The Pity of the Elites

by: Jay Caspian Kang, Opinion Writer, Reposted from the New York Times

Original posting date April 7, 2022

When I was writing my book “The Loneliest Americans,” I spent a lot of time pondering a question: How does a person tell their own story in a fair way? The book has some elements from my own life, and I wanted to represent them well. My parents grew up in South Korea during the war. There were periods of my childhood in the United States when we were very poor. But I am now a comfortable man in his early 40s who has one of the most decadent luxuries a person can buy these days: a master’s degree in creative writing.

Every writer needs to make choices out of a lifetime of things that happen to them. I wondered how much I should mine those more difficult details to make myself more sympathetic to the reader. Should I obscure the various privileges that I’ve had since? I do not think back on my life as an unending sequence of generational traumas and discrimination, even though, despite whatever well-being I might have now, I probably have a solid claim to both. So which version is fair to me, my family and my readers?

I never really did resolve this question (in the book, I ended up talking through the idea of immigrant narrative choice without really committing to one trope or the other). I understood my incentives lay with a squalid tale of poverty, misery and discrimination, but I also couldn’t quite figure out how to tell that story in an honest way.

I was thinking about all this again when I read the journalist Rachel Aviv’s recent article in The New Yorker. Aviv tells the story of Mackenzie Fierceton, a former student at the University of Pennsylvania. When she was a teenager, she showed up bloodied and bruised at her elite private school. She was ultimately taken away from her mother, whom Fierceton claimed had abused her, and placed in foster care. She stayed at her school on a scholarship.

During her senior year, on her application to Penn, she left blank any personal data about her biological parents. As a result, the school’s coding system automatically labeled her application “first generation,” a term typically reserved for kids who are the first people in their family to go to college.

Fierceton’s mother was charged with felony child abuse and misdemeanor assault, but the charges were ultimately dropped. Accusations of parental abuse are difficult to prove. Even though teachers at Fierceton’s school had noticed that she sometimes had bruises, her mother claimed they were the result of falls.

Penn offered Fierceton a full scholarship, which she accepted. She began pursuing a degree in political science and applied for a hybrid master’s program at the university’s school of social work. On that application, she was asked if she was the first person in her family to attend college. She checked yes. By her logic, she did not have a family. She was accepted into the program.

In 2020, Fierceton applied for a Rhodes scholarship and was one of 32 students nationwide to win the prestigious award. Around that time, she gave an interview to a local paper. The article said that Fierceton had grown up “poor,” which she has denied telling the reporter. The father of one of her high school acquaintances ended up telling Penn that Fierceton might be misrepresenting her background. An investigation began that included a call to Fierceton’s mother, who told the school that her daughter had grown up in a loving home.

Penn notified the Rhodes Trust, which began its own investigation into whether Fierceton had presented the details of her life in a truthful manner. Despite her collecting over 20 letters from people who affirmed her credibility, including childhood friends and teachers, the trust recommended that her scholarship be rescinded. Penn added a notation on her undergraduate transcript that she’d been sanctioned and is withholding her master’s degree until she submits an apology letter to the university.

What struck me the most in Aviv’s excellent story was a passage from the Penn Office of Student Conduct’s report on its investigation: “Mackenzie may have centered certain aspects of her background to the exclusion of others — for reasons we are certain she feels are valid — in a way that creates a misimpression.”

This language — a pidgin of legal vagaries, therapy talk and academic social justice terms like “centered” — is ubiquitous at elite, progressive institutions. It is also generally incomprehensible and meaningless. But for the sake of argument, let’s try to take it at face value. What, exactly, did Fierceton “center” and what did she exclude?

Was the problem that a child who was placed into foster care and had no contact with her biological mother wasn’t actually a first-generation college student? Or was the real issue that Fierceton did not really fit the profile of a suffering student who needed the benevolence of an Ivy League school?

It’s clear that such institutions have constructed a loose, informal hierarchy of injustices and traumas. Fierceton’s upper middle class upbringing cuts against the horror she says she endured. The fact that she is white probably does, too. One can imagine a prototype of the type of student that people like Fierceton gets compared with: an impoverished BIPOC city kid who attends a “bad” public school but still manages to pursue academic excellence and community service or whatever. The type of student, in other words, whom places like the University of Pennsylvania, where only 3.3 percent of the student body comes from families in the bottom 20 percent of income earners, has few of.

Aviv also writes about Anea Moore, a Black Penn student, who said she was endlessly paraded around by the university to tell her story of triumph over adversity. “Penn dragged me to every single news outlet that asked for an interview and sent a Penn communications person with me to make sure I said the right things,” Moore told Aviv. “It was, like, ‘Oh, yay, Penn has a Black Rhodes scholar with dead parents who grew up working class.’”

Students like Moore make schools like Penn look virtuous and dogged in their commitment to social justice. And the likely reason they kept asking Moore to be that spokesperson was presumably because she was one of the only people on campus who actually fit the bill.

Students, of course, know all this, which, in turn, places pressure on applicants to present themselves as testaments to strength in the face of unending challenges. Last year, Elijah Megginson, then a senior in high school, wrote an Opinion piece about the conflict he felt over writing a college essay that he knew would reflect the difficulties of his life but would also define him in a way he resisted. He wrote:

In my life, I’ve had a lot of unfortunate experiences. So when it came time for me to write my personal statement for college applications, I knew that I could sell a story about all the struggles I had overcome. Each draft I wrote had a different topic. The first was about growing up without my dad being involved, the second was about the many times my life was violently threatened, the third was about coping with anxiety and PTSD, and the rest followed the same theme Every time I wrote, and then discarded and then redrafted, I didn’t feel good. It felt as if I were trying to gain pity. I knew what I went through was tough and to overcome those challenges was remarkable, but was that all I had to offer?

These trauma contests encourage a doctrinaire, almost algorithmic way of thinking about the hardships a person might have faced, many of which may be none of the admissions committee’s business. Emphasizing these details doesn’t mean that the students are lying, nor do I place any of the blame on them for trying to game a system they didn’t create.

Black students like Moore and Megginson are asked to perform their trauma whether they want to or not. White students who, like Mackenzie Fierceton, do not exactly fit the profile of the oppressed, apparently must sometimes prove their ordeals to a board of supposedly caring and equity-driven bureaucrats.

A compassionate society, especially one with as much inequality as the United States, should talk about discrimination and the very real ways some people’s lives are harder than others. We shouldtalk about privilege and systemic racism and the ways in which the history of violence against Black, Latino, Native American and Asian people in this country still shape their lives today. But I do not understand how the trauma algorithms that currently exist at elite institutions advance any of these conversations.

Instead, most students, I believe, want to search for moments of solidarity with people from different backgrounds despite the pressures placed upon them to turn their life stories into cultural capital. My objection here isn’t so much a hysterical warning that these calculations will cause society to collapse, but more that we should simply reject them because we shouldn’t think about suffering and injustice in such hierarchical and craven ways. These students should be afforded a measure of privacy and dignity.

My hesitation to string my own collection of traumas and identities into an alluring narrative did not come from any dignity or bravery on my part. I just think there is a way in which the denial of one’s hardships constitutes a far more insidious form of dishonesty. But I am wary of the ways in which adversity has become currency in elite spaces, including the literary book market.

The economies around trauma are both bizarre and decadent. We don’t have to buy into the right-wing trope that people who talk about the discrimination they’ve faced are “playing the victim.” We can just think of students in a reasonable and human way and not as collections of horror stories that we should pity and then sort into hierarchies based on ridiculous definitions of trauma.

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