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July 11, 2023+Nafees Alam
+Campus Policy+Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

Discrimination by Altered Expectations (OPINION)

Editor’s Note: This blog was written in response to our call for opinion pieces on the recent SCOTUS ruling on race-based college admissions at Harvard and UNC. You can read the ruling here.


I’m an assistant professor at Boise State University, who was hired in 2019 after a long interview process. In the end, I got the job that I have always wanted and today, I am proud to be a Bronco. But I often wonder: of all the candidates interviewed for my position, was I the best? I’d like to think that a purely meritocratic system was employed in the hiring process that led to my appointment to the position in this reality. However, what if in an alternate reality, I got the job not because I was the best candidate, but the darkest?

This notion often plagues my mind because there is no greater insult than altered expectations, no greater lie than living a life under false pretenses, a real-life Truman Show where I’m treated differently based on the color of my skin, making me believe that such treatment is customary for all, making me believe that I’ve achieved success because of who I am and not what I am demographically. Although I should not be penalized because of my race, I am also not owed anything because of it.

"What if in an alternate reality, I got the job not because I was the best candidate, but the darkest?"

Prior to being an assistant professor, I was a university student. The first assignment I had to complete in 2010 at the start of my Master’s education was a reflection paper on Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. This reading included a list of twenty-six conditions that indicate the presence of white privilege. Upon reviewing this reading, my reflection paper was clearly different from what my professor had expected from a person of color. I argued that the twenty-six conditions indicating white privilege were more akin to conditions indicating green privilege: socioeconomic status. Not all people of color are socioeconomically underprivileged and it’s racist to make such a claim.

I failed this assignment and I was permitted to revise and resubmit because I “did not understand the spirit of the assignment.” As a social experiment, I wrote the same reflection paper again, except changing my perspective to be in agreement with the professor’s, no changes in grammar, length, or detail. My revised grade was 100%, and I realized that I would not be graded based on my academic abilities, rather on whether my expressed worldview was in agreement with my professors’. This was the first time I considered a career as a professor because this needed to change.

Even though Condition #22 of the McIntosh reading states, “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race,” it was clear that the professor herself expected me, a person of color, to fit into the definition that she had created for people of color, not allowing me to define myself. To her credit, she likely thought that she was being benevolently ‘woke’ by vicariously experiencing my experiences for me. She likely did not realize how her performative activism was promoting people of color to self-oppress by assuming that people of color must have negative experiences and anything to the contrary was a mirage.

Affirmative action, even when benefiting people of color like myself, has the potential for harm. I’ve written about wokeness diluting racism and benevolent and vicarious racism in the past, both can be difficult to recognize because they are often masked by good intentions and a desire to help others. However, they can do just as much harm as overtly hostile forms of racism.

"Affirmative action, even when benefiting people of color like myself, has the potential for harm."

Benevolent racism via affirmative action can stem from a lack of understanding of how systemic racism operates and can lead to tokenism, a phenomenon where individuals are given opportunities to serve as representatives of their race but are not truly valued for qualities beyond their race. Vicarious racism as a response to the end of affirmative action might not seem very harmful on the surface, but it can create an environment where people of color are expected to self-oppress for the satisfaction of vicarious racists.

Performative activism weaponizes benevolent racism to save people of color from themselves, as though they are too unsophisticated to do so without them. Performative activism also weaponizes vicarious racism, shouting about the importance of giving people of color a voice while prohibiting them from having a voice unique from benevolent and/or vicarious racists.

The end of affirmative action in university admissions may, and probably will, change the composition of higher education. We may not see as much racial diversity as we have in recent times, especially at elite institutions, but to suggest that people of color are incapable of succeeding based on their merit is racist. The fact is, there will be people of color like myself who can achieve success in a purely meritocratic system absent of affirmative action, and now we will no longer have to question the validity and credibility of our own success.


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