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I remember watching an old Chris Rock interview where he stated as a black man; he need always to be on guard and in fact expect that a white person will drop the “N-word” at any time. That in fact, the blame was not to be placed on the white person for saying it, but on Rock for not anticipating it. While I will not dare to make myself the spokesperson for all black people, I’m sure many can commiserate that the danger of both overt and covert racism is a constant threat. The recent announcement that the man currently vacationing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is looking to “redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants” reminded me of a particularly hurtful experience.
I was at my friend’s house when my mother called to tell me I had been accepted to Penn State, University Park (i.e., “Main” campus). I got off the phone a little shaken – it was my first college acceptance so far, and I was happy, but it was not my first choice. It was the one in-state school to which I applied to appease my parents, and I was anxious that they would coerce me to attend before finding out what the other schools I applied you had to say. Still heady, I went back into the living room (yes, cell phones did exist at this time, but not everyone had one yet) and told my friend and her family the good news. I don’t remember if there was ever an actual congratulation offered, but what I will never forget is the conversation that happened next. With stunned faces, my friend and her family chose to focus on a family friend’s white child who was rejected from the same university and that my admission was indeed evidence that affirmative action was at play because according to their presumed nonbiased opinion, this girl ran academic and extracurricular circles me. While I was never privy to this girl’s curriculum vitae, I was just under the top 10 in my class (and I know for a fact that several in the top 10 cheated regularly, but that’s another story), was an officer of the National Honor Society, a two-year varsity sport letter earner, Key Club Officer, etcetera, etcetera, but that didn’t matter in the face of this clear travesty of justice.
I will never forget sitting in the middle crevice of their sunken V-shaped couch as their words faded in the background, my heart beating wildly in my ears. I didn’t speak up. By this time, I had lived in this predominately white community for almost the entirety of my elementary and secondary education. While I was never comfortable with these microaggressions, I was used to them, and like Chris Rock said, it was my fault for relaxing in the face of the constant threat. But it’s still upsetting after all these years because I am much more aware of the insidiousness of white supremacy and its confusion with overt racism and racial intimidation. White supremacy allowed my personhood to be conveniently erased by these people who knew me and seemed to care about me as they reduced me and my hard work to an erroneous stereotype without an iota of self-awareness or compunction on my behalf. This is a perfect illustration of why the justification of having “black friends” means nothing. Not only is it patronizing but having black or other non-white friends does not exempt white people from maintaining racist beliefs towards those friends and their race as a whole.
The false narrative of meritocracy in college admissions helps no one. In fact, it often carries the stink of white supremacy precisely because of many white people’s insistence that their spots are being “taken.” The presumption is that students of color couldn’t possibly meet admission criteria and that the persistent education gap that exists between students of color (with the exception of Asian students) and their white peers is the unfortunate reality of generally lower levels of intelligence rather than the result of systematic educational disenfranchisement. We tell all kids regardless of their background that if they work hard enough to excel inside and outside the classroom, they can get into pretty much any school they want. But that’s simply not true. Guidance counselors and admissions officers try as best they can to temper prospective students expectations, but it’s mostly too late. Adrienne K., a Native American college grad whose college acceptance was met by her white peers with the same cries of affirmative action, highlights the factors that actually give students a leg up , including legacy admissions, student athletes, students from underrepresented states (I was told by an admissions officer that getting students from the Dakotas to attend a school in the northeast was a crowning achievement!), students with disabilities, women interested in STEM majors, general diversity of student majors, etc. And those factors alone don’t even begin to consider things like necessary admissions caps. Like any good 80’s movie, you need ALL the cliques (jocks, nerds, etc.) represented to make a well-rounded class and create the vibrant, diverse campus with cool, cultural classes and the black and brown tokens white students can’t wait to claim as their “friends.”
Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.
~Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, 1967
Fifty years later, Dr. King’s words remain achingly relevant. Casual racism, combined with willful ignorance and a dash of conservative media propaganda ensures that the myth of affirmative action overwhelmingly benefiting “unqualified” racial minorities will continue despite evidence to the contrary. In fact, not only do people of color need to dispute the idea that they have an unfair advantage when it comes to admission, but also tuition and aid. And over 15 years later, despite having graduated from Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College with an award winning undergraduate thesis and eventually earning a Master of Arts degree, the prejudiced beliefs of my former friend and her family and their ilk continue to antagonize not only me but the next generation.
Shanna K Houser Contributor