After a transfer, major change, and a few dropped courses I finally became senior in college. Throughout my years spent attending the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, many things have changed but the one thing that has remained consistent is the presence of a question or statement that implies affirmative action helped me get into school. It is a query I have to field at least once a year but, despite numerous interactions with the inquiry, the situation is never easy to handle.
My institution’s diversity is similar to the national average of about 74 percent of White students, 12 percent Black or African American, three percent Hispanic or Latino, and one percent Asian, with the remaining students identifying as either two or more races or non-residential alien. Since I’m often surrounded my mostly White students and usually the only Black student in my class, I often encounter racist situations. In the discussions I’ve had about academic acceptance and higher education, the conversation has inevitably shifted towards university efforts to improve opportunities for historically marginalized groups i.e. affirmative action. While I am incredibly grateful for affirmative action and view it as a pivotal moment in our nation’s attempt to irradiate racial injustices, grappling with a 1960s policy in a 2015 educational setting is not without its challenges.
If you are unfamiliar with Affirmative action, the policy was the result of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and was introduced as an effort to provide equal opportunities for racial minorities. Initially intended for employment purposes, President Kennedy used the term in a 1961 Executive Order, urging government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and treated during employment with regard to race, creed, color, or national origin.” However, it wasn’t until after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an Executive Order in 1965 requiring government contractors to utilize affirmative action policies that colleges and universities began to adopt similar recruitment strategies.
Since I don’t attend a historically Black college or a university with greater ethnic diversity, I have often dealt with people, the majority of them White, voicing their opinions on how I ended up at this school. The most upsetting instance occurred in the spring of my sophomore year. I was working on a group project and after my group received an A, one of my group members turned to me and said “I’m glad we worked in the same group. You’re really smart and it’s great that affirmative action enabled you to attend this school. Without you I don’t think our project would have been as good.” To this day, it remains as one of the most jarring experiences I’ve ever dealt with. Though this interaction is less aggressive than the overt racism I’ve encountered, it’s no less offensive. While it is intended as a compliment, the implication that my intellect is somehow surprising or would have gone unused without affirmative action is horribly upsetting and attacking. Despite the passive nature of comments and discussions surrounding affirmative action, they are the result of very real and overt racism which further marginalizes minorities.
Due to America’s larger racial climate I believe there is a lot of misinformation surrounding affirmative action. Instead of discussing the history of the policy, why it was implemented, and how it intersects with our current institutions of higher education, Black people are accused on pulling the ‘race card’ and using the policy to get into college because they’re too lazy or unmotivated to work hard. Since racial inequality still thrives in America, especially in academic environments, affirmative action is still immensely beneficial. However, its benefits are often applied to Black individuals and People of Color with a broad brush and, due to the assumption that all POC benefit from affirmative action, their intellectual achievements are often ignored and their academic achievements are attributed to government policy and not personal merit. In my experience, this has certainly been the case. Because of these assumptions my academic environment has been significantly impacted.
While I both assume (and hope) the enquires and comments I have received were not intended to offend me, the microagressions have altered the way I interact with my academic environment. I feel a stronger desire to prove my intellectual value and show that I have earned my spot at the institution. In conversations about affirmative action, I feel a need to mention that on the ethnic background question of my college applications, I choose “prefer not to answer.” There have been numerous times where I have felt uncomfortable in class discussions due to the assumptions people have about my race. At times I have been positioned as “proof” that my presence in a mostly White classroom shows that affirmative action is no longer necessary and equality, at least in academic setting, has been reached. However, my ability to obtain a degree has come from a place of privilege unknown to others in the Black community. I have been fortunate enough to grow up with access to good school systems and numerous other socio-economic benefits, so I cannot stand as proof that academic inequality is dead since I am not the mouthpiece of the Black experience. Just because I have succeed in this academic environment, that does not mean others will as well. However, despite the numerous frustrations, I am grateful for my educational experience.
The racial inequalities I have had to navigate throughout college have been incredibly beneficial. Since I have never had to grapple with the very prominent reality that my high school was not underfunded or incapable of truly preparing me for college, my eyes been opened to larger inequalities my privilege allowed me to ignore and I began to explore what affirmative action means to other people of color. It has also given me opportunities to discuss racial injustice with others and learn new ways of interacting with people and navigating these heated discussions. Affirmative action was and is a great policy that has given countless individuals access to higher education, but it does not and should not usurp their academic achievements and accomplishments. I am a person of color at a predominantly white institution and no, affirmative action isn’t what got me here.
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