I have a confession to make. I was admitted to Amherst College because there are too many women in the applicant pool. They needed more men to reach the 50/50 ratio. They read “Matthew” at the top of my application, clearly a guy’s name, and were willing to overlook my other shortcomings and accept me into the College.
No, hear this: I was accepted into the College because Admissions saw that I was from a wealthy suburb of D.C. They figured I could pay for my four years here. They didn’t desire me per se; they desired my parents’ income. They needed my cash so that they could maintain a $1.6 billion endowment and need-blind financial aid. With a slight sigh, they pushed my application into the “admit” pile and muttered to each other, “Well, he doesn’t really deserve to be here, but hey — a school can’t run without money.”
To be sure, I’m exaggerating for effect here. Being a man is not the same as being a minority in the Admissions process or in life. There is no social or academic stigma associated with getting into Amherst as a man. I have never been called out for being “dumber” than my female classmates, as Ms. Marquez has for being Latina. Yet that being said, Ms. Marquez’s argument has two major flaws. Ms. Marquez argues that affirmative action should be illegal because it “creates a system in which some applicants’ shortcomings are excused.” But more importantly, she continues, affirmative action undermines a student’s confidence by implying that they are only here to check a box. There are two related problems with this argument.
The first problem is straightforward: we have no idea what “credentials” get us into this school, and furthermore we are not in a position to say which credentials should get us into this school. The Admissions Office makes its decisions on the basis of criteria that are inscrutable and indefinable. To suggest that minorities have “shortcomings” implies knowledge of that to which they fall short. Neither I nor Ms. Marquez can claim to know what Admissions wants in a prospective student. I hope and pray that Admissions accepted me because of who I am, not on what requirement I meet. I was under that illusion when I came here, and all satire aside, I remain under that illusion now.
Nevertheless, Ms. Marquez is correct in identifying self-doubt as a major negative of affirmative action policies — it is unhealthy when students believe that they do not belong here. Where she goes wrong is in identifying its solution. Any student who looks at herself in the mirror can find a reason that she was accepted, and thereby diminish herself to a bullet point: I am an athlete, or a legacy, or a Hispanic or from Montana. This self-diminution does not stop on the basis of a Supreme Court decision. The only way to eliminate self-doubt is by believing in your strengths as a student of Amherst College. You have to believe that you belong here on your own terms, not the system’s. This isn’t always easy, especially when that kid in your class can quote Foucault and is so obviously “like way more smarter than me.” Amherst College does not belong to that student, be he white or otherwise. Amherst College belongs to the students who reside here now, not the putative credentialed student of a bygone application.
I believe I am here because I possess something more than money or male sex organs. I believe that minority students are here for more than their skin pigments. I believe that athletes are here for more than their 200-meter backstrokes. For our own sake, let us believe that we belong here. It is foolish to claim knowledge of the College’s admission criteria, and more foolish still to invalidate yourself on their behalf. We only have four years here; there isn’t time to sit idle and doubt ourselves. Go attend that lecture or finish that paper. If there’s anything that defines an Amherst College student, it’s making the most of our time here. Let’s judge ourselves on the basis of something that we can control, not something we can’t. Let’s exile affirmative action to the hinterlands of our headspaces. We’ll be happier for it.