Opinion: Stop conceptualizing affirmative action as “reverse racism”

When people of color are admitted into colleges, they are often told that they only got in because of their race. Credit: Jenny Chang/The Foothill Dragon Press
When people of color are admitted into colleges, they are often told that they only got in because of their race. Credit: Jenny Chang/The Foothill Dragon Press

In a seemingly post-racial America, many white and privileged groups of people are convinced that reverse racism exists and is somehow replacing “the original” racism, you know, the racism that actually exists. This idea manifests itself into varying discussions, but one that seems most prevalent within high school discourse, is that of affirmative action.

The belief that reverse racism exists can be diffused by having an understanding of what racism is and what it isn’t. First and foremost, racism is institutional and systemic. People that are subjected to racism experience it on many levels, whether from governmental or other institutional policies, everyday encounters, etc. Racism is something that has a history. A group that has been dominating, oppressive and genocidal upon another group for centuries does not suddenly wake up one morning deciding they are the victims. That is not how racism functions, nor how it ever has.

Throughout this year, and more particularly, the process of college admissions, I’ve observed many people complain how unfair they believe affirmative action is, or claim that it’s much easier to get into college if you are not white. This belief is rooted in the principles of reverse racism, ignoring the reasons as to why affirmative action exists, denying the current problems and inequality that people of color face in the college admissions process, while also delegitimizing their qualifications in being admitted into universities.

The argument against affirmative action is not absurd simply for its rejection of racism’s reality, but its simultaneous erasure and dismissal of the struggles of those who endure it. Those who refuse to recognize affirmative action’s necessity are ignoring the institutional disadvantages that marginalized groups experience, thus denying and white-washing reality and history.

In fact, this ideology prioritizes the privileged group’s hurt feelings over the oppressed group’s reality.

To think that affirmative action’s existence is on the same level, or worse than centuries of racism and injustice, is to be disconnected from the reality of millions of people, so much so, that one begins to believe that the privileged are the victims. This narrative of victimization allows terrible belief systems, like reverse racism, to become increasingly normalized and accepted.

Affirmative action is often viewed as a form of “reverse racism” or “reverse discrimination,” since white people’s privilege is the norm. Systems of racism are so “normal” to people who benefit off of it, that any other system which moves away from that is questioned and attacked. When white people get into colleges, it is not accepted to claim they only got in because they are white. It is assumed white people were qualified, while people of color were given a free token.

Using language such as “reverse” insinuates that historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups are completely well-off now, indicating a rejection of reality, which, as reported in The Washington Post, shows that “whites represent 75 percent of the students at the nation’s top 468 colleges overall, even though they account for only 62 percent of the nation’s college-age population.”

More so, it is not recognized that affirmative action does not only exist for people of color. I never hear my white male peers critiquing how unfair or “reverse-discriminatory” it is when white women get into college, even though they are the largest beneficiaries of affirmative action, as reported by TIME. People get so disgruntled over non-white individuals receiving help within institutions that usually work against them, even though they aren’t the main beneficiaries.

There is a large sense of ownership over these systems that seek to help the underprivileged, an ownership that comprehensively excludes people of color. This ownership demands an “equal playing field” for white women, but not women of color, or any people of color for that matter.

A photo campaign launched by black students at Harvard called, “I, Too, Am Harvard,” highlights the experiences of black students on their campus, but also indicates similar realities at other institutions of higher education. Their website page description reads, “Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned.”

In the photos, students are holding up signs which present different experiences of racism they have faced. A few say, “Can you read?,” “You’re lucky to be black…so easy to get into college,” “Surprise! My application to Harvard wasn’t just a picture of my face” and “You’re really articulate for a black girl.”

At Harvard, and probably at every other predominantly white institution, black students’ qualifications are delegitimized and underestimated. Their work that got them into university is dismissed, and once they get there, their presence is further questioned. Even when they are there, they are still treated as outsiders who are not included in claiming their right to be there.

And that is racism: when your existence is repudiated, and your hard work is not celebrated or valued like your white counterparts. Racism exists when you constantly hear comments that say you do not belong, that this institution is not for you and that your existence discriminates against your oppressor. A product of this deeply-ingrained racism is a disillusionment so extreme that it leads people to believing that any shift from their power is equivalent to centuries of oppression.

Ultimately, believing that affirmative action is reverse racism is being a racist, and it’s about time to recognize that if you use the word “reverse,” you are not talking about racism.

-Riley Knouse

1 thought on “Opinion: Stop conceptualizing affirmative action as “reverse racism”

  1. Isabella Balandran – Isabella Balandran graduated from Mater Dei High School in 2016 where she served as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of her school's newspaper the Scarlet Scroll. She is now the Co-Lead Producer of High School Insider and the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Orange Coast College's Coast Report.
    Isabella Balandran says:

    This is such an important and well-written article. I applaud you!

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