“Why should I congratulate you,” I question a Latina student, seated at the same lunch table with me, after over-hearing her friend congratulate her.
She looks around, and whispers, “I got into college.”
With a huge smile on my face, I extend my congratulations. Excitedly, I ask her, “Which ones?”
Once again, she looks around. She leans forward, as if she does not want others to hear, and rattles off twelve highly selective colleges and universities, grimacing when she shares that Yale is the only one that rejected. I can easily feel her discomfort with sharing this seemingly exciting news in a public setting like the cafeteria. I remember that feeling over ten years ago as I sat in the same cafeteria, wary to update my classmates with my collegiate acceptances.
This time of year on high school campuses, specifically independent schools throughout the nation, students of color are stressed. They, like all students, are anxious about receiving their college admissions letters. Those letters that come in the big packet (congratulations!) or the small envelope (we are sorry to inform you…) seemingly dictate the rest of their lives…or so they are made to believe. Additionally, there is the added stress of sharing their news, especially their excitement, with members of their community. The reaction of their White peers often sound like:
“She only got in because she’s Latina.”
“He only got in because he’s Black.”
These phrases are painful because they completely devalue the student and his/her accomplishments. These phrases devour the student’s hard work over his/her high school career and burps a lame reason of race and quotas.
Meanwhile, there is limited conversation about those students who are legacies, or athletes, or whose parents coincidentally gave a significant donation to the university. Why are those students’ merits not questioned? Why are students of color often the only ones questioned when they receive acceptance to top colleges and universities?
This disparity in merit questioning is due to ignorance about affirmative action. The media has painted affirmative action as a policy that allowed for under-qualified people of color to gain admittance to higher education and professional jobs; meanwhile, they were taking these positions away from the
rightful better-qualified White students or professionals. Thus, many imagine that affirmative action was about quotas, and the infiltration of academia and consequent professions by poor, unintelligent people of color. See the conundrum that many students of color face during admission letter time. Their friends classmates, courtesy of societal training, are inundated with the wrongful perception that they, the students of color, are not capable and, more importantly, do not deserve those big packets stuffed with news of acceptance.
Additionally, the media does not share that White women actually benefited the most from the policy.
Ironically, the country is still in need of affirmative action, which according to President Kennedy meant “to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin” (Executive Order 10925, 1961). President Kennedy recognized that the country had to take affirmative action to right its stained past.
Wait, what? You do not understand why the country still needs affirmative action. Please peep the following video:
The video clearly illustrates the multi-generational advantage that White people have had since the country was invaded in 1492. For over four hundred year, people of color were restricted in their starting blocks, while their white counterparts freely ran around the life track uninhibited. Similarly, even after people of color leave the starting blocks, discrimination, housing segregation, the school to jail pipeline, amongst many other things have limited
people of color America from living up to its initial founding words, “We the people…” Instead, the country continues to employ various systems (educational, judicial, financial, housing, etc.) to ensure that White people, specifically heterosexual, land owning men, continue to win the race…easily.
Thus, those moments of joy felt when that big envelope sits on the dresser or on the kitchen counter are fleeting because they are unnecessarily followed up by negative comments, which are designed to make the owner of the congratulatory letter feel less than or ill-prepared or undeserving. More importantly, those comments reinforce a system that is designed to produce those feelings. Unfortunately, the system works.