When I was 17, I desperately wanted colleges to accept me based only on my academic achievements — my “merit” — without consideration for external factors. My family and school counselors insisted that I emphasize my immigrant family / low income status in order to gain sympathy from admissions officers. To me, that meant not getting into my dream school through my own talent. I spent my first year at Stanford doubting myself and fearing that people would realize I wasn’t talented enough to be there. This sounds like textbook impostor syndrome, but it was worsened by constant comments about my minority status. Students from other high schools said they wished they had my background so they could get into whatever schools they wanted. Everyone assumed it must have been easy for me to get accepted. Stanford likes poors like me. Of course I got in. I learned to not mention my upbringing because people would think less of my qualifications and belonging at Stanford if they knew.
At the end of my sophomore year, I was lucky to end up in a required writing course with a black professor who understood what I was going through (having spent over a decade working on social justice issues). She encouraged me to investigate affirmative action stigma for my term paper as a way of understanding my own feelings about being a “diversity pick.” My paper focused on research surrounding the psychological impact of being considered a diversity pick on minority students. That research is what I want to summarize now.
A 2006 study from the Mayo Clinic found that ethnic minority students in three different medical schools scored worse than non-minority students on their sense of personal accomplishment, quality of life, and feelings of impostor syndrome, even when normalized for GPA and academic performance. Minority students feel less accomplished even when achieving the same results. From personal experience, I suggest one cause (among many) is the external and internal reminders that their success should be attributed to affirmative action rather than merit.
The most valuable study I found was this 2013 study from University of Texas at Austin, where researchers studied factors affecting mental health in ethnic minority and majority students. Stress related to minority status was correlated with feelings of impostor syndrome and psychological distress. They found that minority students experience heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem in comparison to non-minority students.
In case you think this is all a matter of confidence and self-perception: People absolutely judge minority students (and employees) more harshly, especially when affirmative action is mentioned. One 1992 NYU study, for example, separated job applications for a male-dominated job into two groups and wrote “affirmative action hiree” on one group’s female applications. Managers in this group tended to rate labeled women not only as less competent than male applicants, but also lower than the non-labeled women (in the other group). The affirmative action label caused managers to perceive minority applicants less favorably than they would have otherwise.
When people have lower expectations of a group of people, they treat them differently and expend less resources on them. In a 1970 study from the Harvard Education Review, researchers found that kindergarten teachers subconsciously gave more attention to students with similar ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to their own and tended to give negative evaluations to minority students. These are bleepin’ kindergarteners and some racist teachers are setting them up for failure from the start. I know this isn’t directly related to affirmative action. I use it as an example of the kind of treatment minority students can expect when people assume the worst of them from the start.
Here’s a bonus study: UCLA researchers found in 2005 that white men benefit psychologically from believing in affirmative action quotas. They set men up in two groups; one group read about quota-based affirmative action and one group read about affirmative action in which race is one factor in a holistic process. The men then took an intelligence test and received negative feedback on their performance. Men in the quota-based reading group reported higher levels of self-esteem than men in the other group. In the author’s words, “quota beliefs were shown to boost White men’s estimates of their own competence, which in turn allowed these individuals to shield their self-esteem from negative feedback on a bogus intelligence test.”
To limit the scope of my term paper, I chose not to address the question of whether “diversity picks” exist or whether minority students under-perform in comparison to their peers. The fact is that these beliefs about affirmative action color all of our perceptions of each other and ourselves.
The obvious question is whether we should limit affirmative action efforts in an attempt to limit the psychological impact on and negative impressions of minority students. It kind of makes sense: Minority students (myself included) can feel inferior because of these suggestions that our success can only be attributed to affirmative action. If we get rid of affirmative action and diversity efforts, maybe minority students will attribute their success to themselves.
I may have believed this line of reasoning in the past, but I completely disagree now. Without concentrated efforts on selecting and retaining minority talent, we won’t make any progress. We won’t create diverse schools and companies just by twiddling our thumbs and hoping for the best. We have to seek these people out and provide interventions to address their doubts and mental well-being. I didn’t know how I felt as a minority student was so common as to have been studied until I wrote this paper. Knowing that I wasn’t alone gave me the will to ignore my self-doubt. The way we retain diverse talent isn’t through eliminating affirmative action, it’s through educating minority students and employees about what they might face from themselves and from others.