I was recently told that because of who I am and where I grew up, I had no right to defend anti-racism arguments. Given that it is the last day of Black History Month (11 pm Feb 28, even though the post says March 1), I felt it appropriate to discuss my experience with race in my lifetime.

I grew up in the whitest of white suburbs, Mendham, NJ. Of the approximately 5,000 people, 97% are white. There was one black girl in my Catholic grammar school, and she didn’t even live in my town. My Catholic high school had a little more diversity, but again, they did not live near me. My college, Wheaton College in MA, was 78% white, which was less than I was used to but still not very impressive in the context of the actual demographics of the US. I have also lived in Newport, RI (84% white), Boston (56% white), and have now been living in Jersey City for the last year, which is 34% white (compared to our neighbor across the Hudson, New York City, which is 45% white).

Despite my current immersion in racial diversity, my college education which was very often focused on analysis of racial issues, and my personal interest and research in the topic, my coworkers thought that wasn’t enough.

Now, this wasn’t the type of conversation where they were trying to one-up me on who’s a better anti-racist activist (although I admittedly am no expert on the topic, nor do I think it’s necessarily something one needs to brag about).  In fact, quite the contrary: our conversation had touched upon topics of political correctness and affirmative action, both of which I was the sole defender. Apparently my lack of long term personal experience with racial diversity made me not only unqualified to defend racial justice, but unable to have an informed opinion on it. However, since my coworkers did grow up in more diverse communities, they were apparently more qualified to hold their views against racial equality and inclusion. Yup, actually defending their racism.

Usually in discussions on race with various people, it always comes down to, “I have nothing against people of color, I just don’t think they should get jobs/college admission spots/any other benefits that they’re not qualified for or don’t deserve.” Granted, the college admission that they received due to a legacy that started when a relative attended in a time when blacks weren’t allowed, that was deserved. Or the job interview they got because of connections their family has starting back when the company didn’t hire blacks, that was deserved. Or the spot they received because of a generous family contribution, which was possible due to the wealth accumulated through years of blatant racist oppression and undeserved white privilege, that was deserved.

Sure, picking the “best qualified” person sounds like a good idea (although what those qualifications are can be debated). But if so, why is it then that job applicants with white sounding names are 50% more likely to get called for an interview than those applicants with black sounding names, according to a 2004 University of Chicago and  MIT study? According to other studies by  Devah Pager from Northwestern University and Princeton, even white job applicants who have been incarcerated are more likely to be called back than blacks with no criminal background. This is really a fair scale of qualification?

I’m not going to go into the details of why affirmative action is not only necessary in theory but also ineffective in practice despite so-called claims of the mythic “reverse-discrimination.” Not only am I under-qualified to discuss it, but one of my favorite anti-racist authors and activists, Tim Wise, can say it much more eloquently than I can. Thus, I will refer you to this article for more information.

However, I think one important piece of the argument stems from our nation’s history of racial oppression and current state of inequality. If all organizations were at one point run solely by white men, making decisions only for other white men to benefit white men and their families, then how can one think that a group run by mostly white men today can still make the best decisions for an integrated and diverse world? E.g. How can a white man accurately write a policy on workplace harassment when he has never been cat called, judged solely for his looks, touched inappropriately or called a derogatory name? In order to best represent a company or organization or even a state that consists of a diverse array of people, those in charge need to accurately represent those they are representing.

For example, no matter how much education and experience I could ever attain, I would never think myself the most qualified to run an anti-racist organization because I have never experienced racism, or any adversity or oppression due to my race. I would not expect men to make decisions regarding my reproductive health since they do not have breasts, a vagina or a uterus, nor have they ever experienced the world through the eyes of a woman. And yet, men do this every day. I would never expect the top 2% wealthiest Americans to make decisions on tax cuts and benefits for low-income families if they have never lived their lives through their eyes either. And yet, that top 2% does this every day.

Sure degrees and good resumes matter and in theory contribute to your qualifications. But identity matters, too.