Shortly after moving to New York two years ago, I began volunteering as a writing mentor at Minds Matter, a large, multi-city nonprofit that helps prepare underserved high-school students for college. Just a few months earlier, I’d graduated from a liberal-arts college I’d attended after participating in a similar program, and I felt both obliged to pay my good fortune forward and uniquely qualified to do so. If my experience had taught me anything, it was the power of a compelling personal narrative.

By the time I’d decided, mid-way through high school, that I wanted to attend college—and not just any college, but a competitive one, filled with Gothic Revival buildings and storied histories—I had to contend with a spotty transcript, virtually no extracurriculars, and an SAT math score inferior to that of many middle schoolers. Then I heard about QuestBridge, a nonprofit that connects low-income youth with top schools.

“Students from low-income backgrounds may not realize that they have a unique perspective to present to admissions officers,” the organization’s website explains. “If your identity has been shaped by financial difficulties and other obstacles, consider writing about these challenges in your essays so that admissions officers understand the full context of your successes and academic accomplishments.” It provides a bullet-point list of potential topics, such as: English is not your first language; You’ve been homeless; You commute a long distance to attend a better school. If I were to succeed, I would need to leverage precisely the circumstances that had, conceivably, held me back. My personal statement portrayed a poor girl from a large Arkansas family, raised in a fringe religion and eager to explore the big world beyond. It wasn’t untrue, exactly, but it felt like a lie by omission, or perhaps oversimplification. My life was more than a tale of woe.

If I felt guilty about exploiting my background to appeal to colleges looking to build a well-rounded class, I also felt grateful for the opportunity. I still do; it's unlikely I would have gotten the education I did if I hadn't. But as I help my Minds Matter mentees, now seniors, apply to colleges this fall—and in some cases, complete the same QuestBridge application I did when I was their age—it has become harder to maintain this ambivalence. I don’t want my students to reduce their own lives to stories of hardship—or, at least, I don’t want them to feel that they need to in order to earn a berth at the college they choose.

Still, the pressure for students—particularly underrepresented nonwhite and low-income applicants—to package themselves like this is acute at a time when “diversity” remains the only rationale for affirmative action that the Supreme Court has consistently upheld, most recently in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. It routinely cites the importance of diversity in the global marketplace, where companies praise it as a catalyst for creativity and link it with greater financial returns. (“We know intuitively that diversity matters,” declared a recent report from McKinsey.) Yet for something so widely desired, what diversity means and why people want it remain unclear. My boss at a magazine where I once worked asked me to find images of a youth choir that—she paused, unsure how to proceed—“showed its diversity.” I nodded furtively and, a few minutes later, produced several photos with white and brown faces floating above identical purple blouses.

The cover of Natasha Warikioo's "The Diversity Bargain"
The University of Chicago Press

Such are the paradoxes that Natasha Warikoo examines in her new book The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy Elite Universities. Inspired by her own experience as an Indian American student in the 1990s and, later, as a visiting professor at the University of London, Warikoo, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, set out to understand how students of various backgrounds at Brown, Harvard, and Oxford conceive of diversity and merit in the college-admission process. Particularly in the U.S., where universities emphasize their “holistic” evaluations of applicants and, studies show, calibrate SAT scores depending on a variety of factors including race, legacy status, and athletic recruitment, she was curious how students justified the practice. Reasoning that elite colleges tend to espouse relatively progressive views and that their students—having gained entree to the world’s most prized institutions—would presumably have little reason to resent affirmative action, she decided this sample would provide insights into “the best-case scenario in terms of support for racial inclusion.”

What Warikoo finds at Brown and Harvard is a mixed bag: Students praise diversity and support affirmative action, but mostly by striking what she coins the “diversity bargain”: Rather than accepting it as a means of amelioration for systemic inequality, they support it on the assumption that it increases the student body’s collective merit, enriching the college experience for all. Time and again, she comes across students like Stephanie, a white history major at Harvard, who says “race needs to be considered” because an “ethnically diverse community is beneficial to everyone and is such an integral part of the Harvard education.” This view, Warikoo deftly demonstrates, is held by a majority of students of all racial identifications, and it aligns strongly with that of their schools. “We will consider how your unique talents, accomplishments, energy, curiosity, perspective, and identity might weave into the ever-changing tapestry that is Brown University,” reads the mission statement on its admissions webpage.

If an “ever-changing tapestry” sounds delightfully chic, it also reflects an understanding of egalitarianism as an aesthetic instead of a social ideal. The Diversity Bargain illuminates just how much diversity has been commodified particularly among the elite, for whom good taste entails an eclectic palate. This wasn’t always so: Warikoo cites research from the sociologists Richard Peterson and Roger Kern, who nearly 20 years ago identified a shift in cosmopolitan sensibilities from favoring narrowly defined “high” forms of culture (Western classical music, abstract art) to what they termed “cultural omnivorousness.” Warikoo’s interviews with students reveal this appetite extends to “interpersonal familiarity” with students of various aptitudes, affinities, and identifications. Diversity exists to be consumed by the student body to achieve a balanced diet of multiculturalism.    

Still, there is great reluctance, even discomfort, on the part of admissions offices to acknowledge race as a consideration in their evaluation process. Neither Brown nor Harvard explicitly does so, instead using words like “perspective” and “identity” to describe admissions considerations. Williams College, my own alma mater, doesn’t either, although on its website this fall, the percentage of students of color and those who are the first generation in their families to attend college is enlarged to about twice the size of the other demographic statistics. This allusiveness seems an inevitable result of the incoherence Warikoo highlights between k-12 education, which teaches children color-blindness, and the academy, where difference is extolled. It also likely reflects an increasingly mainstream understanding of race as a construct and identity as fluid. In this context, anxiety, particularly for whites, comes in the form of a question: How do you recognize a current reality (race) whose meaning isn’t fixed without institutionalizing it? The decision many make is not to name the reality at all.

Warikoo is slightly more narrow in assessing this cognitive dissonance, highlighting research (including her own) that reveals the paranoia of many white Americans who are “primed to see reverse discrimination in the future,” even if they have never experienced it themselves. Yet even if well-intentioned, the result is a quasi-colorblind, need-blind approach that places the onus on students to make their own experiences outside of the white middle-class legible to admissions committees if they wish admission criteria to be calibrated according to the opportunities they have—or have not—been afforded. “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it,” reads The Common Application’s most popular prompt. “If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” It’s an appealingly capacious invitation, but it also subtly casts applicants’ “backgrounds” or “identities” in the same terms as an “interest” or “talent,” and it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of the students Warikoo interviewed do the same, recontextualizing the consideration of race and income in admissions with comparisons that avoid questions of inequality altogether. When asked “whether diversity creates problems for the university,” a student named Elliot, like many of his peers, spoke about athletic recruits:   

Before I applied, I didn’t like [the fact that] it’s really easy for ... recruited athletes ... I’ve had issues with that. Now that I’m here, I don’t have those issues. Because I see, like I love going to the foot-ball games. It’s fun. It’s part of the student life ... I used to think that ... having athletes who are quote/unquote “less qualified”—I no longer view them as less qualified. I view them as qualified in a different way.

This reasoning may seem benign, but its implications become disturbing when you replace “athletes” with “poor” or “minority” students: What if they are no fun? What if they add no discernibly “unique” perspective of black culture or rural poverty or the immigrant experience to student life? Do they still deserve an education and all of the benefits—and joys—it can confer?     

Warikoo’s research may be limited in scope, but it offers a particularly focused lens through which to view the cultural moment. Support for diversity is at a fever pitch, complete with hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite) and trendy merchandise emblazoned with the all-caps imperative to READ FEWER WHITE DUDES—an unintentionally parodic illustration of diversity’s commodification writ large. Yet as Warikoo shows, when calls for diversity aren’t accompanied by material efforts to equalize opportunity, an idealized image of equality threatens to replace the pursuit of the thing itself.

Last year, the author Claire Vaye Watkins addressed students at Tin House Writers’ Workshop with a lecture, “On Pandering,” in which she described the revelation that, for much of her career, she had been writing for a white male literary establishment. She deemed her debut collection of short stories an exercise in projection: What would the Philip Roths of the world think of her work? What about the Jonathan Franzens? She encouraged the workshop to “embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us.” Her words went viral among a certain literary set as a minor cause celebre: We need more women writers! More queer writers! More writers of color!

This is true. And yet the ideal Watkins expressed was not merely that these demographics write, but that they do so without inhibition, accessing their own particular sensibilities and imaginations—in short, to treat their own experiences as ends in themselves. It’s an exhilarating prospect, and it runs entirely counter to the task of writing what one might call the adversity narrative, which requires its author to instrumentalize her consciousness rather than explore it. This is precisely why, when my mentees fill my inbox with drafts of their essays, I want to help them resist the temptation. It’s also why Warikoo’s argument for a much more “robust, ongoing affirmative-action policy by calibrating admissions decisions according to a student’s opportunities” is doubly convincing: She attacks the premise of collective merit because it makes the inclusion of the less advantaged contingent on the benefits that will accrue to the rest. But it also requires the less powerful to pander to visions of powerlessness, so that sharing one’s own story becomes a compulsion rather than a privilege. It should be neither, but a gift, given freely.