‘Are you two the token Black kids of the department?’ The snubs and insults that accompanied affirmative action

A collage of faces.
In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling banning affirmative action, Black and Latino Americans share their academic and professional experiences, along with their opinions on affirmative action.
(Los Angeles Times)

People of color know the sting of a certain type of insinuation. It can arise in the classroom or workplace, and take the form of a subtle snub, a direct insult or sidelong glance. The implication, they say, is clear: that others believe they’re only there because of affirmative action.

An unintended consequence of a policy meant to boost diversity is that it can be wielded like a weapon to make people feel like they don’t belong, like everyone else in the room thinks they got admitted or promoted because of their skin color. Even though the Supreme Court struck down race-based college admissions, Black Americans and Latinos told The Times they wonder if this stigma will persist.

They had a variety of views on the efficacy and merits of affirmative action, and ways to make the classroom and boardroom better reflect the demographics of the nation. All discussed the way a policy with a goal they truly believe in could be used to belittle them. Here’s what they told us.


The Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action has triggered angst on campuses about how to promote diversity without considering race in admissions decisions.

June 29, 2023


Sasamon Omoma

A portrait of Sasamon Omoma

Back in high school, Omoma — who is half-Black, half-Thai — quickly recognized the pros and cons of affirmative action while writing the college application that got her accepted to Duke, where she is a senior.

“Do I empathize more with my Blackness, which is what people see, what most influences my day-to-day, and is most salient at Duke where there are so few of us? Or is there a space for me to talk about my Asian-ness without the caveat that I don’t have the same experience as someone who is typically perceived as Asian? … It was disheartening that, despite my objective qualifications, people would reduce my accomplishments to my background.”


Blake Shepard

A portrait of Blake Shepard

Shepard recently earned an engineering degree from MIT and will begin work for a Southern California aerospace company, but cannot forget a hurtful moment from his freshman year when he and a friend were approached by a graduate student they did not know.


“He comes up to us, unprovoked, and he says, ‘Are you two the token Black kids of the department?’ And that was a very difficult introduction into a tough institution. That stays with you for years, which it definitely did for me. There were times when I would question, like, ‘Do I really belong here?’”


Venezia Garza

A portrait of Venezia Garza

Garza has felt the sting of similarly dismissive comments while studying medical anthropology at Princeton. She thinks back on the many challenges along her path to college.

“I, myself, am fully aware of the personal sacrifices, hard work and dedication that got me where I am today. … I know that I was admitted to Princeton because of the merit and perspective I bring. … Race is a fundamental part of how we experience life here, especially in the United States. It’s so crucial to making us who we are.”


José Alberto Arévalo

A portrait of José Alberto Arévalo


Before he founded the professional organization Latinx Physicians of California, Arévalo was the only Mexican American teaching medicine at UC Davis in the late 1980s. Too often, he heard colleagues grumble about “our prestigious medical school deteriorating” because of affirmative action.

“It was certain, key faculty members who had this propensity. There are all types of students who cannot finish medical school but nobody ever said that about a white male. I felt helpless and frustrated and ashamed.”


LaTonya Wilkins

A portrait of LaTonya Wilkins

Wilkins recalls being confronted by a co-worker who earned less than her and blamed the discrepancy on affirmative action. It wasn’t the only time the businesswoman and author of the book “Leading Below the Surface” heard something like that.

“It’s a very standard thing for someone who is Black. I also had someone, when they found out I identify as LGBTQ, say to me, ‘Wow, you check a lot of boxes.’ It was discrediting everything I’d done. It was just an uncomfortable discussion and I didn’t give into it.”


Liz Vaughn

A portrait of Liz Vaughn

Vaughn, a retired entertainment lawyer, suggests the work of affirmative action should begin well before young men and women reach college age. She urges more support for underserved primary and secondary schools.

“Effort needs to be made at a level where we are putting money into communities where people are being prepared for college admission. Many Black and brown communities do not have the resources to compete with their socioeconomically advantaged peers. We need to get to a place where everyone has equal opportunity in terms of where they live and what they have access to.”