If you’re applying for specific scholarships, once you get past the first round of college essays — the common app, perhaps a school-specific supplement or two — you’re likely to run into some additional essays. A common theme in these prompts is overcoming discrimination, which provides an excellent opportunity to talk about life experiences or social justice work — as well as the chance to embarrass yourself by revealing you clearly don’t understand what discrimination is.
The ever-helpful Google defines discrimination as “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.” (Prejudice, it specifies, is a “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.”)
For people who haven’t encountered a lot of discrimination in their lives, it can be easy to think of discrimination as simply being treated unfairly. When it comes to application essays, this way of thinking (in addition to being plain wrong) can lead you to write some embarrassingly irrelevant essays. I’ve heard of a few unfortunate examples, including one applicant who thought being teased for wearing new clothes counted as discrimination.
What the authors of these essays fail to realize is that discrimination is not just being treated unfairly; it’s being treated unfairly because of who or what you are. And if you are white, or male, or upper-class (or in the majority group of a whole host of other intersecting identity factors), it’s possible that you’ve never really experienced discrimination. And in terms of writing an effective essay, that’s absolutely fine — as long as you keep in mind what discrimination actually is.
Understanding the -isms
In many cases, acts of discrimination can be examples of larger systems of oppression (aka the -isms, like racism or sexism). Racial profiling, for example, is both discriminatory and racist. But just as not all rectangles are squares, not all acts of discrimination are examples of -isms.
The secret to understanding this difference is the idea of power. Anyone can be discriminated against, but only target groups can be victims of an -ism. For example, it’s possible (and discriminatory) that a minority-owned business could choose not to hire white workers, but it wouldn’t be racist (reverse or otherwise) for them to do so. Given that this business would be an isolated example of discrimination, there would be no evidence of the systemic oppression necessary to qualify it as racism. (Although, to be clear, it would still be morally wrong.)
In other words, it’s entirely possible to be discriminated against but not be the victim of an -ism. Depending on the circumstances, such an experience could be an excellent topic for an essay — but it could also come across as oblivious or petty. It all depends on the situation and how you tell your story.
Telling your story
Even if you have no personal experiences with discrimination, you can still write an insightful, compelling essay on the topic. A specific response will depend on of the prompt, but there are generally a few approaches you can take.
First, if you truly feel as though you haven’t experienced discrimination, then one option is to use your response to explore why that is and how you feel about it. It’s also possible that you’ve been present to discrimination without realizing it — reading about privilege could help you realize that perhaps you were not treated fairly, but perhaps given preferential treatment.
Even if you haven’t experienced discrimination firsthand, another approach is to share a time when you witnessed discrimination. What did you do about it? These don’t have to be specific instances, either — they can be tied to your other experiences. If you’ve spent time volunteering as a tutor, for example, you might be able to talk about how students with learning disabilities are discriminated against in the classroom. (Other potential reasons for discrimination you could discuss include socioeconomic status, denial of personhood, or a criminal record.)
Regardless of your approach, however, all good essays have one thing in common: they make a point. Essays about overcoming discrimination shouldn’t aim to make admissions counselors feel sorry for you or portray you as some sort of hero. (To quote novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”) Rather, a successful essay should demonstrate your understanding of justice and how you react in situations that challenge it.
Even with the best of intentions, discrimination is not always easy to talk about. But with the proper understanding and a thoughtful approach, you can craft an essay about discrimination, even if you don’t think you have ever experienced it — and ideally, then use this understanding to work for change in the future.