I came across an article recently that articulated a view I've heard before. Like others before them, the author makes a false equivalence:
...this idea of agency is a controversial one today...We speak of privileges and systemic biases. We talk of our problems as if they are intractable, overwhelming and malevolently created. Even on the extreme right, there is an obsession with biological differences between sexes and races, about whether one gender or another is naturally better at this or that. Again, these are simply averages that have nothing to do with individuals. Our focus on it all, from either side, is a way of subtly erasing agency. We emphasise where we are disempowered rather than opportunities for empowerment.
The author seems to believe argument that highlighting structural inequalities, biases and systemic obstacles is disempowering, and rather focus should be on the opportunities available.
Now, I must make the disclaimer that I do speak and write publicly about bias and privilege, so it would obviously be in my interest to challenge this charge. However, it is important to realise that not all norms and challenges are the same, and these are far from binary conversations.
Peter Thiel (as the article pointed out), a billionaire who was upset at what was written about him in the press, was told that 'there was nothing he could do about it' because of the norms within media. He then went on to do something about it, and this is the example of 'high levels of agency' the author is asking us to consider, and perhaps emulate. It should be noted the author does not condone Thiel's actions per se.
However, being written about in the press and then taking that news outlet down is not quite the same as a systemic bias against women, or structural inequalities due to a history of slavery and colonisation. There are reams of studies that look at the structural nature of these inequalities, and some of them are overwhelming, intractable and malevolently created. To dismiss a focus on tackling structural inequality seems inconsiderate, illogical and ill-informed.
The reality is, folk who are marginalised have been succeeding in spite of these inequalities and biases. You want to know about agency? Talk to first generation migrant parents. I was unaware of the true impact of cognitive biases and structural inequality growing up because my parents refused to entertain that as an excuse, like many other migrant kids I knew. In fact, any systemic issue would be framed - on purpose - as an opportunity for growth. Work ten times as hard, because things are tougher for women / people of colour / Muslims, I was told. The way my parents brought my brother and I up was to believe that our agency would overcome all. And it did - until it didn't - but that's a story for another time...
Yes, individual agency is something we can control, and perhaps even underestimate. But talk of systemic and structural problems does not automatically mean that individual agency is disregarded, and does not have to be inherently disempowering. In fact, that fact that the public discourse has shifted to include the structural challenges is a step in the right direction. It means we are shifting to a place where we change the world to fit people, rather than people to fit the world.
Individually, we can control our mindsets, and do our best to fully utilise our agency. Not everything is within an individual's control however. Rather than dismiss that reality, those with more access and agency should do what they can to level the playing field. And don't say it can't be done... ;)