I have been on a slight hiatus from writing for reasons that were unclear to me until I discovered that it had been awhile since I encountered ignorance. This very blissful vacation from ignorance came to an abrupt end last week as I was sitting at lunch after a talk about stop & frisk and legal socialization by a professor at Yale. There were about 10 or so PhDs (professors) and soon-to-be-PhDs (doctoral students) in attendance at this intimate lunch. After sharing our research interests and current projects the discussion shifted to one about teaching and undergraduate education. As one attendee was discussing the disconnect between research expertise and courses taught brought up the example of a friend of theirs on faculty at Wellesley who consistently taught calculus and similarly basic courses even though she was very well known in her field for other things.
“You Don’t Look Like You Went to Wellesley…”
At this point in the conversation (because I LOVE Wellesley) I perked up and excitedly inquired who the faculty member was. This inquiry was met with the retort, “Why, did you go to Wellesley?” My first inclination was to sarcastically respond, No, I just have a habit of asking about faculty members at colleges that I have never heard of or attended in my life, but then, for the sake of “professional reputation” I simply replied “Yes.” The very tactful attendee very brazenly, yet matter-of-factly, blurted out, “Oh. You don’t look like you went to Wellesley.” I hesitantly chuckled and mumbled, “Oh, yea… I left my pearls at home.” *blank stare*
In case the ignorance of this statement is not obvious, I will elaborate. In saying that I don’t “look” like I went to Wellesley, she could only reasonably (and realistically) mean one of two things: 1) that I don’t look rich, or 2) that I don’t look white. Both of these reasons are über offensive. In a room full of highly educated individuals, could she not fathom the possibility that the sole black woman in the room could have graduated from a place such as Wellesley? How I could have adjusted my look to better fit her perceptions (not that I would, but it is a somewhat fun, pointless mental exercise)?
But, let’s not be mistaken, Wellesley could have easily been substituted by the name of any elite, predominantly white institution. This is why campaigns such as I, Too, Am Harvard are so important, or why this response about students at Phillips Exeter Academy is salient, because students of color do not easily fit into the trope of the “average students at _(insert institution here)_.” It is frustrating to know that even years after graduating from college, after spending nnumber of years actually at the institution defending why you deserve to be there to your peers, you still have to justify and convince people that you have achieved what you say you have. In the air of Jessica White, I would love to tell people who are amazed by the idea of a black graduate of an elite institution to “Google Me” for proof, but that may elicit other stereotypes about the “angry black woman.” Unfortunately, this is often a zero-sum game.
by Portia Allen-Kyle