Last year, Vanderbilt University brought Sheryll Cashin to discuss her book Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America. I attended, as did several of my colleagues and friends. And for those of us that were trying to work towards a more equitable and justice-oriented campus, it was…interesting, to say the least. Overall, I found it somewhat narrow and felt that it missed the point. I was deeply troubled for a while, especially as the audience consisted mostly of white members of the community who, more often than not, were in a place of power. What were they taking away from this talk, and how much harder was it going to make my job?
In discussing her opposition to affirmative action, she said one simple, powerful phrase that brought the crowd to its feet, notably without myself and my colleagues: “I was raised to care about other people’s children.”
In a lot of ways, I think this sentiment in opposition to affirmative action, that those in the dominant majority are being slighted in a zero-sum game of college admission, is very unhelpful. It was deeply troubling to me for a while, and only made me even more cynical about our ability as a community to enact real justice for those who are underserved in higher education or, more broadly, the world.
That said, I’ve thought about it a lot. And while I still think that it’s a huge problem that this was announced to a crowd of white people who overwhelmingly endorsed this point of view, I sympathize with where Dr. Cashin in coming from, in certain ways. Before anyone either (a) decides to dismiss everything I’m about to say as anti-justice or (b) use what I’m saying as a part of their anti-affirmative action platform, let me say up front: I support affirmative action, and I generally disagree with most opposition that those in the dominant majority have against affirmative action. What has changed in my thinking is that overall, I think it’s okay for black people to be uncomfortable when thinking about it.
Obviously (or maybe not, for some people), it’s not okay when someone assumes that a black person got into college because of affirmative action. I’ve gotten these comments before, anywhere from “It would be great to be black so I could get into college more easily” to “Well it’s good for you that you got affirmative action to be here.” I’m not going to spend time explaining why these statements are deeply offensive and hurtful, because it should be clear, but there’s a second reaction that I think we don’t think about a lot.
At least for me, when I was in college, I didn’t really understand how college admissions worked. Frankly, I’m still only fuzzy on the details. The secondary, but longer-lasting issue for me when it came to those offensive comments was that they’d dig their way into my subconscious and gradually start to feel true. Did I only get in because of my race? Do I not measure up to other people here because I didn’t get here on my own merit? I’m not saying that they’re healthy thoughts, but I think that if other black students were also feeling this way, I’m okay with that acknowledgement.
I think it’s okay for black people to feel uncomfortable about affirmative action as it relates to our own personal lives. I think that overall, that’s where Dr. Cashin was coming from (though it’s still thoughtless to not consider your audience). It’s for the same reason that, for a good portion of my young adult life, I was also against affirmative action. In a lot of ways, it’s not great to feel like you might be getting special treatment in spite of your merit.
All that said, I don’t think it’s valid for this to be a talking point for white people on this topic. It’s not up to white people to decide, in my opinion, whether or not my discomfort works for or against their own policy opinions. I’m not sure, now being pro-affirmative action, what exactly you do about the discomfort. It’s definitely hard to reconcile with broader senses of policy justice. These feelings, I think, are exacerbated by a life of feeling like my stereotype was lesser (in academic words, stereotype threat) and living in constant doubt because of it. Even with my updated understanding of the policy, knowing that I’m not actually taking the place of someone more “qualified,” it’s still a slight nag I have in the back of my mind.
I’d rather acknowledge it than pretend it’s not there. It’s the main reason why I don’t think affirmative action is necessarily a perfect situation, but it’s easier when I recognize that I feel this way, and then can work that into my more complete perspective on the policy. It’s not all about me, but in some respects, my thoughts about me are a part of it. Frankly, I’m okay with that.