Woodard: For the Misrepresented When Labels are Too Much

By Tosha Woodard

Minding My Bs and Qs

                   “The 18-year old senior will graduate Friday with $800,000 in college scholarships—much of it from programs for high-achieving, low-income students—to cover her costs at Yale University.”

An accomplished high school senior, school and community activist, and soon-to-be Yale freshman was offered more than $800,000 in scholarships. Yet, this is the description sent to the community to capture Iman’s senior moment.

Low-income: another label and the coded elephant in the room. And despite being an exceptional student with parents, a nurse and pastor supporting her at every turn, Iman’s story was hijacked by limited perspective.  The same perspective that reduces exceptional to mediocre, good to okay but catapults immaturity to criminal.

Sadly, I’m rarely surprised when these labels are referred to as harmless—justified, deserving, or written off entirely (i.e., “I’m sure he/she didn’t mean anything by it.”). I understand that we are all at different places in our inclusive journey. Still, I’ll use this opportunity to appeal to those who already give a damn—those already engaged enough to seek answers, delve deeper, support and move forward. Though, I may understand the distance in where we are, I don’t accept stalled progress. And here is a blaring distinction, far from a harmless description or a subtle mention, inserted to shift the focus from merit to need. When this young lady deserves to be proud of her achievement (without encumbrances), she instead must navigate senseless marginalization and, incidentally, an erroneous “low-income” descriptor, which also happens to be false.

Here’s news: College costs are a challenge for the very large majority of us, with tuition, room and board skyrocketing to upwards of $80,000 a year. The constant conflation of financial need, low-income, and race is taxing. In this crowded field of students who have a financial need to attend college, this student’s scholarships are presented differently. And why? Not because she’s low-income (she happens not to be), but because she falls outside of the writer’s norm, where merit is associated with the white, and at least, the so-called middle-class. If white and middle-class, no label is needed—it’s the standard by which others are compared. But, God forbid, you fall outside the norm. The scholarship is no longer an academic scholarship, it’s instead a scholarship for high-achieving and low-income students. The decision is made to call attention to the perceived distinction. And although it happens often, it’s such a ridiculous practice and grounded in the falsehoods of superiority. And even as universities like hers—Yale—respond to the rising cost of tuition and the stagnating cost of family incomes by offering full tuition to families earning less than $125,000 annually, there remains this insatiable appetite for labels.

Time-out and on to what matters. Iman: Continue advancing your strength-in-difference paradigm.  Be driven by your own curiosity and awareness and engaged by those who seek to grow. Invite discussion without feeling the need to defend who or where you are. And, in your own way, call out those and the language attempting to reduce you, your merit, your value. Even as pervasive myths urge you to abandon what sets you apart, be reminded that everyone you know is flawed and perfectly imperfect.  There is zero obligation to play into an imposed model-minority myth.  And as you navigate among students of varying character and from homes of varying stability, see both the strengths and weaknesses of others, while standing as your own measure.

And for the rest of us, though this was written with Iman in mind, the plea is to all students and families symbolic of her and families like hers—like mine—who navigate this space differently. And to our trusted partners. Authenticity serves as our most forceful activism that allows us to improve the design of our evolving world.  This truth is self-evident. Congratulations, Iman.

[Tosha Woodardis mom to five square pegs in round holes, educator’s wife, law grad, courageous conversationalist and impassioned advocate in pursuit of social justice and the next challenge—of purpose. Follow her on Twitter @BsandQs.]

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