Asking for a Friend: I’m Very Privileged—Can I Still Apply for Fellowships Meant to Help People of Color?

Asking for a Friend: I’m Very Privileged—Can I Still Apply for Fellowships Meant to Help People of Color?

Asking for a Friend: I’m Very Privileged—Can I Still Apply for Fellowships Meant to Help People of Color?

And a white person wonders how best to express solidarity with a friend suffering from the rise in xenophobia.


Dear Liza, 

I am a woman in my 20s, and I’ve been encouraged to apply for grants and fellowships intended to support people of color. They seem like great opportunities, but I’m not sure if it’s right for me to take them. On the one hand, my entire family is from the Middle East, I have a conspicuously foreign-sounding name, and I’d probably get some funny looks at a Trump rally. On the other hand, I grew up in Europe, went to top American universities, and consider myself a very privileged individual. I don’t think my “race” (whatever that might be) has ever significantly helped or hurt my career, and until recently, it never occurred to me that I might be considered anything but “white” in a personal or professional context. So I’m not sure where I stand. What matters more: that other people might see me as a POC, or that I don’t generally identify as one myself? For what it’s worth, a number of other people with my heritage publicly identify as nonwhite.—Person of (Some) Color

Dear PO(S)C,

Opportunities to be well-paid for intellectual labor are precious. However, you are right to approach these particular opportunities with caution. I say this not because other people deserve them more than you: Though we all wish such fellowships, and affirmative action in general, were more precisely targeted to disadvantaged people—like working-class African Americans, or poor, rural white people—it is not your fault that they are not.

The problem, PO(S)C, is that reinventing yourself as a “person of color” would require you to define yourself in a way that won’t feel authentic to you. At a time when you’re still young and figuring out who you are, you don’t want to allow these institutions to figure it out for you, especially since you’re a political person, with your own ideas about race and privilege. Catherine Liu, a professor of film and media studies in the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, tells me that being anointed as a representative of elite diversity isn’t always good for people: “I’ve seen young people of color from very privileged backgrounds having trouble figuring out who they are.” Once you get a lot of career rewards for being a “person of color,” whatever that means, you may find you have to keep performing this identity.

Not only might this be limiting for you, it could also enmesh you in a neoliberal project that is at odds with your politics. According to Liu, whose recent work has explored problems with diversity, neoliberalism, and meritocracy, the presence of diversity in elite institutions is “meant to make these institutions seem more inclusive and tolerant.” This is a problem, because they aren’t; that’s what makes them elite institutions. Further, adds Liu, “once you become a representative of that diversity, you become an example of the system’s tolerance.” You are right now, Liu emphasizes, being “recruited” for this project.

That said, you shouldn’t deprive yourself of funding that you—and your intellectual work—need in order to thrive. My guess is that your (narratively interesting, if not especially oppressed) background will give you an advantage even for fellowships not specifically intended to nourish diversity, and you should feel free to play it up. But don’t lose your critical perspective—on yourself or the system. When white women and people of color—or, in your case, women of ambiguous hue—allow ourselves to become symbols of neoliberalism’s tolerance and cosmopolitanism, we’re participating in the elite’s smug propaganda about itself. “Neoliberalism asks us to believe that our own narrative of success is a political triumph,” says Liu, “and this is just not true.”

* * *

Dear Liza, 

I am a white American. This morning, a friend in London, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, told me he had just been called “a fucking Paki.” He was pretty upset. With other friends in trouble, I would say “hugs,” “sending love,” “condolences,” or “I’m sorry, that sucks,” but none of those seems adequate. How should I respond? —Feeling Awkward

Dear Awkward,

Your friend is not alone in facing such ugliness in 
England right now. In the weeks surrounding Brexit, the British vote to leave the European Union—a move fueled in part by anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism—there has been a dramatic increase in hate crimes reported to the UK police website; and the Sunday after the referendum, the Muslim Council of Britain released a gallery of 100 hate incidents compiled from social media.

I applaud you for asking what to say, Awkward. To start, it can be grounding to receive—and to give—practical advice. Do urge your friend to report the name-calling, says Rosie Simkins of the group Stop Hate UK. Even if the insult itself wasn’t a hate crime, she points out, “you don’t know if it’s going to escalate,” and it’s helpful for police—or, if you prefer, an activist group like Stop Hate UK 
(hotline: 0800 138 1625)—to know about patterns of hate speech.

For possible insight into your friend’s side of this experience, I called Priyamvada Gopal, an Indian-born professor of English at Cambridge University who specializes in colonial and postcolonial literatures, and who has been on the receiving end of this recent uptick in British racism and xenophobia. Many of her white friends have been responding by saying, “I’m so sorry.” While Gopal says she understands that her friends mean well, “‘I’m sorry’ changes me into an object of compassion or pity,” she explains, “and I feel diminished.”

This is partly because the phrase occupies a weird ambiguity: Is it an expression of sympathy or an apology? From a white person, it can sound as if you’re apologizing on behalf of white people in general, and while it’s understandable that sensitive white people will have such feelings, “I’m sorry” puts too much emphasis on the fact that you are white and your friend is not. “It creates a divide between myself and them,” Gopal says. “I don’t want to be othered all over again.” Instead, she says, “What I would want is some sense that the upset is shared.” Gopal would like her friends to express outrage and solidarity, and to convey the understanding that racism is not simply an injury to people of color but poisons our whole society. Many young white Americans have been protesting alongside Latino comrades at Trump rallies and joining the multiracial coalitions counterprotesting at recent nativist rallies held by white-supremacist groups like the Minutemen or, in California, Save Our State. Some sense of this political energy is just what Gopal would like to see from her friends: “I’d want them to say, ‘I’m angry on your behalf and mine, and we’re going to fight this together.’”

Have a question? Ask Liza here.

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