Being Black in a White Academic World

What it’s like to be told you don’t deserve your spot.

A collection of the author's photos from their respective graduation days.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photos via Carvell Wallace, Aisha Harris, Rachelle Hampton, and TheaDesign/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Last Tuesday, federal authorities charged more than four dozen people in a Department of Justice investigation called “Operation Varsity Blues.” According to the indictment, wealthy parents paid about $25 million in bribes to test proctors, administrators, and sports coaches via a California-based college preparation business run by William “Rick” Singer. The investigation revealed the lengths to which these 1-percenters went in order to secure their children spots at elite universities like Stanford, Yale, UCLA, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California.

While Operation Varsity Blues uncovered the most explicit example of rich people buying their children’s future, the scandal has sparked a larger conversation on the ways in which elite college admissions have always been tilted toward people like those charged: rich, white parents who, should their children still not measure up despite a childhood of private test-prep tutors and expensive extracurriculars, have the means to buy their way onto Ivy League campuses with a hefty donation or to influence their way in through family legacy.

Meanwhile on these same campuses, low-income students and students of color are assumed to be there only because of affirmative action. In other words, to not deserve their spot. Below is an edited and condensed conversation between Slate editorial assistant Rachelle Hampton (Northwestern Class of 2017), New York Times writers Aisha Harris (Northwestern, 2009) and Jamelle Bouie (University of Virginia, 2009), and Slate parenting columnist and podcaster Carvell Wallace (NYU, 1997) on what it’s like to navigate these primarily white academic spaces when your presence there is assumed to be unearned.

Rachelle Hampton: So, I wasn’t exactly surprised to learn of the Varsity Blues scandal, though some of the details (like parents photoshopping their kids heads onto actual athletes’ bodies) were wild. Like so many people have said, it’s just the illegal version of what white, wealthy people have been doing forever. But what were y’all’s first reaction when you heard about it?

Aisha Harris: My first reaction was rage. And then, I’m not going to lie, one of my other immediate follow-up thoughts was, “Who is going to make this into a feature film or a podcast or a docuseries first?”

Carvell Wallace: Yeah, I wasn’t surprised in the least obviously. I was more surprised, honestly, that there was irrefutable evidence. I was more surprised that the Justice Department actually made it known. I’m used to things like this going on with incredible blatancy but without anyone ever acknowledging it publicly. To put it plainly, I was more shocked that anyone in criminal justice even cared enough to make a case out of it. That’s how cynical I am I guess.

Hampton: Did it make you think about your personal experience applying to and getting admitted to college? I know for me, it just brought up the times I was asked if I got into Northwestern on an athletic scholarship.

Jamelle Bouie: To the extent that it made me think of anything, it was classmates who clearly got into school on the strength of their wealth and privilege.

Wallace: Yeah, it made me really reflect on the fact that I went to college in a year when my mother, who was a single mom, made a total of $11K annually. I took out loans and I got admitted to the conservatory at NYU because I was good at what I did. I was consistently one of the best all four years I was there. I realize that now. And still white friends would sort of hint that maybe I had gotten in on some kind of affirmative action thing. These are people who had pictures in their dorm rooms of their families with the Clintons. I think that was where the anger came up for me. My mother literally moved heaven and earth for me to have a collegiate education. So being accused of having it handed to me unfairly by people who may have ACTUALLY had it handed to them unfairly, that really bothers me in retrospect.

Harris: Same. I was not legacy, and while my family was what I would classify as close to upper middle class by the time I was in high school, we were definitely not rich. I was a pretty bad standardized test taker when it came to math, and because of that my SAT scores were really low compared to many of those I wound up going to college with at Northwestern. I was definitely made to feel, in a roundabout way, that my being a POC was why those scores didn’t hinder my entrance. Even if that were true, it erases the fact that I took AP classes, did no less than four extracurriculars throughout grade school and had close to a 4.0 GPA. And I haven’t even mentioned scholarships, of which I got quite a few, and which my white, very well-off classmates griped about often because they didn’t get as many, or whatever.

Hampton: Lord, the amount of people who told me “there are so many scholarships you can apply to just because you’re black.”

Harris: YUP.

Bouie: When college acceptances were coming down, I said to a high school classmate that I was worried about not getting into UVA. The answer was: “Don’t worry about it, you’re black.”

Harris: It’s like they’ve all gotten the same script or something.

Bouie: The two ideas at work—that black people are lazy and that black people are the beneficiaries of unfair handouts—have been in wide circulation within white society since immediately after the Civil War. In his message vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Andrew Johnson asked formerly enslaved people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, more or less.

Wallace: Jamelle, this strikes me as the most fundamental Catch-22 of race in America. Get yourselves together. But also, when you do, you must have done it because someone did it for you.

Hampton: Did that implicit or oftentimes explicit assumption that black kids get into college because of some unearned handout ever impact your sense of self?

Wallace: People use your success as proof of your unworthiness. It’s very insane in the way that racism is. One million percent it did.

Harris: Absolutely.

Hampton: I’m sure we’ve all heard the mantra that we have to be “twice as good for half as much.”

Wallace: The message of “twice as good” implies that you won’t be treated as equal, which is true, and as a child that makes you feel like … well … like you’re not equal. And that you have to prove your equality or worth through excellence at all times.

Bouie: I definitely felt—and still feel—the sense that I am being evaluated in ways my white peers will never face. Even now, one of the things I still say to my editors is “I don’t want to be embarrassed.”

Wallace: Whew, I feel that so incredibly deeply. I had a situation recently where an editorial mistake made it look like I hadn’t done my job thoroughly. The editor issued a note that they had updated the post, but I had to go back and say, “No. You need to tell them that YOU made this mistake. Not me.”

Hampton: It’s really limiting! You feel like you can’t make mistakes, but that’s how you’re supposed to grow. Making a mistake is proof that you’re only there as a diversity hire or affirmative action admission, but like Carvell said, then your success is also proof that you’re unworthy.

Harris: There’s this weird feeling that comes with going to a predominantly white college—or any institution/environment, really. They’re implying that you got here solely because you’re a POC, and maybe they’re suggesting that you’re taking someone else’s (someone white’s) earned space. But then, you look around, and there’s still hardly any other POC there with you. And you maybe begin to believe they’re right, and that you don’t deserve to be there.

Hampton: Aisha’s point kind of reminds me of this en vogue concept of imposter syndrome, where everyone’s performing their anxiety about their achievements out loud. I feel like that conception of imposter syndrome rarely takes into account the fact that some people are really made to feel like they’re frauds by others. Clint Smith talked a bit on Twitter about the psychological toll that takes.

Harris: And then you discount everything you did that’s supposed to fall under our idealistic view of what a meritocracy is—the “right” things—like taking AP classes, doing those extracurriculars, etc. It depended on the environment, and my age, I think. By the time I left college, I think I learned that the fraud thing was their problem, not mine.

Wallace: Yes. All the pop Twitter hype around imposter syndrome kinda bugs me actually, because it feels like some folks are claiming it that actually have no idea what it’s really like to have everybody and the institutions telling you for your whole life that you don’t belong here.

It blows my mind all the stuff you have to overcome just to make it through a normal day.

Hampton: What do you mean by that, Carvell?

Wallace: Well I mean to even sit down in a class at my college, I’ve already been told you have to be twice as good, otherwise you’ll fail. I’ve already had cops pointing guns at me for just standing around, no lie. I’ve already had dorm mates telling me that I’m pretty smart for a black guy. I’ve already had the money on my dining hall card run out. And that’s all before I even open to Page 1 of the physics textbook.

Bouie: I don’t think I’ve experienced imposter syndrome? Mostly my response to people questioning my worth or value has been an internal “Screw you. I’ll show you how good I am.”

Wallace: I wonder if that competitiveness is a facet of imposter syndrome? Like the feeling that you have to prove in the first place. I think that there are people operating out here who don’t feel like they have to prove how good they are. That they’re just supercomfortable and free from any anxiety around the burden of proof at all.

Harris: Makes me think of Sammy Davis Jr.’s quote from Yes I Can: “I’ve got to be a star like another man has to breathe. I’ve got to get bigger. I’ve got to get so big, so powerful, so famous that they’ll see a man and then somewhere along the way they’ll notice he’s a Negro.”

Wallace: Yeah, I remember reading that book in high school and now that quote makes me feel so sad. Like, what a burden to put on yourself, that you have to be better in order to just be.

Harris: It’s so sad. But it might be one of the most black American quotes, ever.

Hampton: Carvell, I know you have teenagers. How do you talk about these dynamics with your kids as they think about college?

Wallace: It’s kind of weird because the truth is, I’m a lot closer to those privileged families as an adult than my mother was. Certainly not there, but closer. Like my son wants to go to the same school I went to, so the idea that he could be a legacy kid just blows my mind. There was no legacy for 17-year-old me. Still my son is not a great student really, though a really smart kid. He wants to go to school for film. His mother and I, both from working-class backgrounds, just assume he’ll have to get his shit together in junior college like you’re supposed to. My daughter is a straight-A student, and we assume she will get in on merit because she’s very ambitious and always has been. At no point would we think we should give our kids a boost of some kind. That’s absurd to us.

Hampton: I was wondering how y’all feel about race-based affirmative action, just generally? To me, it feels like an (extremely necessary) double-edged sword at times.

Harris: Well, it’s not like most—any?—of us needed the affirmation, but this new scandal just amplified the fact that there are so many ways to get into college, and meritocracy isn’t really one of them. When people argue against affirmative action, my immediate thought is of the legacy folks and the people who donate money to their schools.

Wallace: Until I look around and see total and complete social and political amends for slavery and all of its attendant destruction, affirmative action will always feel necessary. The problem it has, I think, is that white people are mad about it. But that’s, like, the only problem if I’m not wrong. They can just be mad.

Hampton: There are so many kinds of affirmative action in the college admissions process that aren’t race-based, like athletic scholarships for lacrosse or water polo.

Harris: Also, affirmative action really only does so much. If I recall correctly, when I was at Northwestern, black people made up less than 10 percent of the undergrad class.

Hampton: That was still true when I was there a few years ago.

Wallace: Right. Like a lot of the objection appears to be based on the idea that affirmative action is unfairly tipping the scales, but PWIs [predominantly white institutions] are called PWIs for a reason. The scale is far from tipped.

Harris: Also: hello!

Wallace: Lol literally TODAY! IN NEW YORK.

Hampton: Do y’all think the Varsity Blues scandal has made people more aware of how the scales are tipped?

Wallace: I wish I believed that racism responded to logic, but I don’t. It does not respond to evidence or facts or video tape or dashcam footage or indictments. I think there are some white people who do respond to learning more, having it made clearer, waking up from the delusive narrative of this country’s meritocracy, but there are also many who never will because they don’t want to.