If I had to redo the college admissions process I would have more fun with it. First of all, I would cross out the tedious sections — who remembers their social security number anyway? — and replace everything with one blessedly short essay:
What I lack in my combined SAT score, I gain in being not white. If admitted, I will be that pop of color in your classroom. I will expand your perspectives in a nonthreatening way. I will pose for your promotional pamphlets and man booths at your diversity open houses. I will keep my cool as people ask me stupid things like, “Do you wear your headscarf in the shower?”
All jokes aside, applying to college as a minority student is supposed to be wildly — perhaps even unfairly — advantageous. While the Supreme Court is pondering the constitutionality of affirmative action in US v. Texas, I can’t help but consider its applications in my personal life:
How much of my relative success in the college admissions process can be explained away by my identity as an African-American Muslim?
As the college admissions process becomes more competitive, it also becomes less recognizable. No matter how calculated your inputs are, how over-accomplished and underrepresented you may be, the output is not guaranteed. Our senior class learned this firsthand in the past months. Let’s just say that for many of us, Ivy Day — the day on which all Ivies release their admissions decisions en masse — proved more harrowing than Judgment Day could ever be.
I won’t ever know the extent to which my more immutable characteristics factored (or didn’t factor) into my acceptances. But this logic hasn’t prevented me from slipping into my own sort of guilty purgatory, the one that belies many of my accomplishments. With about as much frequency as my hijab flip flops between “asset” and “curse,” I switch between feeling fiercely self-righteous and cripplingly insecure about the way that affirmative action has (presumably unfairly) expanded my academic opportunities.
On days when I adopt the former mentality, I’m thinking of the struggles I’ve experienced as the daughter of parents who are utterly unfamiliar with the American education system. I’m thinking of my mom coming home crying from work one day after being called “ISIS.” Of the endless parade of post 9/11 discrimination and helicopter surveillance that she and I must always try to keep ahead of. On these days, I feel that an extra boost in my educational trajectory is the least that is owed to me, and to individuals like me.
On other days, I can’t help but wonder: do I 100% deserve anything I’ve ever achieved? Am I violating our coveted notion of a meritocracy by simply being me? And in the context of this very column series: Am I really a writer, or do I just have a compelling story to tell a white audience — and is there a difference?
Last summer, I was accepted to a prestigious summer law internship while two of my white male friends were not. After we all debriefed, one of them half-jokingly concluded that he was rejected on account of being white. I laughed it off awkwardly, but this moment — which I’ve come to associate with my internship and that entire summer — symbolizes the most undermining insecurity I have about myself.
What if his assessment was spot-on?
I can picture one of the program supervisors laying our applications on the table, reading them, discovering three smart kids from the same smart school, and slapping a post-it over mine: best sob story. Or, since we were required to submit a photo ID: haven’t had a hijabi in the program in 10+ years. Or perhaps: Ethnically ambiguous. Will look good next to the District Attorney during the photo shoot. Might improve NYPD/community relations.
I tried to reassure myself that my acceptance had simply followed from my intelligence and determination. Surely it was my essay or teacher recommendation that sealed the deal, and not my background information. But was it my mastery of the English language that won them over, or the fact that I wrote about how being victimized by Islamophobia birthed my interest in social justice? Was it my mind blowing classroom skills that distinguished my recommendation, or was it my token standout role during the Islam Unit?
This is the mentality I keep coming back to on my darkest days. I wonder if perhaps I’ve become too accustomed to playing the token; the tour guide to a third world I’m not entirely familiar with; the pundit of a religion for which I am not a scholar. If perhaps I’ve said, done, and been too much; if I’ve taken up too much space. If I’ve become too willing to flatten myself to a MY NAME IS: HIJABI name tag.
At around the same time as my summer internship, I first heard the expression that warns against bringing religion or politics to a dinner party. I remember smirking — by that standard, I might as well be walking into every function with jazz hands and a dunce cap.
Truthfully, my college applications were probably similar to my internship applications. This is not damning evidence, considering that all of those applications were written by the same person. Me. It makes sense that I can trace most of my choices, accomplishments, and extracurricular activities to me, and the background that has shaped me. (Not to mention that institutions always share the most basic prompts, and applying to most places seems to be more of an exercise in copy/pasting than anything else.)
What it seems to boil down to — and honestly, when does it not? — is intolerance, and a consistent lack of diversity across the board.
Is it really my fault that every time I apply to an internship or a job — heck, that every time I exist in a public space — I am toggling the minority card? Is it really my fault that every time I speak about anything as a hijabi, I’m automatically taken as an authority and an activist because, in some circles, the world is just that narrow? That our whitewashed literary/publishing communities – reflective of American society as a whole — have reinforced the idea that people in my position have some sort of awkward monopoly on their lived experiences? (I heard one chilling story at a recent event about how, when one black woman tried to publish her book of essays, she met the same refrain from publishers: we already have a Roxane Gay.)
No, of course it is not my fault.
Sometimes I have to force myself to remember that I should not blame myself for my environment or how it perceives me. That, for the record, I have gained recognition for pieces that weren’t personal all, pieces that starred white protagonists because writing about a character similar to myself again seemed selfish and tacky. That even as my most insecure self, I was worthy. That I am not the only woman of color to forget about and invalidate her accomplishments, to be cowed into apologizing for her presence and the black ripples it may pulse through a white world.