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A textbook example of racial privilege

Those of you who have been reading for a while know that I am a big believer in the power of diversity. I’m not only referring to racial diversity, but I am of the belief that our racial identities inform our day-to-day experiences and the lens of how we see the world. A variety of experiences means a diversity of perspectives, which means in turn that any problem can be approached with a variety of solutions. It just makes sense – a group is smarter when it can rely on a variety of skills, even if the problem doesn’t have an explicitly racial component to it.

As a result, I am a supporter of affirmative action (AA) programs as a method of creating a more adaptable, agile, and smarter workforce. Whether that workforce is in academia or industry, we all benefit from being surrounded by people who are capable, but who also have life experience and perspectives that give us a better chance for a multi-faceted problem-solving approach. At the same time, I recognize (as do most supporters of AA programs) that it’s a non-perfect approach to the serious problem of racially supremacist systems. We have a history that has, at times explicitly, given the bulk of the benefit to some groups at the direct expense of another, resulting in a lopsided distribution of wealth, education, political power, and popular perception. There’s no way to re-balance the scales without someone feeling like they’ve had something taken from them.

Of course opponents of AA say that rebalancing the scales thusly is manifestly unfair. What we should do, they say, is just start treating everyone according to merit, thus ensuring that those who are “most qualified” will succeed. If we take race out of the equation entirely, we won’t be giving unfair advantages to one group, but nor will we be taking away opportunity from those who happen to be in a group that, once upon a time, had members that were wicked. By forcing race into the equation, affirmative action is being just as racist as those wicked ancestors were, just in the opposite direction!

Henry Yu explains the problem with that line of reasoning with a parable:

Imagine that I am teaching a class. There is a textbook for the class, and according to my syllabus, at the end of each week I will give an examination that tests the students on that week’s lectures and textbook readings. However, at the beginning of the first day of class, I decide to give only half of the students the textbook. I do this by arranging the class list alphabetically and reading out family names, starting with A and giving out textbooks until they run out, somewhere around those with last names beginning with L or M.

After several weeks of class, it becomes clear that those students who were given textbooks do much better on the weekly exams than those who were not given textbooks. Students whose names begin with P or T begin to complain, and eventually to protest their unfair treatment. They claim that there is an “alphabetism” in the class that gives some people better treatment just because of the letters of their name. An “anti-alphabetist” movement begins, complete with marches and letters to the administration and by the middle of the semester, the protests are so powerful that I am forced to change the system.


I announce that from now on, our class is an “alphabet-blind” meritocracy, and those who complain need to shut up and start working hard instead of blaming their failures on “alphabetism.” I point out several “model” students who did not receive textbooks at the beginning of class, but despite the stigma of having a name beginning with T or Z, were still able to get high marks in the class.

Indeed, the student with the highest grade in the class had a name beginning with W! Even without a textbook, she listened attentively to lectures and took detailed notes. Because I had felt pity for the students without textbooks, I had put one copy on reserve at the library, and she had woken up early every morning before the library opened so she could get to that copy first. Her example should shame those lazy students who spent their semester protesting and complaining instead of working hard. She made the most of her limited resources.


The new system is fair in concept. Being “alphabet-blind” is a worthy ideal to replace the unfairness of “alphabetism.” But something is not quite right. Indeed, a new system that is fair in ideal has actually reinforced the unfairness of the past. By ranking the students by grades achieved during a period of inequality, and continuing to reward those who accomplished the most under that system, the “alphabet-blind” system actually extends and exacerbates the inequities of the past. Worse yet, being alphabet-blind hides the unfairness of the past. By claiming that the present and future is now fair and meritocratic, it erases the effects of the first half of the semester.

The parable is worth reading in its entirety, as it does an excellent job of fleshing out the full scope of the issue, and why, well-intentioned though it may be, mandating meritocracy after generations of racial supremacy simply does not solve the problem. He also provides a thorough description of the “model minority” myth, expressed through the lens of history – the TL/DR version is that inequality and deprivation created the conditions where groups had to become models just to succeed, and it’s the height of hypocrisy to complain that schools are “too Asian” now that those chickens are coming home to roost.

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