Imagine you are shopping for bananas. You have some specific ideas about what you are after. They have to be sweet, and not too ripe, not too green, as you want to eat them in the next day or two. Perhaps you are eating them as they are, or maybe you have plans to include them in a cake or a smoothie. You are confident in your ability to select a good bunch of bananas. After all, you have shopped for bananas many times, quite successfully.
Then you encounter this:
And you hesitate.
Having never encountered red bananas before you have questions. Are they as sweet as the yellow ones you usually buy? What if they are really starchy like plantains and need to be boiled to make them vaguely edible? Will they work in a cake? Or a smoothie? Will they stand up to the punishment of a kid’s lunch box? Will the kids love the novelty, or hate them with a passion and use them as missile? Are they ripe enough? How do you tell? Do they get redder as they ripen? Or turn yellower? Maybe they are past their best already?
So what do you do?
Do you walk on and find the yellow ones because you know what you are getting, and can guarantee that yellow bananas will do the job you have in mind? Or do you take the chance knowing that there’s a risk that you’ll regret your decision? And perhaps face the scorn of the family and your work colleagues who will mock your inability to select a half decent banana?
And now you understand why the merit argument fails. You know the one: the argument that says that real reason that basically anyone that isn’t white, male, straight, and able bodied misses out on opportunities is because they just aren’t as good. It’s not sexism, racism, ableism, or any of the other -isms. It’s just that they lack merit.
When your only previous experience of a capable person looks like a bit like the yellow banana, then that’s what capability looks like. Faced with a red banana, the safe option is to stick with the yellow banana. You really can’t go wrong with a yellow banana.
The problem is that red bananas that are left on the shelf will not have the opportunity to demonstrate that they too are at least as good as their yellow counterparts. It then becomes easy to blame the red banana for not being good enough. The red bananas sometimes come to believe that they aren’t as special as the yellow bananas either.
The red banana challenge is the reason why approaches like blinded reviews (where irrelevant information like the banana’s colour is not provided to the reviewer) or the use of quotas (every second banana needs to be a red one) are so helpful in achieving social equity. Not only do approaches such as this help the individual red banana to have a chance to make it to your lunch box, they also make it easier for every red banana to fulfil its destiny.
By the way – red bananas taste just like yellow ones. Give them a go if you have a chance.