This Tweet Sparked a Complex Debate Around Privilege and Malia Obama's Harvard Acceptance

May 1st 2016

Aron Macarow

President Barack Obama's daughter Malia Obama announced Sunday that she would attend the prestigious Harvard University in 2017, following a gap year.

Malia Obama with President

While most responses were positive, one critical tweet by Colorado resident Mark Milliman alleging that Obama didn't necessarily earn her way into the Ivy League school has sparked a debate about race and class in America.

Tweeting that the First Family's oldest daughter got in on her "privilege" rather than "brains and hard work," Milliman's comment quickly spread as it was attacked on Twitter.

What was the problem?

Although Milliman never used the phrase "Black privilege" himself, responses poured in calling him out for doing so. Twitter users took Milliman and others to task for raising the question of family privilege in Obama's case — questioning if he and others would have done so if Malia was not the Black daughter of a U.S. President.

Pointing out the subtle racism and white privilege that can underpin such statements, some simply responded to the absurdity of the idea of privilege for any Black person in a country with systemic racial injustice. (Black women, for instance, earned on average just 63 percent of what white men made in 2014, and Black Americans with a college degree are twice as likely to be unemployed as other graduates.)

Others got into even more complex conversations about privilege, acknowledging class and other advantages that may come into play to gain admittance to an Ivy League university like Harvard, while also knocking racial injustice:

We spoke with Mark Milliman.

Milliman told ATTN: his tweet was misinterpreted.

"The truth is it would have been better to have an equivalent example for a 'white' person and gauge the response of both of them, but I didn’t have that example," Milliman told ATTN:. "Millennials are supposed to be color-blind but they are even more attuned to race than Gen-X. There are too many people out there continuing the divisiveness which is what the responses point out."

"I was not citing 'Black privilege' but 'elite privilege,'" clarifies Milliman. "The people that were assuming 'Black privilege' need to look at themselves and think about their views of race. Are all white people racists?"

Harvard University

While some would see Milliman's response as pointing out the shifting nature of privilege in our society — away from race and gender and toward class — others may point out that it also exhibits many of the features of colorblindness that some see as new form of racism.

Basically, not everyone agrees that colorblindness is a good thing, especially if it means overlooking the disadvantages faced by racial minorities.

Regardless, Milliiman told ATTN: that he wants to shift the conversation toward the privilege that comes from wealth. 

"Having a Black president gives us a chance to look at how we think of privilege and how wealth and the balance of power has shifted in this country," Milliman told ATTN:.

He continued: "there is not doubt that she had to have the grades and seems to have worked hard, but would a similar inner city kid received the same treatment?"

There's likely at least one thing that Milliman and many his online detractors can agree on; class privilege is an issue. However, whether it's the only issue, or just one of the many ways some groups are able to hold power over others, is at the heart of the debate.