Why I want you to know #iamaffirmativeaction
And why others need to tell you too.
Dear Justice Scalia,
I went to high school in rural Pennsylvania, a coal mining town with few resources and no support for education. At the time, some of our high school teachers had never been to college, others came and went. We had no Math beyond Algebra II, I never took Physics or Chemistry and I knew nothing about studying or learning. When I took my SAT’s the first time my combined score was 710. Everything about my situation was similar to the inner city, under supported schools—and I was that student who had the weakest form of preparation possible for college.
While my older brothers made it to college (one on the War on Poverty scholarship, others on State opportunity grants), they had been to parochial high school in a nearby town we moved from when I was twelve. They were smart and the nuns of All Saints prepared them. My sister, two years older, was a dedicated reader (or obsessive) and an autodidact and she was admitted to the state college system. I was the typical underachiever. Good grades in things like communication, bad grades in anything that had tests. If we had a guidance counselor, which we didn’t, they would have told me to try community college at best.
But because I was in rural Pennsylvania, I had to get out. For many reasons, but most predominately, we were experiencing episodes of racism from our all-white community that was making life harrowing for my parents. I needed to go away.
Bad tests scores
One award, Spanish
No club memberships
Not a cheerleader, a student leader, or a distinguished anything.
Who would look at that senior’s application?
Affirmative Action created an understanding that the individual is not responsible for their conditions and that their potential cannot be measured by their situation. Underfunded and weak schools existed in the inner city and in rural communities. I had no idea that when I applied to the University of Pittsburgh, they categorized me as Affirmative Action. Not as an Arab- American, but as the rural underrepresented. The equivalent of the one-room schoolhouse.
It was thrilling to be accepted into Pitt. From my perspective, I had hit Oz, but I also was struck with incredible fear. There was no way I could navigate not only the campus that was so huge, but the classes for which I was under prepared.
You’re right Scalia, these places are beyond us AA students—my first class Psych 101 was over 1000 students—bigger than my home town. Without individual attention, I was on my own to study something that was remote to me and in a language I didn’t understand. The professor, who was at the front of the class and on big screens all around the room, was illustrating hypothalamus injections in rats and I’m like…? Working full time, living on my own, the pressure was unbearable. I was ill-equipped. My alternative was only going back to that hometown and it wasn’t an option.
That first semester wasn’t great. I did well in writing classes, media classes, but my first D, ever in Psych 101. In survival mode, I made an observation. Take only small quirky classes, forget the 101’s and go for the “environment of future dystopias.”
Well, Scalia, like all kids from rough places, my sense came up with a plan and I made Pitt work—graduated Cum Laude, on the Dean’s list every semester after the first. Faculty were allies and friends. I even had a side business helping friends write their papers. (I could write).
Folks who come from circumstances that are disadvantaged don’t dwell on their shortcomings, they get large, like puffer fish—defending ourselves from failure. Many of us with affirmative action also had to work or take care of kids—affirmative action didn’t make it cushy, it made it possible.
The sense that I could be part of the academic society, that I could learn the language, make the choices, be the person who could lead, buoyed me. Let’s see:
MFA Columbia University
PHD University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Author of 3 books and hundreds of articles and poems in anthologies
Author of 5 plays
Schweitzer Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Humanities (sponsored by Toni Morrison)
Fulbright Senior Fellow
Professor of English and Creative Writing, Mills College
The most important outcome of all of this is being co-founder of VONA, The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. This is my payback to Affirmative Action, to Toni Morrison, and to all the supportive professors and the University of Pittsburgh and residencies. This foundation specifically supports and nurtures writers-of-color by holding workshops where their work is central. My affirmative action gift to others who may not find their voice is this landscape of anger, hate and discrimination.
So Scalia, that Psych 101 class scared me so bad, I would cry afterward. Reading the text was painful. But Affirmative Action had believed in me and while it was a long time before I could forgive myself for being so unprepared, I pushed through and hopefully the generations who have encountered me in the classroom were somewhat affected by it.
I am encouraging others, Justice Scalia, to write their #iamaffirmativeaction story. There is nothing so life-affirming as looking at how something succeeds. Affirmative action is not about the numbers or the race card or the blame game—the most important word there is ACTION. We take an action to give you opportunity to a world outside of your own.
This is my story. And it’s a story of how something works. Thank you
Elmaz Abinader, MFA, PhD.