Musings of an Ethnomusicologist on Unrelated Topics

This is what privilege looks like: A case for affirmative action

I posted this video on Facebook about a week ago. It received scant comments, aside from one by someone I knew in college which read:

“Personally, I don’t see what the problem is. Statistics can be so easily twisted. I’d personally like to know how many black African Americans applied and were accepted, compared to whites. THAT would be real data. The real data I see is that 34% of UCLA students are Asian/Pacific Islander (, even more than whites at 27%. That tells me that this school is not racist, but rather focuses on exam scores, most likely. That also tells me, that either there just aren’t very many black people applying, or the black people applying don’t have high enough exam scores. It has nothing to do with money, unless Asian people are generally ‘richer’ than black people, which may be the case…but, I definitely don’t believe black people should be given extra money to go to school just because they’re black and/or can’t pass their exams.”

After deleting numerous attempts at a reactionary post, I’m realizing it’ll take more time to unpack than a few lines of text. So, buckle up.


First of all, yes, Asian people are generally more wealthy than Blacks, Latinos, Natives and even whites. Asian people still experience discrimination for their minority status – and the concentration of wealth favors certain groups over others – but by objective wealth measures, Asians “as a group” are doing quite well. I also know at the UW that Asian/Pacific Islander international students usually pay full international tuition which is much higher even than out of state tuition, so of course they are accepted in high numbers. But anyway…

There are some additional factors to consider in regards to the argument that test scores are the ultimate measure of who should “deserve” to attend college. Race and class interact to produce disparities of opportunity. Before even embarking on this little assessment, it’s important to consider the histories of race, power and opportunity in America – how diverse people ended up on American soil (slavery vs. choice vs. refugee status, and on and on), who had power in the first place, how legacies of power are passed on through institutions like laws/hiring practices/etc…, how implicit bias impacts the daily lives of people of color, and so on. Oppression and privilege have complicated, long legacies. I’m not going to elaborate on that, so please go learn things.

In the following analysis I will consider myself compared to a person born in less privileged circumstances – who are often (but not always) people of color, since black or brown people are more likely to live in poverty than whites:

This is what privilege looks like. 

1) Accident of birth

I was born into a host of lucky breaks. My parents were married, in their thirties, and financially solvent when I came into the world; they owned a condo, ran a small computer business, and worked as adjuncts at the University. Both had Master’s degrees. My mother has mentioned that she (in part) selected my name, Maren Haynes, because she could imagine it on a book cover. I was a blob that sucked on her boob – I’d shown no potential whatsoever. Didn’t matter. She expected I would write a book. 

Few people are born into stable situations like mine. Poverty, in particular, plays an pernicious role in weakening family stability, since the stress of paycheck-to-paycheck living (especially when working full time or more) limits the ability to plan long-term, invest resources in kids’ educational futures, or to imagine a different situation for yourself or your family. Many people (not all) born in a survival-mode family often do not have parents who expect their children will write books – not because these parents don’t have faith in their children. Topics like “book authorship” simply do not necessarily enter into habitual consciousness. There are many other immediate concerns that take precedence. There are lots of good articles out there about this. See here and here for a few stories.

2) Family assistance

My academic and social success have been part of the vested interest of my family since day one. My parents read to me before I could speak, and continued to do so until I was in my teens. My parents embarked on their doctoral education the year I started kindergarten, so my 1st-3rd years of schooling took place in the milieu of Ithaca, NY, amid other kids living in Cornell married student housing. Even my elementary school teachers had doctoral degrees. If I had trouble with anything I learned in school, my parents had either the expertise or the resources to help me, and if they felt ill-equipped, they could enlist someone in their network of Ph.Ds to assist. For a long while, my success was not correlated to my achievement – I achieved because of my family and community. 

Studies like this show that kids from impoverished families even begin kindergarden academically behind their higher income peers. For kids whose parents did not attend college – or finish high school, or attend school at all, or speak English, or read in any language – finding help with homework is challenging. Of course, teachers can help in after school hours, and many communities have tutoring help available. But the kinds of sustained, engaged assistance that parents want to offer their kids is often limited. So most kids never make up this gap, and it widens instead.

3) The cost of screw ups

School came easily enough to me, but I didn’t like it or invest in it. Especially after we moved back to Montana, I mentally checked out of the learning process. I can recall only a few classes for which I did homework (English, geometry, and one physics class), and I otherwise was content with the scant work I did for Bs and Cs. My friends and I skipped school occasionally (were caught once and punished by our parents), and tried to find excuses to get out of things whenever possible.

Kids from low income families who lacked the initial safety nets buoying their achievement begin to fall through the cracks when they check out like I did. Bs and Cs lead to Ds and Fs. Many low income schools operate in close conjunction with law enforcement, so skipping school can be an offense leading to a criminal record – or jail time. In 2000, there were more Black men in prison than in college; today, the ratio is still about 2 Black men in prison for every 3 in college. This fact is appalling to middle class people, so I encourage you to learn more about it. Start here.

4) The impact of stress

I wonder now if I checked out primarily because school stressed me out socially. I have trouble remembering the information I learned, but the social milieu of school had such an impact on my psyche, I remember 12, 15 years past the girl-on-girl meanness (which I surely perpetuated, too) and unrequited crushes and incidents of embarrassment with intense, scrutinizing detail. I didn’t feel socially safe at school, and studies show these high-stress environments impact learning.

My social stress is incomparable to the “toxic stress” that kids from poor or abusive homes experience. When kids don’t feel physically or emotionally safe and satiated in their homes and communities, this takes a toll on their ability to learn. Kids that suffer abuse at home, or fear for their lives in areas with regular gun violence often live in the trauma of fight or flight that reduces their ability to achieve. Kids can be very smart, capable and interested, but if the conditions of their lives fail to support them, their test scores and grades suffer. The impact of racial achievement patterns impacts kids psychologically. Check out this crazy study. Test scores do not necessarily track potential, but do point to circumstance.

5) Lucky breaks anyway

I went to college because everyone I knew went to college. It was unimaginable that I would not. I didn’t have great grades. I didn’t really pay attention on the SATs, but got a decent score. I didn’t really care much about my applications or essays, but I write well. Actually, I didn’t get into a bunch of schools I applied to. I got into college by doing almost nothing remarkable. 

In communities where almost nobody goes to college, this kind of skating-by-to-achievement is unheard of. A kid has to excel against the odds to end up where I ended up. A lassiez-faire attitude toward school like the one I demonstrated – sufficient for college in my circumstance – can result in disastrous circumstances for long-term “career” prospects (many of these kids will never have professional careers – only jobs. Listen to this story all the way through to see what I mean). Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds need to work extremely hard to compete with kids like me, and that hard work should be rewarded in accordingly.

6) Why college?

But college marked the most drastic turning point in my life. Because I could suddenly take any class I wanted to, and the workload felt meaningful to me, I fell in love with learning – a deep, abiding, lifelong love that has sustained me through a Master’s degree and most of a Ph.D. I have worked hard at these accomplishments. I can now own pieces of my achievement, but they would not have been possible without many people taking chances on me, even when I didn’t deserve them. 

I want this for all kids. I don’t imagine college will change everyone’s life, but it is an entrance point to innumerable professional opportunities in nearly every field. I want us all to offer such opportunities to kids who might not seem by their test scores, at least, to “deserve” them as much as a kid from a more privileged circumstance. My reason, of course, is that I think these kids very sincerely do deserve this chance more than I deserved it. We started at very different places and ended at similar places – I slid down a slightly bumpy slide; a low income, minority kid climbed a mountain


College shouldn’t only be conceived as a prize for high school test scores – it’s  an opportunity that opens up doors to many different careers and different levels of eventual power and wealth.

The goal in writing this post is not only to argue for more diverse students to enter universities. Ultimately, enrolling more people of color in the university begets more people of color in professional positions. This is critical for infinite reasons – first, this is a means toward interrupting the cycle of intergenerational poverty for families. Perhaps their children won’t enter school so far behind, and can graduate with better test scores.

But it’s most important in my opinion because we need diverse people in all kinds of positions because these are the people who are attuned to the diverse circumstances, needs, epistemologies, worldviews and goals of their own communities. People bring their own experiences into their professions, and only people with a nuanced understanding of the diversity of this country will shape the policies, workplace environments, medical experiences,  research priorities, etc… which have intimately impacted them and the people they know. This is the only thing that can actually interrupt cycles of oppression – and it will take generations for it to take full effect. We need people of color at the table. Without an opportunity to attend college – and the best college possible – people of color are denied access to future leadership positions. 

Affirmative action offers one small bump for these kids who have beat the odds in innumerable ways already. At elite colleges, students of course have to show an incredible amount of achievement against the odds (even privileged students). But perhaps low income and minority students’ test scores will be generally lower than their more privileged counterparts. Accepting a low income or minority student – who excelled in high school by all measures (grades, test scores, work, supporting family, creating art, pursuing leadership, etc…) – into college is one small way of saying “I believe what you’ve done is extraordinary, and I give you this chance to reach your potential.” And, hopefully, “we will help you get there.” This is what my mother, father and entire privileged community gave to me from when I was in infant until, well, today – a vote of confidence, a leg up, a safety net of assistance. Help to reach the heights of my potential.

These kids will inevitably need help paying for college. I’m in the minority, I know, but my parents were able to pay my way through school. Many middle class families have the means to at least help their kids through college. But that’s simply not the case for families who live paycheck-to-paycheck, and we must be honest about the disparity in that reality. Low income kids and first generation college students need financial assistance more than people like me (I’m sure most of you would agree with this assertion).

Colleges and Universities –  especially elite institutions – determine the demographic breakdown of our country’s future leadership. They are the entrance point – the golden ticket. Without any college degree, opportunities are stunted. So, yes – who attends these colleges matters very, very much. Test scores garnered by age 18 cannot be the only measure of future leadership potential. And kids need help to pay for it.

One comment on “This is what privilege looks like: A case for affirmative action

  1. Chris
    December 1, 2013

    Well devised argument…I am often surprised when folks resent a “bump” as if it was directly taken out of what they were entitled to…entitlement mentality is not just economic…many “haves” wouldn’t be affected in any way, but still carp. Pell grants would never have been available for you or Kaj, but affect you both positively in a better educated cohort…

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This entry was posted on November 30, 2013 by .
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