By Angela Onwuachi-Willig
“To be white is to not think about it,” a white legal scholar named Barbara Flagg wrote two decades ago.
After the University of Texas at Austin denied Abigail Fisher admission, she made several statements that revealed just how little she had ever had to think about her race. Fisher, the petitioner in the Supreme Court’s recently decided affirmative-action case, said in a videotaped interview made available by her lawyers: “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin.”
As decades of debates over affirmative action have revealed, many whites spend so little time having to think about, much less deal with, race and racism, that they understand race as nothing more than a plus factor in the admissions process. Like Fisher, they fail to see the many disadvantages that stem from simply existing as a person of color in this country—disadvantages that often hamper opportunities to achieve the badges that help students “win” in the admissions game. They fail to see how ignoring race and racial contexts, in which many students of color must work to achieve their successes, devalues those students’ accomplishments. And they fail to see how ignoring race is itself a form of racial discrimination.
Although I applied to college nearly 25 years ago, I, too, encountered my own “Abigail Fisher” in high school. During my senior year, a classmate who had the same SAT score as I did remarked, “I wish I was black!” after he learned about several scholarships I had received (only one of which was for minority students). I was stunned by his comment. After all, his implied statement about my lack of merit was factually wrong by all accounts. Although he viewed us as being the same (much as Fisher views herself as being superior to her classmates of color), it was clear that he knew nothing about me other than my race and our matching scores. Unlike him, I ranked academically among the top 10 students in my class. Indeed, I was ranked more than 20 spots ahead of him. I also held leadership positions in and engaged in more activities than nearly all of my other classmates, while he participated in just one activity. I had a job; he had none. The list could go on. Of course, at that time, I did not think to point those facts out to my classmate. Instead my initial reaction was to correct him: “I wish I were black,” I said. “And, no, you don’t.”
But my classmate’s delusions about his own record were just the tip of an iceberg. For one thing, he ignored the fact that he had simply not engaged in any work to obtain scholarships. Unlike me, he came from a rich family, while I, a future Pell Grant student, had spent weeks researching and applying for scholarships.
More than that, my classmate failed to think for even one moment about what being black may have meant for his life. He never considered what it would have meant to sit all day in classrooms where he was the only white student in a sea of black faces.
By failing to engage in this simple thought experiment, he discounted my achievements. He failed to consider the extra effort, drive, and patience that it took for me to remain focused and to excel in a school where many white students regularly used the N-word. He ignored the fortitude that it took to learn in an environment in which students and even some teachers found it acceptable to wear clothing depicting Confederate flags. He failed to see the extra skill, grit, and intelligence it took to be the first black to achieve a string of accomplishments in a high school where, like many schools in the South, tracking essentially segregated the racially diverse student body—I was almost always the only black student in my honors courses—and where some whites would react negatively, whether consciously or unconsciously, to any black success other than in sports.
My classmate ignored the extra work I had to perform because I did not have a parent with the “college knowledge” or cultural capital to guide me through the admissions process.
Had my classmate looked more broadly at the many disparities between blacks and whites in health, wealth, income, college attendance and graduation, life expectancy, and a host of other factors, he might never have found the nerve to wish he were black.
He might have even recognized his own privileges.
It is hard to read quotes by Abigail Fisher, as well as the briefs in Fisher v. Texas, and see the same lack of awareness—a sense of entitlement made worse when commingled with indifference to the facts—that I encountered many years ago. In interviews, Fisher has lamented that she was unable to follow a family tradition of attending Texas, and she has done so without any apparent sense of how a tradition of law, backed by blatant racism and white supremacy, kept blacks from gaining admission to the university until 1950. That year Heman Sweatt won a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the Texas law school’s policy of racial segregation. (Sweatt went on to enroll in the law school, where he endured racial slurs and cross burnings; he left the program during his second year.)
By contrast, Fisher graduated from high school in the affluent Houston suburb of Sugar Land. In explaining why she thought she deserved to be admitted to the university, she said: “I took a ton of AP classes, I studied hard and did my homework—and I made the honor roll. … I was in extracurricular activities. I played the cello and was in the math club, and I volunteered. I put in the work I thought was necessary to get into UT.”
Yet she failed to recognize the great privileges that her comments revealed. Cello? That meant her family could afford private lessons. Or, if her school offered cello classes, that fact alone speaks volumes about its resources. Volunteering? That suggests she did not need a paying job to help support her family—and that she was not part of any group that frequently finds itself on the receiving end of volunteering. AP courses? That fact, too, reveals much about privilege, since so many schools in the United States, particularly majority-minority schools, are unable to offer such courses as part of their curricula.
It’s great that many high schools can offer orchestra lessons, AP courses, and other educational opportunities to their students, and those students should take advantage of them. What’s troubling is that many of them do not seem to realize that these are privileges not made available to everyone.
Nearly 25 years after my own high-school experience, we have not moved much beyond the ignorance reflected in my classmate’s remark about wishing to be black. It is heartbreaking to think that our world and our lives have become so racially segregated that many white students applying to college possess so little understanding of what it substantively means, regardless of socioeconomic status, to live the life of a black person in the United States. It is disappointing to think that students have learned so little about white privilege (and other identity privileges) that they still continue to wish that they were black.
Earlier this year, in an open letter to The Wall Street Journal, headlined “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me,” a high-school senior named Suzy Lee Weiss wrote: “If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.”
I am still waiting for the day when, rather than wishing they were black, students like my high-school classmate instead think with all earnestness, “Imagine what more my minority peers could have done if they had had white privilege and access.”
Angela Onwuachi-Willig is a professor at the University of Iowa’s College of Law. She is the author of the new book According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family (Yale University Press).