Affirmative Action may be uncomfortable, and that’s okay (for some people)

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.

Forgiving, forgetting, and fixing racial climates

From the 21-point plan developed by Colgate University to Vanderbilt University’s own burgeoning efforts to increase diversity, there are a lot of responses that universities have been developing to address student dissatisfaction with negative racial climates.

To a certain extent, I guess I should be glad. The kinds of efforts that these universities are undertaking are exactly the kinds of things that advocates, both student and otherwise, have been asking for from the start. These things make it sound, on the surface, like universities are genuinely making progress. I don’t think that’s particularly a wrong takeaway, since I think there’s something important about keeping an open mind as we move forward. That said, I can’t make myself feel particularly good about these efforts. And from what I can tell, having talked to other people who have been engaged with these movements from the start, I’m not alone.

I took some time to really think through why my reaction to these things is overwhelmingly negative, and when it comes down to it, it’s fairly simple: I don’t quite trust those driving these reforms. There are two halves to this feeling, which I share with some of my colleagues, that I think are both critical for understanding this reaction and also determining how we can move forward.

The first half of my negative feelings, in this context, is that these efforts are often coming from those same powers that produced the dissatisfaction that drove students to mobilization in the first place. Despite the perhaps cynical supposition that these powers developed these plans not out of actual empathy but rather to save face, I think it’s reasonable that students might not believe in their institutions, which were only recently the cause of their pain, to faithfully and effectively implement justice.

The second half concerns a certain lack of restorative justice in these efforts. Throughout the tenure of the students involved in this activism (as well as other students of color more generally), there has been a significant amount of harm done. First, before mobilization, many of these students consistently faced a racist environment that made their campus experiences painful. Second, during mobilization, many of the movement organizations faced significant opposition from their administrations, their faculty, and even their peers. This work is exhausting, as I’ve mentioned in the past, but it can also be damaging.

In the end, what this means is that the powers that be in institutions of higher education have effectively lost the trust of many students of color, especially those in positions of leadership. In my opinion, this dooms these new efforts to fail. What, then, would make students (like me) happy?

It’s going to take more than asking students to just forgive and forget what has happened in order for us to move forward as a nation. Significant damage has been done, and unless universities take sensitive, humble, and rigorous care in fixing the wrongs they have committed against students, they’re not going to have the support they need from communities that matter the most in these contexts. How can people do this? I don’t have all of the answers, but this is my opinion: Own it. Identify with the aggrieved students what harms have been done. Develop substantial and genuine apologies. As institutional leaders, commit to change not only in terms of what policies are made, but also in terms of how you as individuals will change yourselves. Acknowledge the pain you have caused, and continue to mend those relationships as you go through your work. And most importantly, in my opinion, approach this reparation in the spirit not of political reconciliation, but rather of a true and meaningful desire to make things right by these students.

I’m not saying this will always work, but these concrete actions, in my estimation, contain some of the elements of true humility that institutions will need in order to make these reforms work. I have yet to see an institution say “I’m sorry.” But I think that until that happens, students will continue to distrust the institutions that are trying to change.

White fragility and POC exhaustion

This post is in response to discussions I’ve seen about Hillary Clinton’s recent responses to Black Lives Matter activists.

I’ve posted about this and written about it briefly in other spaces before, and I think it’s about time that I actually fully explain myself when I say that white fragility is not just about white people.

I have no interest in trying to argue that people of color versus white people are more or less affected by white fragility. I wouldn’t normally take any issue with discussions about white fragility that don’t focus on the toll it takes on people of color except for the fact that (1) I feel like these discussions often, still, call on people of color to challenge white people while (2) ignoring how white fragility isn’t healthy for any of the parties involved.

For anyone who doesn’t already know, “white fragility” generally describes the psychological stress and often resulting negative reactions exhibited by many white people when confronted with questions about white privilege. These responses include things like, most notoriously, “I have black friends” or, more exhaustingly, “I marched with Martin Luther King.” (Honestly, people, stop using that as a shield.)

To sum it up, while there are certainly a lot of good pieces on white fragility out there, I find that a lot of them tend to focus on the way that white fragility hampers progress, how it makes it hard for white people to grow, and how it pervades white liberal discourse.

The narrative that I think it critically missing, however, is how white fragility has the real potential to make activist (or even just casual) spaces unsafe for people of color. (Yes, some of this may also apply to white activists, but I’m talking about people of color here, being a person of color myself.) This is my experience, I have discussed this with other people of color as well. Just take a moment and try to feel where I’m coming from.

Selfishly, when I hesitate to discuss white privilege, this isn’t because I worry about white people’s feelings. It’s because I worry about mine. It’s because I worry about having to expend all of my brain power to word what I am saying in a way that will be received. It’s because I worry that this is going to brand me as some white-hating person of color who doesn’t care about others’ struggles. It’s because I worry that somehow, miraculously, I’ll become the bad person in this conversation and that it’s going to make all of my future interactions with this white person dangerous for my own mental health.

It’s for this reason that while I appreciate the “brave space” (as opposed to “safe place”) language as progress for recognizing the real challenges of discussing race, I wish people would acknowledge that the bravery is not only on the part of those confronting their own privileges, but also on the part of those forced to confront others’ privileges.

I consider myself a fairly reserved person to the extent that I’m not prone to outpourings of emotion, and as such, it’s continuously a shock when I make what I feel are completely mild comments on white privilege, only to be met with a kind of non-coherent indignation that blindsides me, like being T-boned in a car accident. I’m not saying I’m a totally rational person, but I do feel like I’m being yelled at while I’m just trying to do what every white activist blog tells me to do: confront privilege when I see it. As much as I can try to breathe through it and protect myself, there’s no helping the swelling frustration I feel throughout the conversation. It’s fast, and it’s intense, like the kind of spike that you feel when someone tells you to “just calm down” when you were, in fact, totally calm in the first place. Then I have to suffer through a thousand explanations about your struggles and your work with racism and your critiques of black activist movements. After that, I feel like I now have to either (a) completely dismantle your argument, which could take hours and make us truly enemies or (b) sacrifice honesty in the name of maintaining a relationship or at the least, not creating a contentious relationship that will eat away at my soul for weeks on end. Either way, I’ve left this conversation with no motivation to do anything but go home, eat my feelings, and watch Netflix, while you get to go home feeling righteous, complaining to all of the other people I know that I’m unreasonable and a bad activist. There have been rare occasions where I’ve come out with any measure of emotional success.

Just because I advocate for open discussion doesn’t mean I enjoy having these discussions. I advocate because I want to live in a world where I shouldn’t have to fight to have these discussions. Because that’s what it is: a fight. It’s like pulling teeth. So while I can sympathize and even agree with some of Hillary Clinton’s thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement, I also have to acknowledge the deep sense of pure tiredness that I felt when I read about it.

Someone has to take responsibility for addressing white fragility. I think people of color can and do play a huge role in that. But don’t look at us like the weak ones when we don’t call people out on their privilege. Sometimes, we’re just tired. And you need to be okay with that.