Briefly Noted: On Affirmative Action and “Wishing You Were Black”

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on December 9, 2013.]

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education Angela Onwuachi-Willig argues that many whites do not understand affirmative action because they do not understand racism.[1] Moreover, she claims, some whites do not understand race itself. The occasion for Onwuachi-Willig’s essay is the recent Supreme Court decision on Fisher v. Texas involving the student, Abigail Fisher, whose initial complaint resulted in the case.

Fisher sued the University of Texas for denying her admission. She claimed, “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin.” To this comment, Onwuachi-Willig responds: “ . . . 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.” Whites such as Fisher fail to see the various systemic disadvantages many black students face simply for being black, according to Onwuachi-Willig.

Onwuachi-Willig details how she encountered a student who lacked this understanding. “During my senior year,” she states, “a classmate who had the same SAT score as I did remarked, ‘I wish I was black!’ after he learned I had received.” She recounts her shock and explains how she actually had a better GPA, more leadership positions and student activities, and had a job while he did not. Rather than list these, however, Onwuachi-Willig corrected him: “‘I wish I were black,’ I said. ‘And, no, you don’t.’” The correction reveals the fundamental point of Onwuachi-Willig’s argument. Her classmate did not understand, or was not aware of, the realities: the reality that she had worked harder than him; that she had spent weeks researching and applying for scholarships.

Furthermore, “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.” As such, Onwuachi-Willig claims, he distorted her achievements, ignored her fortitude, failed to see her cultivating extra skills, and ignored the extra work she had to put in because she did not have a parent with “college knowledge” to guide her through the process. Because he did not recognize these realities, he ignored the broader disparity between whites and blacks.

Onwuachi-Willig finds the same sort of unawareness in the comments of Fisher and the Supreme Court decision on Fisher v. Texas. She argues that Fisher has an assumption that reveals her lack of awareness. Fisher thought her better resumé put her in as good or better standing for admission to UT than her black counterparts. For Onwuachi-Willig, Fisher overlooked the privileges that made her resumé possible, and that these privileges are not accessible to many students, especially to many blacks. Cello lessons, volunteering, and even AP courses are privileges not universals. So Onwuachi-Willig avers, “Nearly 25 years after my own high-school experience, we have not moved much beyond the ignorance reflected in my classmate’s remark about wishing to be black. . . . It is disappointing to think that students have learned so little about white privilege . . . that they still continue to wish that they were black.” In sum, privilege should beget at least awareness of the situation of those who are less than privileged.

In response to Onwuachi-Willig’s article, I wish to affirm her observations that many whites do not understand racism nor have we given much attention to privilege. (I’m not attempting here to weigh in on the merits of that particular Supreme Court case, as I know there is a good deal of complexity going into these issues. What I do wish to affirm is how many whites are blind to privilege.) We misunderstand racism in many ways, but in no way more than when the scope of racism is restricted to individual offenses committed by one person against another person. Racism is certainly perpetuated by individuals, and sometimes by one person against another. But it is not limited to that. Racism also can be structural. Societies can organize themselves in ways that their cultural institutions exclude, marginalize, and otherwise handicap and denigrate those of a certain race.  Furthermore, the same structures that marginalize some simultaneously offer advantages and privileges to others in the same society.

In addition to misunderstanding racism, often we have not even reflected on race itself. A good place to begin is with creation, where it is made clear that God’s creation is good, and it contained within it a diversity of colors and kinds. His creation order issued forth in a profusion of races, and those races are beautiful and good. In fact, in the aftermath of the fall, God crucified his Son in order to provide salvation for people of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. In so doing, God leveraged his divine privileges in Christ on behalf of those in need. Thus, he undercut hierarchies of racial pride and made clear that he does not elevate any tribe, but is Savior of all. In fact, we will not know him in his full glory until we know him as the king of all nations.

All of which brings me to my final point. “Colorblindness” is not the best model for dealing with race. Colorblindness assumes that race is a value-neutral, but in God’s eyes race is a value-positive. For this reason, it is not inappropriate for churches or seminaries to recognize and place value on a person’s race. Predominantly white churches, for example, might actively look for non-Anglo candidates pastoral and ministerial positions. A pastoral leadership team composed of white, African-American and Hispanic leadership is much more likely to be able build a multi-colored church, and a multi-colored church is a resplendent picture of our eternal state with our Savior. Likewise a predominantly-Anglo seminary is well-served to recognize the value of a potential faculty member’s cultural heritage in the spiritual and ministerial formation of its students. That’s a type of affirmative action that doesn’t get much “air time” but that we can and should support.



[1] Angela Onwuachi-Willig. “‘I Wish I Were Black’ and Other Tales of Privilege,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 1, 2013: B20–21).