My encounter with epistemic racism and microaggressions in higher education.
By Darius Faulk
What happens when a classroom debate on the validity of affirmative action turns into a classroom debate about the validity of your humanity?
Let me tell you:
It was spring of 2019, and I was a couple months shy of being the first person in my family to graduate from college. All that stood in the way was a handful of classes—and this debate.
Not wanting to fall into the “only Black person in the room arguing in favor of affirmative action trope,” and not wanting to give folks any ideas of how I ended up in class with them, I decided to argue against something I firmly believe in.
This was challenging because how do I argue against affirmative action without being racist? Luckily, our professor was nice enough to provide us with a packet of material to help us formulate our arguments.
Unfortunately, the articles against affirmative action were steeped in scientific racism, the pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism.
Oh well, I guess I’ll just do my own research and talk about how legacy students can be considered a form of affirmative action. I mean, look how many mediocre kids are at Ivy League schools because grandpa made a fortune exploiting people *coughs* Donald Trump *coughs*.
I showed up to class early, ready to have a nice, civil, and “non-racist” debate about affirmative action. Can you guess what happened?
I made a wonderful point about how affirmative action should not be necessary in a country of “equal opportunity,” and instead of wasting our time worrying about affirmative action, we should do something more productive, like end poverty.
I could tell I’d struck a nerve in the class and you could hear a bunch of thought bombs going off like “huh, I hadn’t thought of that.” I was feeling quite good at that point when it happened. The boy sitting next to me looked up, clearly interested in butting into our delightful debate.
What he said exactly, I have repressed, but it was something along the lines of, “if the United States is a meritocracy, then white men should get hired over Black men because Black men have statistically lower IQs than white men.”
Can you say record scratch?
Honestly, the experience was quite jarring, and what transpired next was something of an out-of-body experience. As my consciousness floated away from me, I saw a young Fred Hampton sitting in my seat, sermoning the boy and the class about the sheer stupidity of such a comment.
The young Hampton in me preached about how IQ tests are inherently rooted in racism. Then went into how it is utterly absurd to measure my ‘IQ’ against a white person’s when my father was denied an education, my grandfather was denied an education, my great grandfather was denied an education, and my great great grandfather was enslaved.
Then I implored the class to consider the fact that the father of the white person you are measuring us against was able to set the standard of education, as was his father, and his father before that.
As I returned to my body, I could not help but notice how silent our class had become. I felt alone and ashamed. The worst part was I had read the boy’s argument the night before in the packet our professor had given us. The debate resumed and class continued, although it was remarkably less eventful.
So how does one proceed in a class where their very presence and intelligence is questioned solely because they are Black?
They kick ass.
They set the curve on tests. They ace the class. They ace the other two classes they have with the boy and set the curve on more tests. They give a presentation in class about the perils of scientific racism. They become commencement speakers. They get into grad school. They write for Tusk Black Voices.
And they do things like become the Vice President elect of the United States.
They become writers, athletes, scientists, teachers, emcees, painters, actors, business owners, activists, and everything in between. They become the best versions of themselves because no matter how successful they become, they will always remember that boy who questioned their humanity.
They will work twice as hard, to be twice as good.
Not because they expect to get half of what their white counterpart would, but to make it twice as hard for anyone to ever doubt their humanity again.