Here’s a very good short piece by Afi-Odelia Scruggs, who graduated from the University of Chicago in the 1970s, and earned a PhD in Slavic linguistics from Brown. She writes in response to Justice Scalia’s remark that black students who aren’t adequately prepared to do first-rank college work should not attend first-rank colleges, but lesser ones. Scruggs tells how she got into Chicago because of affirmative action, and it kicked her butt. But she worked really hard, graduated, and went on to great academic success. In the four years of grinding out her undergraduate degree at a place she was not ready for, Scruggs learned a few things. Among them:
How to advocate for myself: My teachers showed me subtly and overtly that they didn’t think I was smart enough to attend the university. I stopped trying to show them otherwise. My goal was to become a University of Chicago alumna. I found a mentor. I pulled all-nighters studying and writing papers. I raised the money to attend a summer language institute in Vermont. My teachers marveled when I returned speaking fluently. I knew then that my work had paid off.
How to become entitled: I watched the white kids around me with awe. If they wanted to drive across country, somehow they finagled a car, gas, and places to stay. If they decided to learn the blues, they ended up hanging out with the best guitarists on the South Side of Chicago. They took their good fortune in stride, as if it was the way of the world.
Until I came to college, I’d never lived intimately with people who assumed life would unfurl for them. My expectations swelled. I might have to yank at the knobs, but doors would open for me.
How culturally limited white people really can be: My dorm kitchen was the hangout, where we cooked and chatted. One evening a couple friends glanced at the vegetable I was chopping.
“What’re you fixing?” one asked.
“It’s a sweet potato,” I said, puzzled.
I was stunned. If sweet potatoes were foreign to them, what else was? More importantly, what did I know that they didn’t? Growing up in the South, I’d placed white folks on a pedestal. In college, I began to dismantle that throne.
There’s more here. Scruggs’s piece doesn’t refute Scalia’s point, but it does provide a strong, if anecdotal, answer to it. Lots to think about there.