At a family friend’s Christmas party, I found myself enthralled in an incredibly interesting conversation with a white woman intrigued by my work in religion. She, too, had folks in her life who work in religious spaces, and we found ourselves connecting on an array of topics. Suddenly, the conversation turned toward my education.
“Your work sounds fascinating, where do you attend school?” she asked.
“I am currently at Harvard Divinity School,” I replied. “I am gearing up to graduate soon.”
“Oh! Wow, you got to Harvard. Wow, so cool. Well, my son applied to a whole bunch of colleges and did not get in. But you know, there is nothing special about him, his grades are pretty average, and, you know… he is not… ethnic.”
The conversation ended there. Abruptly. Like many adults at holiday parties, I utilized the generous amount of wine present to shake off this woman’s racism and continue to mingle.
But I stewed on this conversation for days. I felt surprised at myself. I am normally incredibly assertive in the face of macroaggressions, but her words had rendered me silent. She intended to make me feel small, and she succeeded. Further, she called on a trope I have faced for much of my life, one that is traumatizing and difficult to confront in the moment, especially in a jovial party atmosphere. I’d felt rage at her statement, but I’d also felt rage at the ways in which her statement diminished me and sought to erase and undercut my academic achievements as a way to preserve her own sense of self-worth.
Like most Black and Brown students, this certainly did not mark the first time a white person told me that my college acceptances were not, in fact, a result of my hard work, determination, and tenacity but a product of my race. This assertion always confounds me; not only is it ahistorical and asinine, but it elucidates the illogical arguments of racism. Black folks are either typified as lazy, unproductive, and incompetent, or we are understood as receiving special privileges as a result of our race. Both of these narratives work to bolster white confidence and diminish and erase Black excellence.
If we don’t get into college, certain white people might say, it is because we failed to apply the same work ethic as our white colleagues by way of our laziness. This, in turn, implies a system of meritocracy. If we do get into college, those same white people suddenly deny their previous assertions of meritocracy and tell us that we were only admitted by virtue of our race. It is a handout, a pity acceptance. This always makes me laugh because Blackness has never resulted in an increase of socioeconomic capital for any Black person ever. Y’all got your 40 acres and a mule? Reparations are a long time coming.
The first narrative (laziness) erases systematic racism in the college admissions process, the insidiousness of the school-to-prison pipeline, the intentional lack of funding for predominantly Black and Brown schools, and the deep effects of expectation bias and imposter syndrome in the classroom. The second narrative (special privileges) serves to assuage white people’s feelings of inferiority when they encounter Black and Brown folks who have excelled despite the odds.
Let there be no mistake, the woman at the dinner party felt small in my presence and chose to make me feel small in return. In that moment, she failed to do the work of reconciling my positionality with her racism and instead fell back on a narrative that would reify what she already believes about Black people: that we are less than and that even when our positionality challenges that of her or her son, it cannot possibly be due to our excellence — it must be a result of handout. It’s malicious, lazy, and insecure.
This, of course, brings me to the college admissions bribery scandal. For years, my Black and Brown academic colleagues and I have silently shouldered the burden of our own excellence. We know that whatever space we enter into, someone may attribute our competence to an affirmative-action handout. Despite the fact that the majority of college campuses fail to reflect the national population of Black and Brown people and despite that we experience academic trauma on top of excelling in rigorous programs, we know that by virtue of our achievements, white people will lash out at us because our admission causes them to confront their own mediocrity.
This scandal reminds us that white people have always received academic handouts; they have always utilized their social capital and unearned privilege to bully and bribe their way into elite spaces. I hope this is a moment of collective reflection for white folks to consider what Black and Brown people are always forced to contend with: Am I only here because of my race?
To my fellow Black and Brown colleagues, the next time you look to your left and your right in class and realize you are the only person of color in the room, I hope you smile with the knowledge that your excellence ushered you into this space. You made it despite the odds while many of our white colleagues are there because of them.
I call on white folks to start contending with their own averageness and mediocrity in lieu of diminishing Black and Brown people who do not deserve to be gaslit and dehumanized as a result of your own violent fragility.
Do better. Be better.