My students know that one of my greatest pet peeves is when they talk about race and ethnicity in fractions and percentages. What does 20% Italian and 30% German actually mean? On Tuesdays and Wednesdays they live as an Italian and Thursdays and Fridays as a German? Or does it mean their left arm is Italian but the right one plus the big toe is German. You can also see why I hate those Ancestry.com commercials.

One of the theories I worked a lot with in graduate school was race and ethnicity as a lived experience. Can you say that you are a particular race if you have not lived that experience. Think Rachel Dolezal here, and cultural appropriation in general. While one can say “I feel like I’m this race” if people don’t sort of respond to you in that way, then it really isn’t part of your lived experience and it’s better to call it something else. In the case of those fractions and percentages, what does it matter if you’ve discovered your 26% Native American heritage when you have yet to live that experience?

When people ask me what I claim, I usually respond with, “I’m dark as night. What else would I claim?” And then I follow it up with items that I acknowledge that are specific to my culture and experience, notably with immigration or even having to explain my name constantly. I also talk about how being “Afro-Latino” is not a construction that exists in Latin America, because depending on where one is, they understand blackness in a variety of ways. So we use “Afro-Latino” here, in the US, because of how the US defines race.

I also say that we live in a time when two White parents have children of color. And where sociologists are predicting that “American” as a race will look something like Bruno Mars by the next generation. This all means that whatever we are racially defining now is vastly different than what our parents defined and it could mean that one is Asian, for example, with one White parent. And more importantly, that person lives that experience always—Asian with one White parent—rather than part-time as one parent’s identity and part-time as another parent’s identity.

I recently had that conversation regarding my son’s hair when I reminded someone that he should not use hair care products for people with straight hair.

“But he’s half White,” the person replied.

“Which half? The left or the right?” I asked.

“Ok, I get it.”

“He shouldn’t use things for people with my hair texture either. Fortunately there are plenty of products for mixed-race people and those with curly hair.”

I said all of that for two reasons: Students and families approach me about working with them and often times they believe that I can help them sort of exploit an unknown cultural heritage that will help them get some sort of edge on the competition in their application. I don’t get much into what has happened in this post-affirmative action era when colleges are less inclined to include people of color than before affirmative action so claiming to be from an underrepresented group would probably not help. I also don’t get much into the difference between percentages and numbers—do all twenty Black women applicants have a better chance of getting into Harvard compared to 10,000 White men applicants? Maybe. And that seems fair to me because it took way more for those Black women to get to that point and it will take them way more to get to graduation. So I wouldn’t be scornful at the eight who actually make it onto the campus, compared to the 5,000 of the other.

What I do get into leads me to the second reason: What is your actual lived experience? Having those conversations during the application process is really enlightening for me, and I assume my clients as well. Moving beyond the check box, much of our conversation centers around privilege, even if I don’t use those words. We talk about how one’s worst case scenario really isn’t all that bad and we get into why it isn’t all that bad. We talk about who else will be applying to that school and why, in that context, they sound especially douche-like. We talk about the privilege involved in having funding and how that doesn’t alleviate someone from understanding funding. And the privilege involved in labeling schools safety, reach, and sure bet.

This is what I’ve meant in the past about working with me (not to hype myself up) and not someone who is simply trying to game the system. Consider what happens when you have a generation of college students who have just learned to constantly figure out how to maneuver, cheat, and beat without analyzing their own privilege in that process. I think it looks a lot like a certain someone running for office…

With all that said, I hope you will join us on May 28th from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm where we will dive right into those college applications by first talking about what it means for students to go to college with the greater good in mind and then on to tangibles: college lists, personal statements, and letters of recommendation and an SAT workshop for students still preparing for the exam.

I believe it’s our moral obligation to get students to college, graduating in as close to four years as possible, and with as little debt as possible. And here I’ll show you how.