Of Spots and Who Gets Them


I live in a place where you can go to just about any event and a Yale person will make a Harvard joke and half the room will politely laugh because hahahaha we’re such rivals. The Princeton/Brown/Cornell people roll their eyes at our juvenile behavior. Enter any given home and you’ll find a handsome black wooden chair with the insignia of an elite private school tucked in some corner. There are, of course, the folk who did the elite private secondary school and then went off to the big leagues afterward.

I spend time with people who are generationally rich. Not all of them, but many of them. I spend time with people who made their fortunes and have children who were born rich and will be rich. They’ll never fall out of richness. The infrastructure of this society won’t let them. That’s how the game works.

From the time of conception, families out here in the elite suburbs are playing the Game of Prestige. I won’t even describe it because y’all already know about it. Baby yoga, Bestest Most Expensive Preschool, soccer by age 2, lacrosse by 2nd grade. Piano lessons followed by jazz tap followed by school plays until graduation (with singing lessons and acting classes to help ensure the lead). Networking at The Club for this internship or that. Ski lessons, weeks at the Cape, houses in Maine, parties in Upstate New York. Investments in this business, drinks with that person, letters of recommendation from certain partners. Internship at this for-profit, internship with that senator, spring break trip with such and such person to very certain exotic locations. The end-game is, of course, the coveted spot in the that big-time elite school. Graduation follows and then the Game starts over again. It’s all anyone and everyone can do. The entire infrastructure of the suburbs is built around The Game.

They do it because it’s fun, of course. This is what privileged life looks like. This is what folk live to live for around here. But there is this excuse for the nonsense that I find utterly fascinating. It starts creeping into conversations when people aren’t careful. Often someone is drinking and lamenting about how crazy their schedule is, and a friend will rhetorically ask the question, “why are we doing all of this craziness?” Inevitably, someone will answer in all seriousness, “because it’s so hard for white kids to get into a college these days.”

White parents in the suburbs wake up every morning with the understanding that their “perfect” child who has done “everything right” might not get into their “dream school” because “some other kid” is going to get that coveted spot. Because I live among well-meaning liberal Massachusetts white folk, the “other” goes unnamed (at least in my presence. I’m sure that’s not always the case when not in “mixed” company.). But you don’t have to stretch too far to fill in the blank. There is this idea that some undeserving, unprepared, couldn’t-possibly-have-done-everything kid of color is just taking spots from deserving kids in the suburbs.

And then there is this further idea that such a kid wouldn’t know what they are doing when they got there. How could they possibly seize the opportunity to its fullest potential? What do they know of privilege, of the great game of wealth, of life? How could they possibly speak the language, do the dance, be the right sort of person to fit into the kind of society to have access to such things?

The hilarity of this bullshit, which all of us brown kids who somehow made it know, is that those coveted spots aren’t snatched away by undeserving, underprivileged brown folk who don’t know what they’re doing. We have to know. We had to learned the rules and learn them well. We danced the dance on the fly or learned the steps thanks to the benevolence of mentors and cheerleaders. We had to work harder than our peers. There was no presumption of success for us on any level and absolutely no safety net in case of failure. We learned the spoken rules and the unspoken ones. We switched our talk, tolerated the offenses, performed the rites. My spot was fucking earned. Long nights. Hard choices. Missed joys. Cold stares. Colder shoulders. Sharp elbows. Violent encounters. Lonely days. Tear-soaked nights. Deep sacrifice. Burden of representation. Obligation to “pay it back” and “pay it forward.” We have to be exceptional and then we have to pay a forever price.  All for a taste of some other sort of world,  a world of perceived security. How heartbreaking that membership still won’t save us from the basic facts of life of being Brown in America.

Brown kids who make it earn their damn spot. Because there is “hard” and there is hard and then there is actually hard.

Lemme tell you who is “taking” your kid’s spot: the uber-rich, yet utterly mediocre. The legacy kid who wants for nothing and needs nothing and will never ever need anything or do anything of any particular value. The kid who has always had access to the cultural cache necessary to be comfortable and have access to the rare air of the world. The kid who has parents who see that elite school as a trophy. Maybe the kid does, too, but generally this is about something and someone else.

And let me take a step back and go ahead and acknowledge “not all rich kids, not all white kids.”

I know some pretty exceptional kids out here. I know them and I love them dearly. I know kids out here to wake up every morning and work their ass off and dream big. I know kids who have parents who have instilled in them the values we want the rich to instill to their children: an obligation to serve, a sense of duty toward the greater populous, a curiosity for life beyond the beige walls of the suburban enclave. The kids I’ve come to know out here are wonderful.

The ones I’ve come to know.

I’ve met a bunch of kids out here. Don’t get it twisted: not every child out here is being taught to do the right thing. Not every child out here deserves that coveted spot, no matter what mommy and daddy say. Not every child from here who gets into that coveted college will do good with the opportunity they get.

But I know there are exceptional young people out here. The ones I’ve gotten to know, I love dearly. I respect their parents. I cheer them on. I also know, no matter what, that those kids are going to be fine because they were born into fine-ness. They were gifted great talents and ideal context. They could graduate at the bottom of their class at the University of Nowwhere and be fine.

Lucky them.

That’s the point.

This college bribery scandal thing is so fucking infuriating, but it doesn’t come as a surprise. I’m writing this because I don’t want certain folk to look away and say “well, they cheated and that’s different.” A whole bunch of folk are going to keep living their lives thinking their kid isn’t getting into school because omg whiteness is just so hard to live and jeez it’s just so unfair. A whole bunch of folk are going to go to bed and still run some competition thinking their kid is going to “lose their spot” to some other, some brownness, some undeserving entity somewhere far away. The higher likelihood, especially you dear readers in the elite suburbs, is that your kid is going to lose their spot to another rich white kid, just one who is richer than you. Some kid who has a dad who can donate more, or who has the architect already designing the new library, or who has grandparents gifting a new economics school or whatever. Your fight is with your peers. Your fight is with your neighbors. Your fight, frankly, is bullshit. You’re all going to be fine.

Affirmative Action is not the boogieman. Rich whiteness is. Rich white mediocrity is. Meritocracy is bullshit as long as rich white mediocrity reigns. The spots aren’t “stolen.” they aren’t even taken. They are bought. They were never available to your child to begin with.

And your child isn’t entitled to go to an elite college. Period. You weren’t entitled to go, either. Period. If you earned your spot, good. If your kid earns a spot, great. Anything outside of this realm is bullshit. Stop it.

And there are so many great schools out there. Schools that provide the kind of education more of us need. The kind that make us think, innovate, serve, grow as a society. They don’t get enough credit for the good that they do. (This is my time to plug the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I wouldn’t exchange my degree from there for anything in this entire world. I’m so damn proud to be a Retriever. I wore Black & Gold before anyone put me in any Crimson. I remember that every single day. My state school is the best thing that ever happened to me.)


Existence is so exhausting right now. Can’t ya’ll be cool for just one minute? Really.

See you Friday for Quiet Thoughts.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Trish says:

    You and I agree on a lot of things so I always find it fascinating when we don’t see things the same way. I’m oblivious to school rivalry references and when people worry about their kid getting a place, I tune them out. College is largely what you make of it.

    Maybe I’d be more attuned to the game if I’d gone to a prestigious school or if I’d had children. In my trailer park growing up, we made fun of the super achiever kids with the pushy parents and I think some of that mindset has stayed with me. All that striving seemed boring and ridiculous then and it still does.

    Of course, I’m white so I never had the extra hurdles that brown and black Americans face. Maybe my disdainful attitude toward all the angling for prestige is another example of white privilege. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

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