Michelle Obama is everywhere these days, but one place you won’t find her is the Class of 1985 – 25th Reunion celebration at Princeton University. Obama, who graduated cum laude from Princeton in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and a minor in African-American Studies, sent a formal letter of regret through the White House Office of Scheduling which declined her invitation to attend the May festivities. Understandably, the First Lady of the United States has prioritized time with her family and her ongoing political actions – fighting childhood obesity, supporting pay equality, and advocating on behalf of U.S. military families – over a class dinner and cocktail hour with the university president.
Yet it seems that some at Princeton feel Obama has a special obligation to the current student body and her fellow alumni. In an open letter, Molly Alarcon, an opinion columnist for The Daily Princetonian, requests that the First Lady come to Princeton for the sole purpose of instructing audiences at her alma mater on how to address issues of race and diversity:
“Just as your ascension to the White House has given our country cause to think about race in America, your comments as the Class of 2010’s Class Day speaker on May 31, 2010, could encourage our campus to look inward at our racial problems. While racial dynamics here have improved since your time, we still have much work to do. It’s one thing if I write a column about racial issues on campus and quite another if you come tell us what we need to hear.” [Emphasis mine.]
Assuming that a person of color should do the work of teaching others (read: white people) about racism is an expression of racial privilege. After all, it’s not a subject that Michelle Obama speaks on very often in public, yet she’s been called upon by a white writer to “tell us what we need to hear.”
In a post on the popular blog Stuff White People Do, guest writer Belinda pointed out that
“… the irony and insult of that dynamic is that so many [people of color], now and throughout history, have already written and published extensively on the topic. These writers have effectively volunteered to educate white people, or to share their experiences of racism, or to further the ideas, language, and dialogue needed to combat racial privilege and disadvantage.”
She also noted that, “These authors are academics, activists, historians, journalists, artists, etc, etc. There is a vast body of work out there.” One wonders if the writer had made good use of Princeton’s abundant resources – libraries, professors, community groups – before calling upon Obama to further her anti-racist education.
It’s clear from the open letter that Alarcon already recognizes many of the challenges for racial diversity, education and tolerance which Princeton continues to face. Affirmative action policies, while progressive in nature, haven’t done much to increase the overall diversity of Princeton since Obama’s days as an undergraduate. The nonprofit organization Questbridge reports the racial diversity of Princeton undergraduates as overwhelmingly Caucasian (49%), with Asian-American student enrollment at 16%. Latinos and African-Americans each represent only 8% of the student population. Native-American students are less than 1%. It’s not too surprising to realize that thorny issues of race are swept under the carpet on a predominantly white-washed campus.
After all, this is the same university where Jian Li, a 2006 undergraduate applicant, filed a lawsuit claiming that his admission had been rejected because he was Asian-American. His lawsuit brought national attention to his case, sparking fierce debate about race and the college admissions process.
Rather than address Li’s charges through thoughtful commentary, The Daily Princetonian, as part of an annual Joke Issue, published an op-ed mocking Li’s complaints under the guise of “satire” with racist phrasing such as, “I the super smart Asian. Princeton the super dumb college, not accept me.” In an editor’s note, the publication defended the piece by claiming, “We embraced racist language in order to strangle it. At its worst, the column was a bad joke; at its best, it provoked serious thought about issues of race, fairness and diversity.”
And Princeton needs Michelle Obama to show students the way to anti-racism? Something tells me they’ll require a lot more than a speech on Class Day to change attitudes on campus. But perhaps some hard-won wisdom can be gleaned from her legacy.
In Obama’s senior thesis, “”Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” she featured interviews with African-American alumni, analyzing how their perceptions of both the university and the African-American community evolved during their education at Princeton. She also wrote about how her time at Princeton had lead to feelings of intense alienation from her majority-white professors and peers. In her introduction, Obama observed that:
“My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before. I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with Whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be Black first and a student second.”
The last lines echoes powerfully in this context: once again, she has been seen as a woman of color first, positioned to educate others about issues of race, rather than as an alumna of distinguished accomplishment who could speak to the issues on which she has built her political platform as First Lady. It’s admirable that a member of the Princeton community expresses a need for more conversation on racism, but there are already many existing resources which could be utilized to spur campus dialogues.
Read books. Take classes. Seek out activities and groups which coincide with fostering conversation and change. But don’t ask Michelle Obama to do the hard work for you. She has enough on her plate.