Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beyond the Obvious: My Journey Through Urban Studies, Part II

My high school was called Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The name alone carries so many connotations that in college I’ve come to refer to it as simply Thomas Jefferson. Just plain TJ isn’t without its implications, either – even at Wheaton I’ve found students who’ve heard of it and thenceforth I am unwillingly branded as “the smart kid.” But the important thing about my high school is not the automatic labeling that comes as the price of attendance but rather the necessary encounter with the issue of diversity one gets when they irrevocably become a “TJ kid.” Yes, TJHSST is the magnet school for five counties and cities in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and yes, you must take an entrance exam to get in. Just like any prep/private/magnet/charter school there were issues with the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the student population.
Year after year critics raked TJ over the coals for its “lack” of diversity. When I was a senior they began to implement quotas in an attempt to bring in more students of minority status. For the first year of the quotas only 1 of the 30 spots supposedly allocated to increase the diversity of TJ went to the admission of a minority student – the other 29 were white. Those 29 white students were in the lower-income bracket of the county, for which the quotas were officially designated because of the laws against racially based acceptance quotas, but the critics had wanted minorities, not more white people, regardless of socioeconomic status. The controversy over those quotas was my first cognizant introduction to diversity issues. It was the first time I recognized the assumed connection between lower socioeconomic status and race – and that a student’s race was more important for the critics than a student’s net household income, not to mention their ability to withstand the academic pressure-cooker that was Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

It was the first time I felt guilty for being white.

A white hand with a black band-aid. “White Guilt: Discussion Tonight, Phelps Room, 7:30.” Solidarity week at Wheaton shattered me – and I don’t think in the way they intended. Or maybe they did intend for me to be angry, to be defensive, to be irate over their assumption that I knew nothing of racial issues.

“I went to a high school in which I was not the majority!”
(And, I will note, this year the number of Asian American students surpassed that of white students at TJ.)
“I basically live in little Mexico/Korea/Vietnam/Guatemala at home!”
(Truth is, the strip malls near my house are lined with ethnic foods and I’ve learned enough to recognize a Vietnamese from a Korean restaurant.)
“I pretty much have to order in Spanish at McDonald’s to get the right number of fries.”
(Actually the one time I did get the guts to order in Spanish was the one time I did receive the correct order.)

I fought tooth and nail against learning anything from solidarity week. To be fair, I still didn’t appreciate the assumption that I had only encountered people exactly like myself on a daily basis. I still wrestle with the indignation I feel against “reverse discrimination” in the face of things like quotas and affirmative action. Perhaps they expected, even intentionally instigated my reaction to their provocative posters. Whether or not it was intended this was the attitude with which I approached diversity discussions for the next the years: I ran blindly in the other direction.

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