This morning, I woke up, and I was grateful to do so. Earlier this week, my childhood friend Bob was shot down and killed by a stray bullet. As I walked to the city bus stop this morning, I prayed that I would make it there safely, free from being the unintended victim of gang violence (and ready to focus on an education that often makes my ancestors' existence and contributions invisible and, at times, seems to hold no relevance to the realities of my life). After my city bus arrived at my magnet school in a nearly all-white suburb, two police officers stopped me once again for questioning because I looked "suspicious." As I was being questioned for being black in a predominantly white neighborhood, I began to think of how I -- no, we all -- had been lied to over the years.
You see, politicians tell you during their campaigns that the American Dream is within the reach of anyone who works hard enough, regardless of her race or socioeconomic status or the sexual orientation of her parent(s). And, Mitt Romney -- well, he said I should go for it and start a business by "borrow[ing] money if I [have] to from my parents."
Yet, as I am constantly reminded of during my long trek to school each day, such comments are all lies. I mean, my two moms work harder than anyone I know, each at three separate jobs for at least two shifts a day. They perform the kind of labor that most people dread -- scrubbing toilets, emptying and washing bedpans, and the like. They work really hard, but for little pay and no benefits. I doubt the American dream is around the corner for them. Heck, my great-great-grandfather was a slave on a Mississippi plantation, working for an owner who was infamous for his cruelty. No one works harder than a slave, but you guessed it, no American dream emerged for my great-great-grandfather or his sharecropper son either.
And you know what? I tried asking my two moms if I could borrow money to start a business one day, but it seems they have no money to spare. It turns out that if they had that amount of money, they would have started a business themselves or gone to college or received the kind of training that could have lifted them out of poverty.
Like some college hopefuls who have recently received their rejection letters from their dream school, I began to wonder, "What could I have done differently?" Well, for starters, I could have been born an upper middle-class, able-bodied, U.S. native, white girl with heterosexual parents, and perhaps a relative or two with some clout at a national newspaper. I hear some of these girls start charities for people like me or at least fake them to increase their chances of getting admitted into the Ivy League.
If I had been an upper middle-class, able-bodied, U.S. born white girl with heterosexual parents, perhaps I would not have gotten my teeth kicked for I-don't-know-how-many-times-this-month just because I have two moms who love each other, instead of a mom and dad who are constantly bickering with one another. Perhaps I would not dread going to my classes that are filled with bullies and racial microaggressions, and I would be able to fully concentrate on my studies. Perhaps I would not be presumed to be incompetent and undeserving of any awards or attention from colleges that I've received, presumptions that occur even though I am ranked number five in my class of 500 and my SAT scores rival those of my peers who paid for private tutors (none of whom I could afford) to assist them in studying for the test.
Or perhaps I could continue to play the piano and add to the 10 concert pianist competitions I've won -- that is, if I did not have to work several hours every other day at my after-school job to help my family pay the bills. And if I didn't need a job, maybe, just maybe I could try certain hobbies or extracurricular activities like playing golf, that is, if I could afford to pay for the equipment.
Perhaps, when I walked down the street in my neighborhood, I would be surrounded by hopeful images of professionals who look like me, are dressed in expensive suits, and are driving their cars to the kinds of offices that my two moms clean. Perhaps I could look in front of the classroom and see teachers of my own race, even just one or two, in the front of the classroom. Perhaps these images could serve to give me boundless hope for my own future.
If I had it all to do over again, I think I would be born an upper middle-class, able-bodied, U.S. native, white girl with heterosexual parents. But wait... That would mean that I would lose what others tell me is an advantage in the Ivy League admissions game...
Angela Onwuachi-Willig is the Charles and Marion Kierscht Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. She teaches and writes in the fields of anti-discrimination law, family law, and Critical Race Theory. Her forthcoming book, According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family (Yale University Press), will be released at the end of May.