In retrospect, it would seem obvious that I, as the daughter of two upper middle-class liberals, growing up in an isolated suburban liberal hamlet, would become a racist.
I was not the White Supremacist flavor of racist, but I was a more subtle (and thus more dangerous) varietal of racist. I did not understand my privilege as a white woman, and I did not see and thus could not comprehend what it meant to live without it. I went to my share of Martin Luther King Day parades and was vocal in my support of local desegregation efforts, and I was even president of the local chapter of the Young Democrats.
But to me, racism was the specter of a different era; the era of segregated water fountains and lunch counters. I lived in a gated community and never interacted with people of color. It was not intentional on my part or the part of my parents. They wanted to live in a “safe” part of town, and as the local public schools were not very good, I either went to private school or to “magnet” programs housed in public schools.
I believed that if everyone worked hard enough, they would have access to the same educational and professional opportunities as I did. When I have been reading the recent lawsuit brought by Abigail Fisher, who believed she was denied college admission because she was white, it brought back my own college admission struggles, and the realizations I have had since then.
I was obsessed with getting into the “best” college when I was in high school. I did the International Baccalaureate Program (which is like an honors curriculum on steroids – I had 24 hours of standardized testing spread out over the last month of high school that would determine if I got the IB diploma or not). I was the only woman in my class who took the two year calculus sequence and the two year advanced biology sequence. I maintained a 3.96 GPA. I was a varsity swimmer for three years, wrote and directed two plays (and acted in others), was in four honor societies, and volunteered at a local domestic violence shelter taking care of children. I worked as a research technician doing molecular immunology at a local hospital the summer after my sophomore year. I had a 1360 SAT score. I took physics as an elective to make my college applications look better. My typical day was to get up at 6:15 AM, go to high school, spend an hour or so doing theater practice, go to swim practice, come home, and then work on homework until midnight.
I applied to eight schools; six were ivy-league or ivy-league caliber and two were public schools. I was confident I would be accepted to all of them. My parents were both alums of one of the colleges. After all, what could I have done any better? I was only accepted into the two public schools. I was heartbroken and enraged. I was convinced there was some undeserving person of color or low-income person who had taken “my” seat and was just using “the system”.
I grudgingly went to a public college, and I was seriously considering transferring to one of those private colleges. I, however, ended up falling in love with my quirky small college, and I will be starting graduate school at my dream school in the fall. Clearly, my life was not ruined.
But my story is not the point of this essay. I realize that even IF race played a factor in those college admission decisions, a candidate from a lower socioeconomic status or person of color would have been a much stronger candidate with me, having an identical application.
The things that come with checking a “minority” or “low income” box on a college application come with things I never had to worry about, and the candidate who had to overcome those things is a better candidate. I have come to realize those “boxes” are not just leverage in a college admissions game, but an entirely different life that my privilege blinded me to. I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from or whether I was going to be living in the same house next month. I never saw my parents working multiple minimum-wage jobs. I was never harassed by law enforcement officials, had people cross the street to get away from me, or had anyone touch my hair or call me “articulate” when I could form a sentence. I never had to worry about being unsafe in my neighborhood. I never worried if I was sick that I might not be able to see a healthcare provider. I never sat in overcrowded classrooms where a teacher only had the resources to babysit. I never saw violence in my daily life. I never had to work a job in high school to support my family. I never lacked successful, college-educated role models or thought having a family in high school was the most I could aspire to. My parents never told me going to college was “not practical” or that as a woman my role should be a wife or mother. I am only now beginning to understand how much our role models and beliefs about what is possible shape us.
And there are many things I cannot even talk about “not worrying about”, because the putting those words together does not even make sense. I was not only “not lacking” bad things, but I also had opportunities that being white and upper-middle class allowed.
I want to apologize on behalf of my eighteen year-old self who believed someone who checked the right race box took “my seat” from me. I know now the playing field was not equal and could not be equal. The argument that “the best way to solve discrimination by race is to not discriminate by race” is still racist. Just because we drink from the same water fountain does not mean we are standing on the same footing.