Em-URGE-ing Voices

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An Open Letter to Abigail Fisher

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October 12, 2012

Abigail Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin and is currently suing the school because she believes she was a victim of racial discrimination. Abigail Fisher is white. In 2012, the Supreme Court took up her challenge to the equal opportunity laws that govern a small percentage of admissions to the UT system (three-quarters of students are admitted automatically for graduating in the top 10 percent of their Senior class).  The justices then sent the case to be reheard by the lower courts. However, in October 2015, The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, it’s first major affirmative action case since 2003.*

Abigail missed the 10 percent cutoff and was evaluated based on UT’s criteria which includes academic achievements, community service, and life circumstances, including race. She was not accepted. For more details about UT’s admissions criteria, check out NPR’s coverage here.

Oh, Abigail. We need to talk. First of all, I want to apologize, because as a society, we have failed you – and not because you weren’t admitted to your first-choice school. We have failed you in the same way that we fail most young white people in America: by being too embarrassed, naïve and optimistic to talk to you about race and privilege.

I know this is true because I lived it. I’m half Mexican, but I look white. Like you, I thought my race didn’t matter, because I didn’t have to think about the hundreds of small ways people treated me well…based on the color of my skin. The only person who ever mentioned it was my Mexican-American grandmother, who told me I was “lucky” to have taken after my dad.

The truth is that I could walk into an Honors or AP class in high school and everyone assumed that I belonged there. My teachers, friends and school administrators all expected me to graduate and go on to college. My books and assignments were always written in the language I grew up speaking. My parents were able to communicate with my teachers at Parents’ Nights. Neither of them had ever seen a FAFSA until my junior year, but they were able to help me figure it out and take out the necessary loans to help me pay for school.

I didn’t really think of these things as “privilege” because they were just my life. But it’s not a small thing when the people responsible for our education expect us to succeed. When college isn’t a question of “if” but “where” – that’s privilege. And we didn’t earn this, Abigail. This isn’t merit based. We aren’t smarter or better or more hard-working. We live in a society where being white opens doors and offers opportunities so regularly that we never have to think about it.

I’ve read some of your interviews to the media about this case and i have to admit — they made me cringe. You told the New York Times that you hope, “they’ll completely take race out of the issue in terms of admissions and that everyone will be able to get into any school that they want no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it.” But even if you remove race from admissions criteria, it won’t remove race from the equation. Racism is embedded in the education system. Everywhere. Whether we’re talking about direct choosing, preferential treatment, or lowered expectations. And whether you realize it or not, we both benefitted from it.

Here’s the thing, Abigail. Even though you didn’t attend your first-choice school, you were admitted elsewhere and had the means to pay out-of-state tuition at LSU. According to the New York Times, you are employed in Austin; in an uncertain economy, where the majority of our peers face months or even years of unemployment, you’re doing all right. What you must understand is that none of this was a coincidence. Your success (anyone’s success, really) is only partially based on personal merit; the rest is determined by circumstances, and you had the good fortune to grow up white in America.

I have high hopes for our generation, Abigail. More of us are people of color or mixed race than ever before. But we can’t benefit from this unprecedented diversity if we overturn the laws designed to provide equal opportunities to our peers. It’s time for us to understand that diversity isn’t for “other people” – it’s something we benefit from directly and something we can’t afford to lose. Think about it this way: if educational institutions weren’t intentional about gender diversity, you and I might not be where we are today. I promise you that I am no less hard-working than most of the young men I went to school with, but for generations in the US it was considered less important to educate women, period, and higher education was a dream. Encouraging gender diversity has enriched the educational experience for countless students, and racial and ethnic diversity does the same.

I am profoundly sorry that we are allowed to grow up young and white in America thinking that laws designed to provide equal opportunity to our peers somehow threaten us. They don’t. They have benefitted people like you, and many people who don’t look like you. The case that you have brought to the Supreme Court is a threat to us all.

Mari Schimmer

URGE Field Director


*This post was updated in December 2015 to include recent developments of the Fisher v. UT court case.

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