Confronting White Privilege: A Reflection on Affirmative Action

Open book with flipping pages. Via Pixabay.

When I told my college counselor that Northwestern University was my first choice, he snidely responded that my chances weren’t great, especially “since I wasn’t a Lacrosse star or Native American.” The comment, discouraging and offensive as it was, actually brought me to consider the privileges I hold and the ways that they contribute to my education and eligibility at highly selective institutions.

The prevailing narrative in college admissions is that, if you have the best test scores, GPA, a plethora of extracurricular activities, and a killer Common App essay, you’re a shoo-in, right? As I applied to some quite selective colleges over the past couple of months, I came to realize that these factors can’t guarantee an acceptance; admissions committees will consider applicants much more deeply than just by this set of numbers.  

Affirmative Action has been a hot-button in recent years, especially since several Asian-American families filed a lawsuit against Harvard University claiming that the school had a quota for Asian students, and that their children were discriminated against because of their race. While a 2018 Gallup poll reports that the majority of Americans believe that Affirmative Action is a positive policy, only a quarter of people believe that race should be a factor in admissions at all. Another study found that two-thirds of Americans disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Fisher v. The University Of Texas (2016) that universities may consider race in admissions. Despite an ambiguous public opinion, many universities have been diligent about diversifying their student bodies with Black, Latinx, and Native students; Still, white students comprise as much as 50 percent of the student body in the Ivy League.

Until I began applying to college, I never doubted the importance of these critical policies. I worried for months about my chances of getting into my dream school: was my acceptance riding on factors that I couldn’t control? The words of my counselor echoed in the back of my head. I feared that I would be turned down in favor of a student of color with an otherwise similar application. Several court rulings have set a precedent that race ought not to be a determining factor in acceptance, but I couldn’t quell my concerns. In time, I began to feel guilty. As someone who takes pride in their activism, shouldn't I be supporting people of color’s access to a prestigious education?

The education gap between white people and people of color feels far from me. My high school's student population is at least 90 percent white, and, honestly, I never realized that my advanced classes were devoid of a single person of color until friends of mine from other schools pointed out the segregation in achievement that still exists in public schools. Some of the most diverse public schools tend to have the least funds, teachers, and resources available for students, thus creating continued barriers to education and perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline. I finally began to realize how much my race contributes to my top-notch education. Being oblivious to that fact was a privilege in and of itself.

I’ve understood and appreciated the value of a diverse learning environment for a long time. Going to a homogenous school, I long for unique perspectives and backgrounds. College is the perfect environment to encounter new ideas; however, as I chose what schools to apply to, diversity was never anything I took into consideration. It was a privilege for me not to have to look at the college’s racial demographics when applying. Wherever I went, I knew there would be no shortage of people like me. Unlike students of color, I knew with certainty that I would never be the only person with my racial identity in class. For the first time, I had to confront my whiteness.

Whiteness wove its way into every part of my application. It played a role in what classes I was able to take, how I formed relationships with teachers, and what activities I participated in. I realize that being white is an inherent part of my identity and it impacts my life in ways I have been oblivious to for far too long.

Being white is possibly my most obvious privilege, but I was told that it could work against me in the context of college admissions. When I was initially concerned that my chances could be worse due to my race, I had to remind myself of the historic barriers that prevented students of color from furthering their education, and why federal and institutional policies are so beneficial in attempting to close racial disparities. I’ve come to learn that race can play a significant role in admissions—but in a drastically different way than my counselor implied.

As I learned more about what affirmative action really means for students, and about the injustice that students of color have faced for centuries in the United States, my egocentric worries turned into a sobering recognition of my inherent privilege. Of the privileges that contribute to my education, my race is at the root of them all. Although I initially resented my counselor’s comment, I'm now grateful that his words prompted me to ruminate and reflect on my racial privilege.

This article was republished on Teen Voices.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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So timely!

How to cite this page

Fogel, Ari. "Confronting White Privilege: A Reflection on Affirmative Action." 26 December 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/confronting-white-privilege-reflection-affirmative-action>.

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