Brown Faces in White Places

Affirmative Action serves a purpose beyond manufacturing diversity for its own sake. Affirmative Action is an act of restorative justice. It restores an opportunity for people of color whose regular lack of opportunity creates want for institutional diversity in the first place. Affirmative Action attempts to crack the glass ceiling that suffocates minoritized groups. Through Affirmative Action, people with marginalized identities are granted access to higher education and professional advancement. When people do not start on equal footing due to societal and structural barriers, it is the responsibility of policymakers to develop policies that will diminish those inequalities. Affirmative Action strives to right historical and ongoing racial discrimination wrongs.

Yet emphasizing the “diversity” rationale for Affirmative Action in higher education distorts the practice’s central purpose—to dismantle institutionalized white privilege and structural racism. Instead Affirmative Action has been defended by neoliberals through the lens of multiculturalism as beneficial to a productive and innovative educational environment. In a study conducted to observe the impact of Affirmative Action (Chang 1996), the results show that “the more diverse the student body, the greater the likelihood that a white student will socialize with someone of a different racial group or discuss racial issues”. This argument ultimately centers and benefits the experience and interests of white students, the population who has historically attended these institutions.

Because diversity has been hailed as an important educational tool that enhances the environment for learning, Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) seek students of color to bring this “diversity.” Yet, diversity is not ascribed to a body, as institutions so often make it seem. So what exactly makes the experiences of students of color so “diverse” from their white counterparts that it makes for a varied learning environment? What is it that people of color experience that white people do not? The reality is the bodies that comprise these predominantly white institutions are not interested in the answer to that question. They are interested in aesthetic diversity for its own sake.

this Black person was photoshopped here, for “diversity”

When people think of the word “diversity,” in college, the first mental image they see is a couple of brown faces sprinkled amongst a sea of white faces. Just look at the cover of any college brochure, and trust that for every three white faces, you’ll see one ethnically ambiguous face. These staged photos create the illusion that these colleges have more students of color enrolled than one would typically see on their campuses. These illusions lead people to believe that these institutions are racially conscious, but the truth is these institutions and the individuals that govern them are complicit in the perpetuation of the racism that occurs at their universities.

So to the PWI’s I have attended, recognize that I am not your diversity. I am not just a brown face to use in your brochures. You want to use our brown and black bodies as marketing tools to sell your myth as a progressive, liberal, and multicultural institution. Don’t use my body. Don’t use my face to promote your deceptions. Don’t take my picture and claim me as your own when you can’t even advocate on behalf of my humanity, my existence, on your campus.

I did not attend these institutions to enlighten my white peers on my experiences as a working class Dominican from the Heights. I did not attend these institutions to increase the school’s statistics on students of color. I attended these institutions to accrue lifetime benefits that multiple generations of white students have received due to legacy admissions. I attended these institutions to gain access to opportunities that will one day help me support my community. I attended these institutions to enrich my education. I attended these institutions for me.

Yet these institutions continue to fail me. They continue to fail us, students of color. These institutions cheer in ignorance when their diversity statistics increase and do not realize that those numbers are not enough. Those numbers do nothing if white students continue to disparage students of color, professors continue to spew microaggressions, school presidents continue to dismiss racial injustices, and students of color continue to feel unsafe on their campus. Affirmative Action is not about adding brown and black bodies into white spaces; it is about dismantling structural and institutional racism. A few students, faculty, and administrators of color will not change that. Individuals must acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating racism on campus, critically engage and act on promoting racial justice on campus, and implement structural changes that will ensure the safety and humanity of its students of color on campus. Until this happens, your diversity means nothing to me.

Nikkie Ubinas, Class of 2018, attends Brown University

1 Comment
  1. Thank you for stressing the role of affirmative action as reparation (nowhere near enough) and to build capital – education, career development, status, power, money – for individual people of color as well as their families and communities. Just as the many institutions that support white supremacy have been and continue to practice affirmative action for whites.

    Are there any (even partially) successful organizational programs or models of true social justice, or significant steps in that direction, that can be held up as examples, for case study and emulation? What would a truly equitable institution look like? What would it do to reduce and oppose disparagement and microaggression; to acknowledge and speak out against injustices; to acknowledge white complicity and privilege (including the privileges of ignorance and inaction); to critically engage ALL stakeholders and community in building awareness, competence, motivation, and intentional action against oppression and for justice? What sort of structural changes would help students and all people of color (also women, LGBTQIA+, etc.) to feel safe?

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