The unbearable whiteness of being

The Discomfort Zone

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, disgruntled high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss discusses how the college process is unfair. In the op-ed, Weiss connects how colleges tell applicants to “just be yourself” to how these three words break the backs of all college seniors who do not have “nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms.”

If she were ever to write a book about her college process, she should probably call it “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.”

In all seriousness, Weiss’ op-ed reflects a dangerous sentiment that many people, especially those from my suburban New Jersey hometown, latch on to in their moments of deepest despair after receiving a college rejection letter. It is the idea that the system is stacked against you because you are not “different” or “exotic” enough to gain admission to an elite college. It is a feeling I know well and one that I am glad to be rid of.

Weiss writes that “as long as you’re using someone else’s misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you’re golden.” She trudges onward, observing that long ago her “parents gave up on parenting [her].” Ms. Weiss, whose family’s gorgeous house was featured in the pages of the very same Wall Street Journal in November 2011, is simultaneously mocking community service and children from broken homes. Classy.

I appreciate that the college admissions ordeal is an enormous headache and that the phrase “soul-crushing” does not cover the half of it, but I would also put forth that trivializing the legitimate plight of millions of other high schoolers is hardly the way to talk about it.

Furthermore, it is not as if millions of poor African Americans with two moms are lining up to take Ms. Weiss’ spot at Harvard. In fact, a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates “the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university … despite the fact that selective institutions would often cost them less.”

Perhaps the reason people from Ms. Weiss’ background need “killer SAT scores” and “nine extracurriculars” is that there are thousands of far more disadvantaged students lacking the resources to take advantage of their academic promise. There is no shame in losing out on a spot at an elite college because it went to a student with similar qualifications but had a slight edge. It is, however, dishonest and selfish to assert that losing out was in some way in the fault of people who are far more underprivileged.

The op-ed’s muddled morality message would be far less notable were it not for the affirmative action case heard by the Supreme Court recently over Abigail Fisher’s complaint that affirmative action cost her a spot at the University of Texas. Ms. Fisher’s dubious claim of institutional reverse racism collapsed a couple weeks ago, when investigative journalism outfit ProPublica revealed that “race probably had nothing to do with the University of Texas’s decision to deny admission to Abigail Fisher.”

Fisher, in spite of what her lawyers may have argued, did not have the sufficient SAT scores or GPA to gain admission to the University of Texas. Because she did not rank in the top 10 percent of her class, she was competing with students evaluated on “personal achievement” and “grades and test scores.” Her total score, being of lesser value than her peers (who, by the way, were overwhelmingly white), was the basis of her rejection. Not the color of her classmates’ skin.

The list of stories like these goes on. And naked, public exhibitions of privilege in major media outlets are not going away anytime soon. They are as much a staple of our media culture as any reality television show.

I get the problem that Weiss, Fisher and other upset “victims” of the college admissions process are talking about — it is hurtful and frustrating to assume your high school experience and personal development will lead to college acceptances when the reality is different. It sucks, as Weiss put it, to be “lied to.” That salient detail notwithstanding, Weiss’ and Fisher’s belief that their lack of uniqueness or special circumstance are the reasons for their rejection is still off-base.

The real reason for their rejection is that they did not meet the standards for admission. In the case of Fisher, it was so-so academic standing, and in the case of Weiss it was her lack of “killer SAT scores” and “three varsity sports.” If you take issue with the college process by claiming it demands too much of applicants, that is valid. If your complaint, however, stems from a smug, petty conception of inadvertent reverse racism — then you should probably keep your thoughts to yourself.

Image source: Serenejournal via Creative Commons.

Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @noahkulwin.