Pharyngula

Ah, the subtle ways we can discriminate. An Arkansas school decided a black woman just wasn’t the right kind of person to stand up at their graduation ceremony.

A high school southeast of Little Rock would not let a black student be valedictorian though she had the highest grade-point average, and wouldn’t let her mom speak to the school board about it until graduation had passed, the graduate claims in Federal Court.

Kymberly Wimberly, 18, got only a single B in her 4 years at McGehee Secondary School, and loaded up on Honors and Advanced Placement classes. She had the highest G.P.A. and says the school’s refusal to let her be sole valedictorian was part of a pattern of discrimination against black students.

Wimberly says that despite earning the highest G.P.A. of the Class of 2011, and being informed of it by a school counselor, “school administrators and personnel treated two other white students as heir[s] apparent to the valedictorian and salutatorian spots.”

Doesn’t that bring up those fond memories of high school? We all knew who the anointed ones were, the kids who were typically the children of the wealthier members of the community, who had the connections, who had the right image, who associated with the right other kids, who were in the right clubs. I remember my one brief moment of ‘fame’ in my high school: I blew the doors off the SAT exams, and was one of four who were National Merit Award finalists. We were all called into the principal’s office for congratulations, and the guy schmoozed up to the other three, the popular kids, and laughed and joked and had a grand time, and finally came to me, the strange nerd in the well-worn jeans and ragged shirt, gave me a “who the hell are you?” look, and said “Good work.” Done.

And then we got acknowledged in an assembly. The other three got praise and thorough introductions; I got named, nothing more, and was last. It was the weirdest feeling: nobody had said anything wrong about me, I was given a moment in the spotlight, but somehow I came out of it feeling like I’d been snubbed and spit upon. I wasn’t the right kind of person, I didn’t belong to the blessed clique, I was an interloper.

I can sort of understand where the administrators are coming from. They’d probably say they aren’t racist, oh no, it’s just that Bob and Janet (or whatever the white kids’ names are) have been such active leaders in the school, they’ve had school spirit, everyone knows and loves Bob and Janet, they deserve prominence at graduation — they’ll say nothing demeaning about Wimberly at all, they’ll couch it all in the most positive terms. And the black woman will still feel the sting of being snubbed, because she’ll have gotten the message: hard work, intelligence and talent simply aren’t as important as being the right kind of kid. Sorry, girl, academic accomplishment isn’t as important as going to the good church, dressing right, being in sports or cheerleading, going to the right parties, and all that other stuff that establishes your position in the social hierarchy. Shoulda studied less math and worked harder at being white, like Bob and Janet.

Racism is only rarely a matter of snarled epithets and swinging ax handles. Usually it’s a subtler thing, where a groups are set apart on superficial criteria, and the categorization becomes a proxy for recognizing ability honestly.

(via Think Progress)