Race-based affirmative action: what’s in it for white folks?

Hi friends,

I want to say a little more about affirmative action. I feel like this is one of those things that, for some of us—that is, for those of us who don’t feel like we’re directly impacted—that is, for those of us who are white (and/or perhaps Asian American?)—it might be easy to move on too quickly to everything else going on in our world. 

But I want to stay for a minute with the Supreme Court’s recent-ish decision to prohibit race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Not because it’s the only important thing happening, but because it’s an important thing happening—and because, as a white woman in a world where white folks might think that the decision either affects them positively or not at all, I have a few things to say.

For white folks, it might seem like race-based affirmative action does not benefit us, and so it’s good for us (and our offspring) that it’s been shot down. What would be the motivation to think in any other way?

A few thoughts:

1) On a personal level…

As someone who went to Stanford for undergrad, I look back on that time and on the people I met there, and I think: No offense to my white classmates and friends, but what would my Stanford experience have even been if it were only made up of rich white dudes? 

It certainly would not have been as interesting, enlightening, enjoyable, or, well, educational. I owe so much of the richness of my college experience to the fact that the admissions office was intentionally trying to create a diverse class. 

I got to meet people with backgrounds very different from my own and learn from them—things I never would have learned if we all came from the same racial, ethnic, or cultural spaces. 

I got to live in three different race-focused dorms and intentionally learn from my peers of color about their experiences and the histories of their communities. 

I got to be part of a genuinely multiethnic Christian group on campus that, for all its other issues, taught me a ton about faith, race, and justice. 

Stanford admissions’ efforts to bring people from all sorts of backgrounds together in one place made all these things possible. And I personally benefited from that.

2) On a shaping future leaders level…

I would say that, at its best, the goal of an institution like Stanford is to shape well-informed, thoughtful leaders who will impact our world for good. And when I think of the leaders our world needs right now, I don’t think it’s (primarily) more white men. 

We need leaders with the knowledge and empathy that comes with having experienced life as a woman, as a person of color, as a person who didn’t grow up with money, as a person with a disability, as a sexual minority. So, if Stanford is trying to train leaders, these are the kinds of people it needs to admit. 

3) On a “what even is college admissions?” level…

The college admissions process can be brutal. It can feel like a competition to see who is a better, more talented, smarter, and all-around worthier human. It should not be this way. It’s really just admissions committees trying to form the kind of freshman class as a whole that they want to see.

It’s not totally unlike a job interview. Whether you get an offer or not is not a reflection of your value as a human being. It’s a reflection of the perceived fit between what you bring to the table right now and what the employer happens to be looking for right now. It should not be shameful to not receive a job offer; it just means something else is a better fit. 

It’s okay for white kids not to get into their top choice college. They will be okay. They were not entitled to a spot at that college; no one else is “taking their spot” if they don’t get in. There are lots of places they could flourish for the next four-ish years of their lives, if they’re open to it.

4) And, most importantly, on a societal level…

Although all these other things are important too, really what I want to do is encourage fellow white folks—and anyone else who might not think race-based affirmative action benefits them—to think on a communal level, a societal level. 

My support of race-based affirmative action is not purely altruistic. It’s not just a “this may not be good for me, but it’s good for people I care about, so I’m for it.” Don’t get me wrong; that’s a fine motivation: the motivation of love. It’s definitely part of it. But it’s not the whole picture.

As a white person, I want to live in communities of solidarity with friends, neighbors, and acquaintances of color. This means I want the things that are good for them. But it also means that I recognize that these things are good for me, too. I become more whole as they become more whole. We all become freer, together.

I really believe this. And I think it’s because people of color have helped me understand how interconnected all of humanity is. 

Humanity does not actually benefit when white people hoard power and try to keep people of color out of institutions like college, out of positions of leadership, out of places where they could make much-needed change. We are all weakened when people of color’s gifts, talents, intelligence, and desire to make a meaningful difference is thwarted by white people’s desire to maintain domination. 

In the crises that we face as humanity—climate change, war, environmental health hazards (like the PFAS in our tap water, omg)—we need all the people’s work to figure out how we survive as a species. 

And that’s the main reason why I want people of color to have access to the same kinds of opportunities rich white folks have access to. Because humanity needs people of color in positions of influence, and often how we get there is through education. As humanity, we need leaders of color. We need their wisdom. We are all harmed when they are excluded. 

For me, that’s what’s in it for white folks. 

Did any of this resonate with you? What would you add?

Peace and equity to you and your communities this week,


2 responses to “Race-based affirmative action: what’s in it for white folks?”

  1. Yes, this resonated with me.

    This is such a powerful line you wrote: ” Humanity needs people of color in positions of influence, and often how we get there is through education. As humanity, we need leaders of color. We need their wisdom. We are all harmed when they are excluded. ”

    And we harm our children’s and communities’ futures when we , in your words, thwart opportunities for developing and engaging leaders of color to solve our world’s complex problems.

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