An Up-Close View from the Middle at 30,000 Feet

They are already coming from my daughter. “They” being colleges and universities. Ever since the results of her PSAT scores came in last fall, my child’s email inbox has been filled with another imploring note from institutions far and near, of all stripes and pedigrees.  They are asking this soon-to-be-but-not-yet sixteen year old high school sophomore to consider their institution as the place where she should seek to spend the next 4 years of her life after high school. Many of these institutions also email me in hopes that I will use my parental influence to sway her decision (they do realize she’s a teenager, right?).

This is my only child. I get one experience with being on the parental end of the college search process. Since I was my mother’s only child, I also only had one view of this from the prospective student’s point of view as well. There was no older sibling to watch first. My mother, the next to last child and youngest girl, did not have the opportunity to complete college, attending only one semester at Hunter College before having to prematurely end her college education to stay home and help her widowed mother take care of her younger brother, who had both physical and psychiatric disabilities. My father, though possessing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from North Carolina public universities, was not really part of my life at the time and I had no access to his knowledge about higher education. I had been helping to fill out our family’s FAFSA forms since I was in high school due to the opportunity extended to me to attend a private, independent all-girls Catholic high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (I was born and raised in Harlem, north of Central Park, in the same burrough of New York City). I was a first-gen college student; one of the “privileged poor” as Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, a researcher featured in this NYT article on first-gen students at elite colleges, names those first-gen students who attend private schools and therefore have a chance to get somewhat used to the massive class differences evident at elite institutions.

Although I am told not to worry about where my child will go to college, I am concerned because I know that as a young adult perceived to be an African American woman, she will be judged in the context of this White cishetpatriarchal society as inferior, less than, a collection of deficits to be overcome – despite her class schedule being filled with honors classes and maintaining an over 4.0 GPA. So, for my child, and others like her, it does matter where she goes, what institution’s name is listed on her resume as the place where she received her bachelor’s education. To deny that this does matter for some students and their families considering college is to accept the myth of meritocracy and deny the reality of systemic bias that continues to confront graduates from minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and small, regional public colleges. Yes, the conclusions drawn by Pascarella and Terenzini (How College Affects Students, 2005) based on the weight of hundreds of research studies suggest that the biggest differences lie between students in different educational programs (e.g., honors colleges, living-learning communities, summer bridge programs, etc.) at the same institution instead of between students in comparable educational programs at different institutions.

And yet, hiring managers and graduate school admissions committees don’t think of that research when they make assumptions about the quality of education at Spelman versus that at Mount Holyoke, or a graduate whose undergraduate career began at Terra State Community College versus the one whose college years were all spent at The Ohio State University’s main campus in Columbus.

So, I want to help my daughter, who I’ll refer to as “M” to preserve her confidentiality, to make the best decision for her and encourage her not to “undermatch” (see the NYT article linked above) based on false perceptions of her competence and ability to succeed.

I was a first-gen college student, but my daughter is not. M is the child of 3 parents across two households who possess 3 bachelor’s degrees and 4 advanced graduate degrees among them. I am an associate professor with tenure in a doctoral-level research institution teaching, of all ironies, in a higher education and student affairs department. Going to college is not just where I go to work, it is my work. More than anyone, I should know all the ins-and-outs of college admissions, all the tips and tricks for getting M’s application noticed, have all the access to the test prep strategies and essay writing tutors that my educational station and social class privilege should afford, right? Right? Wrong.

Yes, I do know a lot more about navigating college than my mom did when I was in high school. I have attained no small amount of cultural and social capital due to my education and profession. However, I am still wide-eyed and overwhelmed in much the same ways as I was when I was on the threshold of 16 and beginning to consider where I would go to college. The problem with that is that no one expects me to feel that way. M – who has been on college campuses since she was literally in the womb – and I have an up-close view of college life from the middle, stuck in the DMZ between first-gen status and the privileges accruing to generations of college legacies. I can step out from that place and look at all this happening from 30,000 feet in the air, with the benefit of a command of the college access and choice scholarship. But this is my kid. My only child. My only chance to do this well. Yes, we have a village and thank goodness for it – the same village that appeared when I was 16 is the same village (not the same people but the same presence of support and capacity) that will help M to enter this familiar-unfamiliarity on her own terms.

As I become the parent of a matriculating college student, I’ll continue to share this unique up-close view of the middle from 30,000 feet up. I hope you’ll join me at #MsCollegeSearch.

Racing the Olympics

Today’s opening ceremonies launch the 2012 London Olympics. For nearly two weeks, fanatic and occasional sports enthusiasts will watch the world’s best compete for the title of THE best athlete in their event and nationalists across the world will keep track of the medal count for their country’s athletes. It is heralded as a time when political squabbles take a backseat to international cooperation and camaraderie. Of course that’s not always the case and the Olympic Games have often served as a stage for political rivalries, David-Goliath dichotomies, and whether one way of life will win the day over another.

As a critical race theorist (CRT) (click here for a summary of CRT), I recognize the prevalence and pervasiveness of race and racism in daily life and so I have paid attention, or tracked, issues of race and racism in this year’s Olympic Games. For some reason though, issues of race haven’t been hard to notice at all. They’ve been practically screaming even before the games began this week. First was the controversy over London’s logo for the Olympics that has included concerns over insensitivity to people with epilepsy, whether the logo is part of an Illuminati conspiracy and concerning race, earlier iterations of the logo have been criticized (ironically) for both harkening to Nazi symbolism in one iteration and by Iran for covertly supporting the Zionist movement in another form. It’s also the 40th year since 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered in Munich during the Opening Ceremonies of the games in what was clearly an ethno-religious hate crime and the IOC has refused to hold a moment of silence in remembrance of this horrific act that violated not only the spirit of the games but human dignity and equality. Most recently, on Thursday, it was reported that a Greek Olympic athlete, Voula Papachristou, a member of their track and field squad who was to compete in the triple jump, was expelled from the Olympics by her home country for a racist tweet that when translated read, “With so many Africans in Greece… At least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat home made food!!!”

Clearly that is a WTF moment.

Elsewhere, the presence of race and racism (and suspicions of it) are less obvious. Also this week, the Huffington Post reported that British weight-lifting Olympic athlete, Zoe Smith, was taunted via Twitter with bullying tweets disparaging her and her teammates for being female weight-lifters. Smith fired back with some truly excellent zingers and wrote further about it on her blog as reported here by Yahoo! News. So what’s this got to do with race, you wonder. Well, one of the tenets of CRT is a recognition of the intersections of racism with other forms of oppression. Zoe Smith appears to be a young woman of African descent, and although not unique to Black and other women of color, the hateful comments targeting her take on the same look as those that have been used to brutalize women of African descent in the U.S. and globally since Europe colonized Africa. I was reminded instantly of South African track athlete Caster Semenya, who was accused in 2009 of being a man for her very muscled body and undeniable dominance in the 800m event, supposedly not natural for someone born female. Semenya was ultimately required by the IAAF, the world athletics organization, to take a gender test to prove she was female. Although not as extreme as Semenya’s case, the bullying Smith endured is very reminiscent of the ways that pan-African women have long been de-sexed and made anti-feminine by White European standards of hegemonic femininity and heteronormative sexual desire.

Yet there is another way in which race plays a subtle, often overlooked role in the Olympic Games and in sports in general, through what bodies are on the playing field for any respective sport and which bodies are expected to win. Racialized expectations for performance outcomes in the Olympics have become trite: an African will win the long-distance running events, particularly one from Kenya or Ethiopia; the Chinese will do best in diving; the Central Europeans excel at gymnastics, while South Americans are the key threat in soccer on the world stage.

Meanwhile, for as much progress as has been made in racial equality and opportunity through athletics, we will still see most of the Black athletes on the track, the long jump, the soccer pitch (outside the US), and the basketball court, especially when they’re from the US (the football field is another place but that’s not an Olympic sport – yet). People of African descent and darker complexion will be noticeably far fewer on swimming, gymnastics, golf, and tennis teams, for example (with equally notable exceptions in 2012 like Gabby Douglas and John Orozco for the U.S. gymnastics squad, and Lia Neal, who is one of 3 Black swimmers on the U.S. swimming team). Latin@, Asian American, and Native American athletes are few and far between in the sports that get the most press coverage in the U.S.

Is this a problem? What difference does it make that there isn’t more racial diversity in our Olympic cycling, rowing, or lacrosse squads? Isn’t this just a matter of preference and talent? Well, putting the eugenics tone of the last question aside, I guess it doesn’t matter – unless we care about the intersections of racial and economic inequality. The marginalization of people of color from higher-income employment sectors depresses the economic mobility of people of color and their access to a wider variety of leisure activities, including sports. What I’ve noticed is that sports with a lower entry fee, so to speak, are the sports where you’re likely to see a higher proportion of people of color. When all you need is a ball, or a pair of sneakers, or both those things and a hoop, and when you can play anywhere – the middle of the street or somebody’s schoolyard, the sport is more economically accessible. If the sport you play requires not only pricey equipment, but also many acres of manicured grassy lawns, access to a natatorium (even public pools are few and far between in most economically challenged areas), an ice rink, gymnasium, long trails to ride, or a lake AND coaching supervision to prevent injury inherent in the sport (thinking about gymnastics especially), you’ve changed the complexion of the sport. Basically, the price to play structurally and systematically excludes significant numbers of people of color from playing the game on the basis of the ways that race and social class intersect. The result is fielding an US Olympics team that doesn’t reflect the total diversity of our multicultural, multi-ethnic nation, but does reflect the racial segregation that still marks our daily lives from Sunday morning at 11am (tip of the hat to MLK) to the playgrounds and backyards of our children’s lives.

One thing I know is that the ability to play together is fundamental to creating bonds of loyalty, mutual care and respect, and cooperation. We see it in groups of young children, the best of our intercollegiate athletics, and through the boardroom deals that begin on the golf course or squash court. Maybe we’re stuck in this quagmire in our nation because we don’t know how to play together and don’t seem to want to. What do we do about this? Honestly, I haven’t a clue. But another thing I know is that in order to get to an answer, we’ve got to start talking about the question.

Monday: Coming Out as both Risk and Privilege