by April Gregory, ’13
The Fisher vs. UT Austin case has prompted me to revisit my experience with affirmative action. I’ll never know for sure how big of a role affirmative action played in my admission to Stanford, but I am certain that it was a factor.
I am about to put myself on blast in multiple major ways. Some friends and acquaintances have heard my story, but most people I meet have absolutely no reason to believe that affirmative action policies had anything to do with my admission to this elite institution. That’s because, for those who do not know the details of my heritage, I appear to be a white person with no legacy who was admitted to Stanford based on “merit” alone.
I sometimes wish that were true. The thing is, though, is that I’m not just white. My mother is one-quarter African American, which makes me one-eighth – an octoroon, if we want to get Jim Crow with it. My dad is white. I identify with black culture in many ways, but to be honest, that probably has more to do with the fact that my dad played in an all-black gospel band in the ‘70s than my mom’s blackness.
When I applied to Stanford exactly four years ago, I checked the white box and the black box. This was a major moral dilemma for me at the time. To ease my anxiety, I wrote my main Common Application essay about what being one-eighth black meant to me as a means of explaining my double check of the race boxes. The prompt was something along the lines of “Why is diversity important to you?” My essay talked about Plessy v. Ferguson (which legalized “separate but equal”) and the fact that the defendant, Homer Plessy, was one-eighth black – just like me. After discussing how I used to appreciate my one-eighth blackness as sort of a “fun fact” or quirk, I concluded with the following:
“I came to the unsettling realization that the little fraction of my heritage I was so fond of would have made me a second-class citizen had I been born a mere fifty years earlier. In many states, my mother’s marriage to my father would have been illegal. My brothers and I would have been considered illegitimate in those same states. My very existence would have been frowned upon, as I would be seen as the unsavory result of mixing races in a world where the word ‘diversity’ held no value, no importance, and no meaning. I am so incredibly grateful to be alive during a time where diversity not only exists, but is encouraged. My race does not define me; I define me. The path my life will take is not dependent upon the fragments of my heritage, but rather upon the opportunities which I discover and take advantage of. I have the privilege of choosing from an infinite wealth of diverse ideas, beliefs, people, and environments that can influence me as I continue to grow as a person. I am free to live however I wish, knowing that any divergence I may take from the norm will only add to the diversity which gave me that freedom.”
Reading back over this essay, I am struck by two things, besides my pretentious wordiness. One is how grateful I am that Stanford has provided me with an opportunity to engage with “diverse ideas, beliefs, people, and environments” in ways I literally could not have imagined when I wrote those words in October 2008. The second is that I ultimately remain 100% okay with my decision to check the black box on my application.
The reason is that, as my mother told me four years ago, my maternal grandfather could have only dreamed of attending and excelling at a place like Stanford. I am the product of generations of resilience that include my mother, her father, and the African and African American ancestry that preceded him. I am where I am today because of them. I reap the benefits of the black freedom struggle and I can sit in any train car I damn well please. And if honoring my ancestors means checking a box on a college admissions form, then so be it. I’m not apologizing to anyone, and I am most definitely not apologizing to Abigail Fisher.
I am putting myself on blast because I am deeply bothered by the recent proliferation of anti-affirmative action literature that has taken over the internet and my Twitter feed in response to the Fisher case. As someone who has benefited from affirmative action directly in a rather unconventional way, I think I can safely say that for many of us, the attack on affirmative action feels like an attack on our personal character and integrity. How many times was I told by my peers in high school that I only got into Stanford because I checked the black box? Too many. When was the last time someone expressed a similar sentiment to me? Yesterday. Being a beneficiary of affirmative action often means being condemned to an exhausting, never-ending, circular defense of one’s intelligence. This is completely unacceptable, both for me and for my friends of color who have earned their place on this campus just as rightfully as anyone else.
My story might not be the usual one told about affirmative action, but I hope it is at least illustrative of the ways the policy benefits folks of diverse and multifaceted backgrounds, and why we are grateful for its existence. It is an absolutely necessary means of ensuring that higher education access is attainable to people of all races, income levels, sexual orientations, abilities, gender identities, and immigration statuses. And, for me, it is a way of ensuring that the struggles and sacrifices of those who came before us are honored and vindicated.
The past matters. We might have a black president in the White House, but let’s not forget how affirmative action helped ensure his application would be read by Harvard admissions officers (1) in the first place and (2) with careful consideration of both his merit and the meaningful, diverse experiences he would bring to the campus. Without affirmative action, the admissions policies of Harvard, Stanford, and other diversity-committed institutions could not be truly tailored to the holistic approach they utilize today. It takes more than 40 years to undo nearly 400 years of oppression. Affirmative action policies are not perfect across the board, and universities should be careful to ensure the academic readiness of each and every student before admission. But the point remains that the Justice Scalias of the world are threatening to do away with affirmative action policies altogether. Before you dismiss affirmative action, consider how many other policies are in existence with the explicit purpose of making our nation more just and our education system more equitable. There aren’t many.
Regardless of whether or not you agree that I deserve to be at Stanford, and regardless of if you think I’m living some sort of fraudulent, dishonest existence, I’m here, and I’m succeeding. More important, though, is that the means by which I arrived at this incredible place have instilled in me a drive to secure a more socially just world for my own children and grandchildren. I know I am far from the only affirmative action beneficiary who feels that way.
The history we have all inherited as Americans is a collective responsibility. Sometimes sacrifices must be made to give someone a chance their parents or grandparents never had. Sometimes an Abigail Fisher will have to go to LSU while I get to go to Stanford. The funny thing is, we will probably end up leading strikingly similar lives, despite the fact that she holds a grudge so big against UT-Austin that it merits a landmark Supreme Court case.
It is my deep, sincere hope that the Court will preserve affirmative action by recognizing that its benefits far outweigh its costs. Despite my better judgment, I am choosing to be optimistic because I have faith in the power of progress. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
April Gregory is a Senior majoring in American Studies. She urges you to read Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White for a far more compelling, historically-based, pro-affirmative action argument than the one you just read.