The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Now that we see what stealing a college slot really looks like, can we stop making students of color feel like frauds?

The campus of Georgetown University is shown March 12, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)


If the FBI’s announcement this week about the college-entrance scheme could be distilled down to a single word, it is that one.

Duh. Of course, higher education in this country is not a meritocracy.

Duh. Of course, wealthy parents who pay for their kids to have the best of everything in life would also find a way to buy them the best education.

Duh. Of course, all those people who have blamed poor brown and black kids for taking the spots of “more deserving” white kids through affirmative action should have been looking closer at who really didn’t earn their seats.

For so long, people of color who have attended elite schools in this country have felt the need to prove that they deserved to be there. They have accepted that no matter their grades or SAT scores, people will look at them as affirmative action recipients and talk about them, sometimes to their faces, as tokens.

I know this from personal experience as a Latina from the South Side of San Antonio who was fortunate enough to attend Stanford University and then Columbia University.

To this day, there are times that I feel the need to prove I earned my spot, especially when I see people connect the dots between where I grew up and where I was educated. I feel the need to tell them that I had a strong SAT score, a perfect GPA and a well-rounded résumé when I applied to Stanford and that even if affirmative action gained my application a longer, more considerate glance, it did not do the work needed for me to graduate. It did not stay up all night writing papers or reading the 30 books that one class required. It did not fall asleep riding a bike one day because it had pulled two all-nighters and a shift at work. I feel the need to tell them that on graduation day, I didn’t just get a diploma, I was named the top student in my major, sociology.

These may sound like boasts. They’re not. Compliments make me uncomfortable. They come from a place of insecurity, of occupying a space that many well-educated people of color will find familiar, one where you know how hard you have worked to earn the life you have but still feel as if you have to guard against the skepticism of your worth.

Harvard’s affirmative action case isn’t just about race. This young woman explains why.

The FBI investigation might have revealed a lot of shameful and embarrassing details about rich white people but it also started many important conversations among well-educated people of color about their own college experiences.

This has resulted in some corners of social media feeling in recent days like a church filled with confessions and empathetic “Amens!”

“One of my teachers HELD A CLASS DISCUSSION about why I got into Northwestern & some of my white classmates didn’t,” read a tweet from Liz Dwyer. “They decided it was because I was black — never mind that I had a 3.8 GPA & took all honors/AP/crushed the SAT. And that teacher told those kids I stole their spot.”

“i’ll never forget one ‘friend’ ticking off a list of my personal traits on his fingers. ‘oh, University of Chicago will love you! poor kid, black, single mom.’ I was in 4 AP classes, took 2 languages, was clarinet 2nd chair & was on the editorial board of a lit mag,” wrote Eve Ewing, whose Twitter account handle is “wikipedia brown, chiberian tiger.”

“White classmates told me that I got into Northwestern Bc I’m Hispanic. I took every AP class available to me/had extracurriculars,” @AnaRooot tweeted. “They never think you’ve earned what you achieve & it’s all affirmative action. Meanwhile, NU class was 3% Hispanic, 4% black, 17% Asian, & 76% white.”

These are not whines or pleas for sympathy. They are justified vents and wake-up calls for people to start looking at how the education system in this country has long been skewed against people of color and especially poor people of color.

Schools with the most students of color usually also have the least amount of resources. They are also often in neighborhoods where poverty has deep roots and violence can erupt at any time. In middle school, a 14-year-old classmate of mine was gunned down by gang members at a birthday party filled with children.

Affirmative action doesn’t give less worthy students an advantage over more worthy ones. It simply broadens the definition of worth. It simply allows institutions to take into account the entirety of a student’s circumstances and give weight to strengths that don’t always show up on an application. It’s easier to score high on a test if your parents have paid for a tutor and made sure you have taken practice exams. It’s harder when you’ve studied in a house that may not have electricity that week or your parents didn’t realize the importance of that test.

We can be outraged about what the FBI found: a wide-stretching scam that involved parents paying for their children’s test scores and athletic abilities to be falsified so that those children could attend schools such as Yale, Stanford and USC.

But let us also be outraged that people of color, many of whom defied incredible odds to get into those selective institutions, have been forced to endure questioning and skepticism long after the application process.

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“Some ppl don’t fully appreciate the psychological toll it takes on a student to navigate a school environment that both implicitly & explicitly tells you that you only got in because of an undeserving hand-out, meanwhile somebody’s parents donate a building & no one bats an eye,” Clint Smith tweeted.

“As a prof., I’ve had wealthy students TELL ME that their parents secured admission through favors or donations, and were thus temporarily chastened by that,” tweeted Marcia Chatelain, who teaches at Georgetown. “I’ve had 1st gen/low income students of color TOLD that they were undeserving charity cases, and thus were forever changed.”

“Forever changed.” Think about those two words and then look at the people around you who have long graduated but still feel the need to defend their worth.

If we really want to make higher education in this country more of a meritocracy, we will use this moment to focus on more than salacious details about celebrities.

We will use it to consider what it really looks like to steal another person’s place in college and stop making students, simply because of the color of their skin, feel like frauds.

That’s a no-brainer. Duh.

Read more:

Harvard’s affirmative action case isn’t just about race. This young woman explains why.

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