Community and Equity Assembly: Scholar Natasha Kumar Warikoo On How We Think About Race and Meritocracy, And Why It Matters
Community and Equity Assembly: Scholar Natasha Kumar Warikoo On How We Think About Race and Meritocracy, And Why It Matters 2

On February 8, Concord Academy welcomed Natasha Kumar Warikoo, Ph.D., to speak to students in the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel. An expert on the relationships between education, racial and ethnic diversity, and cultural processes in schools and universities, Warikoo is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is currently a Guggenheim fellow at work on a book about racial change in suburban America. She spoke at CA about the research that informed her most recent book, The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities.

In her talk entitled “Why the Way We Talk About Diversity Prevents Progress Towards Racial Justice,” Warikoo began with a bit of personal history. With immigrant parents from India, she was one of the few non-whites in their Pennsylvania steel town. She didn’t understand her experience of racial exclusion until she learned language for addressing issues of race, identity, and affirmative action as an undergraduate at Brown University. At 30, Warikoo moved to London. She expected that in Britain talk of class would be more common than of race. But she was surprised by the willingness of many to express offensive racial views and disturbed by a lack of discussion about access and inclusion.

Community and Equity Assembly: Scholar Natasha Kumar Warikoo On How We Think About Race and Meritocracy, And Why It Matters 3Concerned by the growing inequality of both British and American societies, and intrigued by differences in how Brits and Americans make sense of personal accomplishments, Warikoo set about to study elite perspectives on inequality and what role higher education plays in shaping them. Interviewing at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford, Warikoo asked both white students and students of color about their views on affirmative action and the college admissions process.

Unlike in the United States, where the admissions process is holistic, weighing merit based on opportunities, in the United Kingdom, admissions decisions don’t take background into account, only achievement. Students in both systems believe theirs is fair and the best approach, despite systemic underrepresentation of students of color in both countries.

In her talk at CA, Warikoo focused on what she called the “American diversity bargain.” Although research has shown societal benefits of diversity, such as civic participation and changes in racial attitudes, diversity becomes problematic, Warikoo said, when the only way it is understood is as a personal benefit to the majority group, as students at elite institutions such as Harvard and Brown have typically come to consider it.

This perspective leads to some problematic views. White students fear reverse racial discrimination, “because the only way they’ve been taught to make sense of ethnic diversity is for their own benefit,” Warikoo said. On the other hand, students of color meet with an “integration imperative” and essentialized understandings of their identities: “All are assumed to have had lived experiences of poverty and to be there because of affirmative action,” Warikoo said.

These views matter because they lead to troubling outcomes: Although students in the U.S. are likely to support affirmative action, their beliefs contribute to “the reverse-discrimination script,” Warikoo said. In overlooking the history of racial discrimination and the structurally driven inequalities that persist, this perspective ignores the hardship that black and Latino students face when they are expected to educate and edify their white peers. Without an understanding of racial inequality, these ideas are then brought into the workforce by the next generation of leaders, who continue to think of diversity as a benefit to companies rather than considering fairness in hiring or expanding how they define talent and merit.

Warikoo proposed five ways for CA students to counter this trend in their own lives:

  1. Learn about the history of racial exclusion in the United States, especially in the 20th century. Warikoo cited as examples the process of redlining in the 1930s, by which black neighborhoods were excluded from New Deal loans for first-time homebuyers; to the lack of a nondiscrimination clause in the 1950s GI Bill, which allowed universities to continue excluding applicants on the basis of race; and the precarious position of Dreamers today, who have little access to opportunities in the U.S. “When you learn about it, it becomes harder to ignore,” she said.
  2. Engage with each other in open and honest conversations about race. “They will be difficult conversations,” Warikoo said. “Someone will offend you, and you will offend someone else. But it’s so important to be brave and willing to make mistakes, and to forgive each other,” she said.
  3. Exercise self-care. For students of color, she considered affinity groups critical for decompressing and discussing shared experiences. “But don’t stay there,” Warikoo cautioned. For white students, Warikoo advised recognizing the real need for affinity groups.
  4. Create opportunities for others to do the first three things. Warikoo urged students, both at CA and at college, to get involved with others to broaden their perspectives beyond their own lived experiences.
  5. Remember that a meritocracy will never be complete in an unequal society. “Most people don’t go to Ivy League schools or even college,” Warikoo said, “but they still deserve a decent life. What’s the basic minimum for that, given the wealth that exists in our society?”

Before taking questions, Warikoo pointed to some causes for optimism, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the historical role of school leadership in addressing inequality and moving communities toward greater racial justice.

She challenged students with a question of her own. “Having learned about this,” she asked, “what are you going to do next?”

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