When I was in college, one of my friends did a semester exchange at Columbia. When she returned to campus, I asked her how her learning experience there compared to her experience at our university. As some of you might know, I went to Howard University, which is a historically black college (HBCU). With all of the constant debate surrounding the merits and relevance of HBCUs, I asked her if she had felt that Columbia’s curriculum had been more rigorous or difficult and if she’d felt that she had learned more.
“Not really,” I remember her telling me. “If anything, I feel like they are still debating the existence of issues that we (at Howard) already acknowledge and are trying to figure out how to solve.
Over the past year and a half that I’ve spent at an “Ivy League” law school, that conversation has come to my mind many times as I sat in numerous classes and went to events where I was forced to listen to “intellectual” back and forth around controversial topics. “I can’t believe we are still talking about this,” I would think. Or better yet, I can’t believe the superficial way in which we are talking about it. What can we do about it? What are we doing about it?”
One of today’s controversial topics of choice was affirmative action. In just a year and a half at this institution, I have already had more “discussions” about affirmative action than I can stand–not counting all of the years I had to hear about it before I even got here. And understand, this is not a post about affirmative action, because, guess what: I don’t want to know nor do I care what you think about it. Really, I don’t. Many of you don’t like it: I get that. I only ask that you stop subjecting me to your feelings about it.
Some people might argue that discussion is essential to forthcoming action. I disagree. I don’t think that a bunch of (mostly not “of color,” urban, or poor) legal scholars sitting around in a room pontificating about the constitutionality of a policy that many people in the room can’t stand is doing anything to address educational disparities in urban and/or poor communities of color. I’m not even convinced that educational disparity is the main issue, but I digress… However, I do know that little third-grade Charlie, whom many people feel so comfortable talking about but have never met, probably doesn’t care about whether or not the Supreme Court used “strict scrutiny” to analyze a case that might affect his future.
One scholar argued that affirmative action actually inhibits the educational experience because diversity discourages “candor.”
“Wow, that’s really funny,” I thought. “You’re sitting here saying my presence discourages candor while you proceed to tell me all of the reasons why I don’t deserve to be here. And even though you don’t think I deserve to be here, you’re not interested in investing in educational opportunities for me or people like me to succeed elsewhere. Okay, great…So, what exactly are you holding back?”
Am I supposed to be grateful that my classmates haven’t forced my peers and I to walk around wearing “AA” on our foreheads?
During a Constitutional Law class last year as we discussed affirmative action, someone argued that the policy had a negative effect on the experience of minority students because, whether or not they said it to our faces, behind our backs, everyone said we were affirmative action targets anyway. Well dang, there goes that darn diversity destroying your opportunity to be candid and tell me to my face that you don’t think I deserve to be here…until we have a forum, a guest speaker, or God-forbid a Con Law class, that is. As we both sit in these halls of intellectual privilege, I would hate for you to be deprived of your right to point out my community’s flaws because we all know that you get a
commission, sense of pride, vindication….”Wait, hold up? What exactly do you get from it?”
“What do I get from it?”
“What does third-grade Charlie get from it?”
Wait, wait, wait. Maybe I’m being too superficial. Maybe we get perspective from it. Maybe we’ve changed some people’s minds, made them understand. Still, somehow, I doubt that because this is the fifty-leventh time that we’ve discussed it and I’m still hearing the same arguments and I still get that you don’t like it.
What if I said that I don’t like it either? What if I said that I’m not the begging type, and I don’t want to be anywhere that I’m not wanted? What if I said that my friend was right and that I’m not surprised that we can’t come up with solutions to these problems because in 2014 you’re still debating the validity of the connection between poverty and educational performance? What if I said that I don’t feel like debating my intelligence, worth, capabilities, identity, or my culture and that I don’t have to? What if I refused to? What if I realized that no one else ever has to do that? What if you did too?
I know that not everyone will understand this. Not everyone will understand why I get so worked up about this. They’ll think I’m defensive or sensitive, and they won’t get that this is not about my personal offense. I’m a pretty self-reflective person who is able to admit my insecurities–and I promise you that this is not one of them. I know exactly who I am and what I’m capable of, with or without mainstream metrics of achievement. Rather, it offends me that certain people think that it’s okay to tell other people what they think their place and/or problem is: the rich telling the poor, New Yorkers telling Texans, etc. Who is anyone to do that? What do they know? It’s a presumptuous audacity with which I will never be comfortable.
As I contemplated the argument about the relationship between diversity and candor, I thought about my experience at Howard, where we were able to have a wide variety of discussions on controversial topics and to speak with a freedom and sense of community and understanding that I only now fully appreciate and greatly miss. While I found myself shocked at some of my classmates’ values and opinions, it was there that I truly learned that diversity had to do with a lot more than skin color. I honestly don’t think that we felt comfortable discussing things because the majority of us were African American. I think we were able to talk because most of us came from similar positions (in the eyes of society, if not in class distinctions) and had a genuine interest in wanting to see things change and improve. We all had something to gain from the progressive motion of the universe.
So, that’s how I know that candor does not come from homogeneity, it comes from privilege–feelings of freedom, security, justification, and confidence. Worse than that, oftentimes candor has no purpose. Someone gets to say something just because it’s on his mind, regardless of its accuracy, relevance, or tangible or emotional effect–that’s what some people confuse as their First Amendment right. It’s the difference between being able to discuss solutions to problems and being forced to listen to diatribes of cultural superiority couched in legalese. Unfortunately, I have come to the realization that not everyone gets to be candid because some people have more to lose than others.