Standing on the Side of Love

Erasing Firsts Reinforces White Privilege

Earlier this week, my local paper printed an Associated Press article about a recent Smith College student who was awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.  This AP article was published far and wide and ended up on the front page here because I live in the same city as Smith.  I congratulate the recipient, Ms. Clarke Knight, yet found the convoluted write up to be problematic.  I wrote a letter to the local newspaper, which did not choose to print it, so I post it here.

November 25, 2013

The opening sentence confused me: “A Smith College senior from Nevada says she feels ‘overwhelmed’ after becoming the first Rhodes Scholar from the United States in the 143-year history of the prestigious women’s school.”

I’m not confused about the “overwhelmed” part.  Who wouldn’t be after earning such a prestigious award and recognition not only of brilliance, but in this case, of intention to try to heal our beleaguered planet? Right on, Clarke Knight!  You go rock this world!

What’s confusing to me is the Associated Press journalist’s need to highlight that Knight is a first for Smith College at being named a Rhodes Scholar.  Because she isn’t the first.  The article even tells us two previous Smith students, Tariro Makadzange of Zimbabwe and Angela Lwiindi Leila Hassan of Zambia, each won the prize before.

So what is Knight first at?  In winning it as a citizen of the United States, as an American, who was attending Smith College.  I have to ask, “Why is that important?  And why is it so important that it is the lead for this article?”  What is the point of that distinction?

I am not sure what the author’s intended point is, but I find it to be yet another reminder of how hard it is to let go of privilege – in this case, I would venture to say both white privilege and so-called “Western” privilege.  By raising up Knight’s award as “first,” since there can only be one first, it demeans the actual first, which went to Ms. Hassan in 1994.

Besides smacking of racism and xenophobia, it’s just unnecessary.  Let the recognition of Ms. Knight’s amazing accomplishment stand on its own.

(Update: 11/30/13: via the wonders of Facebook, a FB friend of a FB friend pointed me not at the AP journalist as source of problematic skew, but to the Smith College press release.  Which, to my mind, particularly as an alumna (of the Social Work School), is even more problematic as the source.  Also, from, as a correction, the two previous Smith winners won the scholarship as alum, not as current students.  Though this may be an important distinction in academia, it does not account or justify for the concerns I have articulated here.)