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Renée Graham

When it’s OK to be black — just not too black

Boston high school students at a Black Lives Matter protest in December 2014.
Boston high school students at a Black Lives Matter protest in December 2014.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

There I sat, in my best (and only) suit, my sensible black pumps tapping nervously. The job fair recruiter, a middle-aged white woman, gave my resume a polite, but cursory once-over. Then she told me I needed to “lighten up” my resume, “if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t.

She explained that some items, like my membership in a black student journalist group, were “too black,” and might “raise a red flag” for some employers. That flag would point to my race, and possibly limit my post-college career choices.

While I’m sure this woman thought she was being helpful, it was a soul-crushing moment for me. It was a harsh introduction to the realities of how to be black while navigating white spaces and sensibilities. More than 30 years later, nothing has changed.

That’s why I was more dismayed than surprised by a nationwide study examining the challenges faced by black high school students. According to the survey, young black people who expressed an interest in racial justice or antiracist activism were less likely to get responses from white college admissions officials.


Institutions of higher learning want diversity — so long as black students check their concerns about racism and racial equality at the door.

“It’s not a matter of whether you’re black or not black. It’s what kind of black person you are,” said Ted Thornhill, an assistant sociology professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, and author of the study entitled “We Want Black Students, Just Not You: How White Admissions Counselors Screen Black Prospective Students.”

“You have to be Condi Rice,” he told me in an interview. “Not Angela Davis.” In other words, be black — but not too black.

For his study, Thornhill created four e-mail templates representing fictitious black students interested in math and English; African-American history and culture; environmental stability; and antiracism organizing. In inquiry e-mails sent to more than 500 white admissions counselors at small- to medium-sized predominantly white colleges and universities, the “students” asked whether their interests would make them a good “fit” for the school.

What Thornhill discovered is that admissions officials were about 26 percent less likely to respond to black students who mentioned racial justice. Those numbers were even worse among white male counselors, who were 37 percent less likely to engage black student activists. And it’s not that the counselors were against all student activism. In the study, black women who mentioned an interest in environmental sustainability were twice as likely to receive a response than those who cited racial justice.


“It’s a very subtle thing, and it’s these kind of new racism practices that allow some whites to cause harm to black and non-black people of color without being detected,” Thornhill said. “These creative types of research methodology enable us to detect them engaging in these types of practices so we can shine a light on them.”

This discriminatory pattern isn’t new. Last year, Harvard Business School reported that African-American and Asian job candidates who “whitened” their resumes were more than twice as likely to get a call back for a job interview. Multiple studies have shown it’s the same for applicants with names perceived to be black or Latino. Even with equal qualifications, they’re less likely to get a response than those with white-sounding names.

Predominantly white colleges and universities talk about diversity, but don’t necessarily want black students protesting police violence or organizing Black Lives Matter chapters. They seek people of color unlikely to agitate for racial equality — even at a time when campuses have inundated with white supremacist propaganda since Donald Trump became president.


Even in less racially-charged times, Thornhill says, whatever advantages college-bound African-American high school students might achieve by altering their identities or interests ultimately aren’t worth it.

“I don’t think it’s a good way [for young black people] to emerge into the adult world by capitulating to whiteness,” he said. “I would tell high school students if they get in the practice of doing it now, they’ll practice doing it for the rest of their lives. And what kind of person is that?”

All those years ago, I decided against that recruiter’s advice to “lighten up” my resume. It wasn’t the last time someone would offer that misguided suggestion. Of course, there’s no telling what opportunities my refusal may have denied me. Still, I understood then, as I do today, that the cost of concealing one’s authentic black self is unforgivably high.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.