those advantages, I almost certainly wouldn’t be here.

A bio feels superfluous at this point. You can point it out to me on Twitter if I missed anything.

(Cover image (cc); Image 1 (cc)