I recently gave an address at SXSWEDU. During the question and answer segment of my presentation I had a dialogue from the stage with a White man in the audience:

Him: What do you think it would take for other underrepresented, or Black students to do what you’ve done?

Me: What do you mean, what have I done?

Him: Well, sort of adopt or develop majority or White characteristics so that you can succeed?

He was referring to a story I told about how I’d worked hard, remained disciplined and did what you would expect high achieving students to do in order to get into engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

In his mind those characteristics – hard work, preparation, discipline and high achievement – are associated with White students. He called them White, or majority characteristics. In my mind, those characteristics are the substance of merit.

He then asked me, by implication, how I got them and subsequently how other Black students can get them too. How can Black students be more disciplined, more prepared, more hard working, more White – less Black?

I paused.

Assuming that academic excellence is an inherently White characteristic is nothing new. Equating doing well in school with acting White has plagued Black students since the myth of our intellectual inferiority seeped into the genetic makeup of America.

High achieving Black students in the U.S. have always been hounded by suspicion – our heights are reached by standing on Affirmative Action, our acumen is developed via some benevolent White savior, we are taken out of our community such that our ambitions aren’t suffocated by our own people, we are imposters or unicorns, we are bussed to White schools so we can learn to be more like them and develop their characteristics.

This is what that myth does in practice. It creates the framework behind the gentleman’s question. One of the problems with this old and sad American myth is that it has given White students a pass.

The recent higher ed scandal has exposed them – rich White students. They are at the center of the largest cheating scandal in higher education in American history. They lied. They cheated. They deceived. They stole the seats of deserving students. They defamed the basic tenets of meritocracy. They got in because of who they are and not what they’ve done. The influence and wealth of their families were the things that got them through.

They are the mediocre masquerading as the meritocratic.

This group has always been immune to scrutiny. There isn’t a covering narrative that implicates them. There isn’t a theme that blankets their individuality and covers them in collective doubt. There aren’t stereotypes that threaten their intellect. No one questions their presence in elite institutions because membership is assumed on their behalf – by birth right. Now some of them will go to jail.

The hyperprivileged have been standing on top the tower bludgeoning the rest of us with their arguments of meritocracy and individual agency forever. Yelling down that we ought to have grit and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Really?

We know that they were born on top the tower and that it was built for them. We know because we know what it is like to climb up the side – dragging ourselves out of broken public-school systems, breaking free of stifling underexpectations, navigating through a maze of false educational pathways that lead nowhere. We know what real merit is, because we have had to fight at every step to forge and defend our own.

Me: Merit is achieved through accomplishment, not through being White.

kamau