POSNER: A lesson already learned

Out of Line

In some ways, Sonia Sotomayor and Nina Davuluri could not be more different.

PosnerCSotomayor, the third female justice of the Supreme Court, weighed her words carefully when she spoke before a full Woolsey Hall audience Monday afternoon. She spoke in measured, thoughtful language — with just a hint of an accent reflecting her Bronx upbringing and Puerto Rican heritage — about her experiences in the Ivy League. Davuluri, Miss America 2014, is eloquent in a very different way: She marked her address with effusive, gushing deliveries of anecdotes about her experiences in middle school or her involvement with “Brown Town,” an affectionate label for her University of Michigan Indian-American peers.

Sotomayor seems the hyper-educated embodiment of professionalism. Davuluri is the witty, almost-too-involved girl-next-door.

And yet, in their visits to Yale this week, the two demonstrated a remarkable degree of similarity. Sotomayor and Davuluri are both first-generation Americans who hold iconic national positions, both born in New York to immigrant parents. They share professional ambition, Sotomayor’s evident in her achievements as a lawyer and Davuluri’s in her academic merits and plans to attend medical school. And both came espousing the importance of cultural competency and American diversity, implicit in their own histories and explicit in the words they shared with the Yale community.

Davuluri and Sotomayor openly discussed the social challenges tied to their distinct heritages. Davuluri reflected regretfully on feeling validated when a friend labeled her an “Oreo” after a school talent show: “Why should I need to be white, or anything other than me, on the inside?” she now asks. Sotomayor reflected on educational inequities she encountered as a young adult: When a friend accepted to Princeton encouraged her to apply to the Ivy Leagues, Sotomayor asked, “What’s that?”

Both women emphasized that despite the challenges they encountered, neither found it difficult to maintain their cultural identities under the pressure of American culture. The two made the same comment: that they don’t know any other way.

After being fortunate to hear both these women speak, I can’t help but wonder whether Yale is perhaps the wrong audience for Sotomayor and Davuluri’s message. Though they and similar icons of American diversity will always be received warmly here, the two seemed to be — pardon the cliché — preaching to the choir. What are Yale and its peer institutions if not proof of the changing face of the ambitious and successful American? If the two hope to target and end the kind of bigotry and hate that Davuluri faced after being crowned Miss America, or to inspire a diverse population of students to pursue their goals as Sotomayor did, they might do better to address schools where homogeneity, cultural conflict and oppression pervade.

Take my public high school. My school was 70 percent white, and the neighborhood surrounding it an overwhelming 95 percent white. I had more than a few peers who opposed affirmative action, claiming it disadvantaged white, privileged students in their pursuit of elite education. When Sotomayor remarked on the poverty in which she grew up, joked about not knowing the Ivy League schools and commented on the importance of affirmative action, I could only wish that the audience was not the Yale community but rather my high school peers. In a different setting, her message might have actually shifted perspectives, instead of falling on the ears of a community already versed in cultural competency.

At Yale we’re fortunate to be so frequently in the company of scholars and role models like Sotomayor and Davuluri. But we don’t need them the way so many students in this country do. Next time, I’d rather they forgo the Ivy League talk for a trip to a homogeneous high school in Boca Raton, Fla. or a predominantly minority school lacking in secondary education preparation resources. Whether they are undoing prejudice among close-minded Americans or inspiring the success of a new generation of diverse American leaders, the unlikely pair of leaders have plenty of work to do — but they won’t find it at Yale.

Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Thursdays. Contact her at caroline.posner@yale.edu.

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