When I was applying to college, I remember hearing from all sorts of people (counselors, teachers, friends’ parents) that I was lucky to be a minority because that would make it easier to get admitted to an elite school. They were referring to affirmative action, as if to suggest that the decision on whether to admit me would be based solely and explicitly on my ethnicity.
In reality, affirmative action is implemented at institutions across the world because high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds face inordinate difficulties in comparison to their peers from urban areas, white families and greater wealth. This allows Yale to create a student body that is more representative of our world.
Entering senior society tap season is a mucky process for many reasons, and discussions about race, class and geography play a huge role. Senior societies are, on the whole, more representative of white, wealthy students from urban areas. Many argue that’s because the majority of Yale students fit this demographic: This is simply untrue.
According to the Office of Institutional Research, only 52 percent of Yale undergraduates identify as white. This would suggest that social groups constructed entirely by students for other students should reflect the array of identities and perspectives that exist on campus. In reality, senior societies do not reflect the diversity of Yale’s campus.
In addition to balancing interests, personalities and campus involvement, each senior society must grapple with its own Big Three: ethnicity, wealth and geographic origin. This is a messy, sticky conversation to have. Seniors initially approach the society tap process as a casual, fun ordeal: Let’s make a list of cool, fun people we know and ask them to hang out together for a year after we graduate! The concept seems harmless, but by now, seniors understand that it’s much more complicated territory.
For decades, Yale students have hailed senior societies as integral to exposing oneself to the range of Yale’s student body. My society experience has facilitated invaluable friendships with people who expand my worldview; but I still think that my group and others could do a much better job at addressing the accessibility of senior societies to marginalized groups.
It would be unreasonable to ask every senior society to meet exact quotas of overall Yale College student demographics, especially since societies are intimate groups. Oftentimes, conversations about representation within social groups revolve around “adding diversity,” and by “diversity,” people mean to say “non-white” students. White students are considered a baseline population, and non-white students are considered additions. Non-white students have their own merits, perspectives and values beyond meeting quotas.
Last year, I was asked to perform a spoken word piece at a Bulldog Days event. The email described a talent show, so I agreed. When I showed up to the event, called Mosaic, I realized that it wasn’t the traditional Bulldog Days talent show that I had attended as a prefrosh; it was an event explicitly designated for “multicultural performance,” meaning non-white performance groups. I realized that I wasn’t necessarily invited for my talents as a writer or a performer; I was invited as a display of non-whiteness. They asked me to perform because Yale wanted to show off its diversity. I had never felt more tokenized in my life.
I botched the performance. I was mortified by the premise of the event, and I didn’t feel comfortable in front of the audience for that reason. Though the event was organized by some students of color with good intentions, I felt incredibly uncomfortable being showcased explicitly as a non-white performer.
I realize that I walk a difficult line between wanting to be respected for my cultural background and not wanting to be defined by it. I just want to be treated like a person.
Societies should be mindful of the backgrounds, identities and makeups of their prospective tap groups. That means we must make a conscious effort to question why certain people gain admission to a group because they’re “cool” while others gain admission because they “add diversity.”
Adriana Miele is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her columns runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .