Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sifting Through The Paradox of Race-Based Selection

I work in a program that has race-based criteria. Race isn't the only criteria. We work to give underrepresented students opportunities to help them succeed in college and graduate school. Other ways to be underrepresented, for the purposes of the program, include being from a lower socioeconomic group and being the first person in a family to go to college. And I believe in what I do.

That doesn't mean that I don't see complications with having race-based preference.

To begin with, I don't belive race exists--not in any biological sense. I believe wholeheartedly that race is a social construction, and it can (and has, and does) shift constantly. I believe that social construction is manifested in communication signals sent and received, and there are signals we can control sending (hairstyle, clothing choice, etc.) and ones we can't (skin color, family background, etc.) As a society, we want to believe that race is a matter of "blood" because that makes it more real, and we have spent a lot of time making decisions and connections based on race. It can be scary to think that something that has affected basically every domain of American life is a social construction. It's a little like learning the boogeyman won't really get you if you step off the bed in the middle of the night. You suddenly have to deal with the fact that your own mind imprisoned you in that bed every sunset, and that takes a lot of personal responsibility. When that personal responsibility has to be accepted collectively, well . . . Let me just say that I think our "post-racial" society still has a long way to go.

Loni Steele Sosthand writes in "My Affirmative Action Fail" about some of the tensions inherent in race-based selections, particularly in a time when multicultural heritage is fast becoming the norm.

As a struggling sitcom writer, Sosthand's agent suggested that she use her biracial identity (African American and Jewish) to pitch herself into "diversity writer" positions, positions set aside by many networks and paid for separately to ensure a diverse crew. The problem (or one of the problems) is that Sosthand has a hard time communicating that identity to people who don't know her because she doesn't look black. It led to some pretty disturbing conversations during the job interviews:
When I told another that my paternal grandparents were interracially married in the 1940s, having met as founding members of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), she said, "So really, you are only a quarter black. You have more white blood than black blood."

Talk of black blood and skin color in a job interview for a sitcom?
Her agent had some suggestions:
Wear jeans, he said, an ironic T-shirt, and buy some stylish frames. No matter that I don't need glasses. "You have to make them see you as the stereotype of a comedy writer," he said. We both laughed.
The stereotype of a comedy writer? Perhaps, but I think the stereotype he's hoping she portrays is also something else. See, the "diversity writer" position isn't really about diversity at all. Sosthand realizes this when she decides to highlight her diversity in a different way:
So I altered my shtick. I talked about family members as a source of inspiration for diverse characters. I gave examples of how my mixed heritage gives me a strong sense of irony, particularly when it comes to race. I mentioned that the family I grew up in not only had racial, but religious and political diversity as well. Furthermore, the man I married, in a reformed Jewish ceremony, is black, from Texas, and comes from a line of Christian, gun-toting, self-described Cajun cowboys. If the word "diversity" holds any meaning, I presented my writing and myself as its embodiment.
She goes on to explain that it didn't work:
Race is not a skill. Race is not an insight. Likely this is why I couldn't successfully pitch it as such.

I agree with those insights, but if race is not those things, what is it? And, perhaps more importantly, what are we trying to make it be when we set aside positions with the aim of promoting "diversity." Too often, I think that "diversity" gets boiled down to mean "stereotype" and under the guise of promoting diversity we do little but maintain the status quo, one often steeped in a racist history.

I couldn't help but think of Spike Lee's Bamboozled when I read this article.

This video shows the pitch for a show where a writer hired for his "black perspective" gets so frustrated by the demands that he write only stereotypical  characters that he takes it to the extreme, pitching a minstrel show in the hopes of making a point and the expectations of getting fired. But he doesn't. The network loves the show, and so does America. If you haven't seen it, I highly suggest watching it.

At the beginning of this post, I told you that I believe in what I do. That wasn't just a position of convenience. I truly do believe in my program and others like it, programs that aim to help close the racial gaps in educational success. The difference, as I see it, is that I'm never asking a student to be a stereotype in order to get in. I'm never requiring or expecting a certain performance as "proof" of membership to any racial group. I depend on a student's own self-identification and I know that I do not have the ability or the right to question how that identity is maintained. It also means that, while I recognize race as a social construct, I also recognize that social constructs have an impact.

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