Grinnell In The News

Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94 Speaks on White Privilege

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.

Person Mentioned:
 Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94