What if privilege wasn’t measured by the colour of your skin?
Recently, Kwasi Enin made news when he got accepted into all eight Ivy League schools. As expected, there were all kinds of coverage: from amazement to derision. But one of the articles that got my attention was about how this added to the tensions between African immigrants and Black Americans. Affirmative action was put in place as restitution for historical injustices, to pay a debt that would number in the trillions if we went back to prosecute crimes such as slavery. But have these policies achieved what they set out to do?
As a person that attended school in the United States and benefited from not being caucasian or male, I have very mixed feelings about this. And I guess it stems from my general unease that I was not the one to benefit, that someone else should have taken my spot.
I know, I know. Everyone wants to hear the story of how I came from nothing to make something of myself in Canada. But I can’t. the story of struggle in my family is in my grandparents’ generation. My maternal grandfather joined the Indian Air Force at 16 because they would pay for university. His dream was to be a lawyer for the poor and underprivileged. My grandmother stayed at home and focused on raising her daughters to value education. Two of the three became PhDs, and the third one is the school principal for a rural school in India.
My paternal grandfather went to school to get his education degree, and became a teacher. My grandmother was actually the one with the better job, as a post-mistress, and had to take a lot of non-local postings. This meant that my grandfather was for a lot of the time a single parent. About 15 years after the last of their five children left home, they all ended up in a place called Alberta.
It was from these beginnings that my parents settled in the Middle East, focusing on providing for us even better than their parents did. This eventually meant uprooting our family, spending three years in apart and especially for my parents, leaving to go struggle when things were going so well for them. Assimilating was a lot easier for us siblings than our parents, as eventually nothing but the colour of our skin would give away the fact that we were first-generation immigrants. Even being able to shed my accent was privilege. Coming from watching American and British TV in the middle east to more or less only speaking English at home, it all screamed affluence now that I looked back on it. My parents were schooled in English and because we siblings spoke to each other in English, it was easier for my parents to fall in with us, rather than the other way around.
Yeah, we had a hard time adjusting. But through all of this we had the immense support of family. And because my parents are the best money managers around, we paid for our house and car in cash and never really lacked for anything. My siblings and I were going to university come hell or high water. But when universities helped with financial aid for minorities, were they looking for us?
It’s not an easy question to answer. But I have to think that poverty might be a better criteria than just race. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fantastic to have more people that we can help graduate and be mentors and role models for others in our community who might influence others to follow their path. And for a lot of minorities, the lack of being able to visualize someone like them “making it” can be a huge de-motivator. But with poverty intersecting with disadvantage a lot more, we might be able to make maximum impact when we’re able to break the cycle for those people, regardless of their ancestry.