This time last week, Raajii Daniel heard the news that he knew would change his life – he got into Yale. The son of Ethiopian immigrants and the first person in his family to go to university, Raajii is hoping to study Economics and Maths when he joins the Class of 2021. Here he explains what it was like to struggle with racism in elementary and middle school, expressed in a powerful application essay republished below, and how that lead him to the school of his dreams.
How did it feel to get into Yale?
It was kinda funny. I was with my friends at a Culver’s when I heard. I didn’t expect the response at all. I screamed and fell out of my chair. It was the best feeling in my life. All your hard work adds up to this. It was overwhelming.
What did you write about in your common app essay?
I focused on my experience as the son of two immigrant parents. My parents came from Ethiopia. I went to an all white elementary school and then middle school. During that time I rejected my Ethiopian culture. But as I transitioned to a more diverse high school, I realized how important it was to integrate with my Ethiopian heritage. And that’s what I wrote about.
Your parents must be super proud.
Yeah it was such an exciting time. We cried for hours with happiness. I was born in America shortly after my parents moved from Ethiopia. When I was growing up, my parents were told Harvard and Yale were the two best schools in the country. They always said I should go to one of those schools, but I brushed it aside, thinking I would never get in. My parents made me believe in myself. And now I’m going to Yale.
Read Raajii’s common app essay in full
“Hey Raajii, did you take a shower before or after your mom threw African food at you?” My first day of middle school was full of many microaggressions and passive aggressive chuckles. “No, but seriously, do you use that stuff as deodorant or something.” Attending an all white school in Minnesota desensitizes you to that kind of stuff. “Is it true that Ethiopians eat food with their hands like apes?” Little did I know that these seemingly insignificant interactions had a greater impact on my perception of identity than my own parents did. “Raajii, how can you be proud of such a primitive culture?” The truth was that I wasn’t proud. I couldn’t be. I wanted to be something I wasn’t. I wanted to be something that was normal. Something that didn’t soak my clothes and infect everything I touched. I wanted to be part of culture that didn’t stink.
I remember the first day I realized I wasn’t white. It was in kindergarten when my teacher told me to draw picture of myself with my family. Considering my artistic ability didn’t quite reach its full potential at the time, I decided to draw stick figures instead. Although I personally believed that my drawing should have been put on display at a museum, my teacher claimed that I left out one important feature. “Raajii, you’re black,” she said while handing me a brown crayon. It was at that moment I realized something huge. Something that hadn’t crossed my mind before. I was the only one in the room that needed that crayon. I was the only one that was different.
The more I realized how different I was from my classmates, the more I wanted to be like them. The more I submerged myself into this American culture, the more I rejected my Ethiopian culture at home. I felt it was necessary to sacrifice one culture in order to partake in another, in order to fit in. And for the most part, it worked. I remember my friends calling me the “whitest black guy” they knew and being happy about that. I remember mocking my parents’ African accent at lunch to make my white friends laugh. I remember the long, silent dinners with my parents, the ones where I couldn’t look them in the eyes, and I felt ashamed to be there. The ones where I complained to my mom about the smell staining my clothes, backpack, and books. I remember telling my parents that I hated being Ethiopian. I realize now that although my experience in middle school strengthened the line I drew between my conflicting cultures, my transition into high school transformed my concept of identity.
My decision to reject my culture was influenced by my presence in an all white middle school, which changed as I entered a more diverse high school. For once in my life, I could actually interact with people of various backgrounds, perspectives, and identities. I was starting to understand that my scent was one of many and eventually became more involved in my Ethiopian community. My experience in high school taught me the importance of defending one’s culture and way of life. This is a message I’ve able to send through my presentations on the Debate and Speech teams. From using debate philosophy that values the rights of minorities to performing a piece about dual consciousness and identity. The point is that the acceptance of my Ethiopian identity has not only changed the way I process information at school, but has also given me something to be passionate about. Understanding that I’ve been renouncing such an integral component of my identity makes me appreciate the culture even more. Whether it is Ethiopia’s culinary masterpieces or its strength and endurance during the age of colonialism, my culture has proven that it could never stink.
In the modern world, there is a direct link between prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is defined as the unjustified negative attitudes that some people hold against others of a certain group of people. Prejudice can include attitudes such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and religious persecution. Prejudices are pre-formed and have no reasonable basis. Discrimination includes all of the actions that people take against others they have prejudices toward. The segregation of blacks and whites during the American Civil Rights Movement is an example of discrimination. A modern example of discrimination might occur if a male employer were to pay a female employee lower wages due to his own sexism. However, discrimination can also consist of more subtle, passive-aggressive behavior, such as dirty looks, or refusing to patronize a business because the owners or managers are of a certain race, gender, or religion.
There is a self-fulfilling prophecy involved with prejudice and discrimination as well. Those who have been discriminated against begin to expect those around them to be prejudiced. This leads to defensive behavior, further fueling the tension between the in-group and the out-group. Furthermore, members of the in-group then feel justified in their beliefs, because those in the out-group are acting accordingly with the in-group’s preconceived impressions.
Discrimination and its self-fulfilling prophecy play a major role in the maintenance of prejudice and inequality. First, it causes society to play the “blame game”. The victims of discrimination blame those who act in discriminatory ways. In turn, those with prejudice blame the out-group for putting themselves into their own predicament, and harbor resentment against them for pointing fingers. Most often, neither group is willing to cooperate or see from the other’s perspective, and the reality of the situation is ignored. The result of all of this is the perpetuation of stereotypes, which provide a backbone for discriminatory practices.
Take for example the uproar caused by the re-election of President Obama for his second term as President. After his re-election, some states began threatening to secede from the United States for completely asinine reasons; claiming that a black man could not run a country, or that Obama wasn’t truly a US-born citizen. These opinions, which have evidence that prove the contrary, are rooted in racism. In this case, the racism was the prejudice, and the threat to secede was the discrimination. The self-fulfilling prophecy comes into play in several ways. Obama supporters might say that the secessionist states are acting in a typical racist way. Their opposition could respond by saying Obama supporters only support him because of his race. Both of these stigmas have been reinforced, and the conflict continues on.
Another issue which examines many aspects of inequality is the controversy over affirmative action plans in colleges and workplaces. Affirmative action committees were formed in order to provide equal opportunities to minorities, so that every school or professional organization would include a certain quota of people from all races and ethnicities. These programs protect individuals of minority race, religion, gender, and sex. However, some argue that because these programs are focused on socioeconomic factors instead of on individual merit, they are inherently unfair because they are disadvantageous to the majority population, and it is sometimes referred to as “reverse discrimination”. Here, the prejudice stems from good intentions for bettering the life of minorities. The discrimination is the exclusion of the majority population. The self-fulfilling prophecy might hold that the majority population, by opposing affirmative action, is practicing the very oppression that these programs were originally designed to deter. Therefore, the need for these programs seems to be reinforced.
Whether intentional or not, prejudice and discrimination ensure the continuance of inequality in the United States. Even subconsciously, we are furthering inequality through our actions and reactions with others. Our feelings, or prejudices, influence our actions, or discriminations. Because these forces are universally present in our daily lives, the way we use them or reject them will determine how they affect us.