Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I appreciate affirmative action

I am a beneficiary of affirmative action. But perhaps not for the reasons people will immediately jump to. Sure I have personally gained from affirmative action programs as a woman of color, but what I mean is that as a citizen of this nation, as a resident of the United States, I have benefited from a government policy--from a re-orientation of values and priorities--that recognizes the unfair institutional discrimination (what we can loosely label racism and sexism) that had disenfranchised people in American society based on their sex and their race--in the early 1970s when the policy was instituted, it means men of color and women of all races.

For a fairly lucid description of affirmative action, as well as the controversies surrounding it, click on this link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. And for a more in-depth collection of essays and articles about affirmative action, click on this link to "The Affirmative Action and Diversity Project" from UCSB.

There is a lot of confusion about what affirmative action is and who it benefits. And the truth is, it's not perfect--there have been problems in its execution and interpretation. People generally think of affirmative action as a program for "minorities" Yet one of the main beneficiaries of affirmative action policies have been white women. Others point out that Asian Americans have profited over affirmative action programs that were really designed to help enfranchise African American, Latino, and American Indian groups--ones who had faced more systematic racism than Asians in America. Although I would parry by showing that Asian Americans also face racial discrimination, although perhaps it does not look the same as the types of discrimination faced by others, and that their "success" should be qualified since I don't see many Asian Americans in positions of power--in other words, I'm stil banging my head on that glass ceiling. Still others (and this is, I think, what people think about when they think about detractors of affirmative action) believe that it is a system that unfairly promotes unqualified "minorities" over more qualified "whites." And one of the more contested areas is around college admissions.

The above cartoon really sums up Chapter 7 of critical race scholar Robert Chang--I've already promoted his work, and that of Scott Page in the post "Reverse Racism!" so I won't repeat myself here.

I'll just end with an observation: if, as many people believe, that affirmative action isn't needed because we are on an equal playing field--that women and people of color are not facing institutional discrimination or social disenfranchisement, why are we still having a national conversation about whether a white woman or a black man can be "presidential" material? Or perhaps even more prosaic, looking around at the heads of colleges and universities, looking at Congressional representatives and senators, looking at the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and heads of Hollywood movie studios--do we really think that men of color and women of all races are being equitably represented in positions of power?

I said I would stay positive, and since this is the eve of the Chinese New Year, what I will end with is saying that I do, truly, appreciate affirmative action. My life is better because I have been able to live in a society that values diversity, and I am privileged to work in environments that value diversity and that work to end social disparities in gender and race (and class and sexual orientation for that matter). I appreciate affirmative action not because of what I have personally gained from it but because it has made my life richer by allowing me to hope for a more equitable world.


CVT said...

It's very interesting to me that - on this site, specifically - the only comments to any of your "appreciative" posts in your count-down to Chinese New Year was the one about golf.

Anyway, on the Eve of Chinese New Year, I find myself lacking in appreciation, which caused me to write a less-than-funny post on my "Entertainment-Only" blog. With my mother currently out of the country, I find you to be the only Chinese person immediately available to me to share with - and that's sad. I have other "Asian" friends, but I am suddenly aware of the fact that NONE of them are Chinese . . .

Anyway, I invite you to read my post. Please respond through the comments section on this site (no real reason, but I'd prefer it that way).

Jennifer said...

Thanks for sharing your blog post with me--by the way, if you want me to delete your comment and/or your blog address, I'm happy to do so--you can email me privately (found on my "about" page).

Your post really resonated with me--I remember, vividly, spending my first New Year away from home my freshman year of college. I was at UCSB, the whitest of the UC's at the time (or so we believed, or so the stats seemed to uphold) and, like you, didn't have any Chinese American friends to celebrate the new year with. My parents had sent me extra money for dinner so I wouldn't have to eat in the dining hall that night, but I didn't have a car, so I biked to the lone Chinese restaurant in Isla Vista (perhaps, if anyone is reading this from UCSB you have more choices, but in the late 80s, there was only one).

Anyway, I went there and found out that the restaurant was closed. You might think that was further upsetting, but in an odd way I found it comforting--because it meant that there WAS a Chinese family somewhere that understood the importance and significance of the day--that treated it as a holiday. And so I biked back to my dorm room after bringing home a burrito (Freebirds, the original Freebirds, had some of the best burritos in any college town) and I celebrated Chinese New Year alone in my dorm room that year eating faux Mexican food.

I am not a mixed-race Asian American--both my parents' ancestries can be traced to China. But because my mother was born and raised in Jamaica, I have felt a similar disconnect with Chinese culture--exacerbated by the fact that I don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese and most (almost all?) of my cousins on my mother's side are mixed in some way--with Jamaican culture being the stronger of the two in my home.

So GUNG HAY FAT CHOY CVT! It's the year of the rat--the beginning of a brand new lunar cycle. I hope it's a good year for both of us and for anyone who is reading this comment.

Jennifer said...

OK, I re-read my comment CVT and it seems very "ME ME ME" as in, I read your very moving post and then I said, "Oh yea, that reminds me..." and delved into my own rambling story.

Can I tell you that I am in the midst of a bout with stomach flu and am running a fever and thus may not be completely all there?

OK, let me start over (wow, it'll be interesting to read this when I'm over the flu...maybe I shouldn't blog while I'm sick...):

Thank you for sharing your post. I really do empathize with your experience, right now, even if I cannot profess to know what it's like to be, exactly, you. But your descriptions of feeling disconnected from Chinese culture...of wanting to honor your Chinese grandparents and to feel connected to an important tradition in your family's heritage...but being unable to either have others to share with in this particular holiday and not knowing precise rituals...these are very poignant observations that I think many of us have also experienced.

I am glad you were able to find a Chinese restaurant where you could order food and I hope that the new year also brings new friends--particularly ones who grew up celebrating Chinese New Year.

I also think, for what it's worth--that you can reclaim a holiday even if you didn't, necessarily, understand the significance of it while you were younger or celebrate all of its rituals as a child. I was bemoaning to a friend on the phone this afternoon that since I was sick I wasn't able to do the key ritual of housecleaning before the new year. And she (a Chinese American like me) was a bit surprised at how much I was adhering to tradition and asked about how important it was for me to do these rituals--if this was something I grew up with.

And I said that, the funny thing was, Chinese New Year has really gained in significance in my life since I've moved to places with increasingly fewer Chinese/Asian people. So that in the last few years in the South, I've really tried to perform these rituals, perhaps as a way to stay connected to my family and to a sense of heritage, especially since my own grandparents (all but one) have passed away, and because I continually ruminate on issues of race and ethnicity and culture--and for me, being Chinese American has very much to do with celebrating Chinese new year, performing these rituals like paying debts, having flowers in the home, sweet things, and cleaning, and eating the food.

So again, Happy New Year CVT!

Genepool said...

I don't know that anyone thinks the playing field is really level. I certainly don't. It never has been nor will it ever be. Bias, prejudice and privilege will always play roles in how we are approached and how we are dealt with. Thats across the board. I have been discriminated against, I know how angry it made me. Its bullshit.

I am divided on how I deal with the idea of affirmative action. As a means of checks and balances to ensure fairness where bias might dictate rejection, I am all for that. No one should be excluded based on race or gender.

Affirmative action as a means to fill "slots" in places where diversity is lacking, I disagree with because that is simply discriminating against one group to appease another.

I have noticed after spending several hours reading websites on affirmative action that the arguments for and against it are almost word for word the same just about everywhere. Which makes me wonder about how people form their opinions not only on sensitive topics like these, but on most everything. If the solutions are so obvious to those on either side of the issue, why has there been no progress toward initiating them?

Jennifer said...

The last question you posed is the key question--why haven't we made more progress on leveling the playing field? If we all (or most) agree that this is a greater social good that we want to work towards, why haven't we made more progress?

My stab at this answer? We don't agree how level the playing field should be. For some, equity looks like majority. What I mean is this. One semester I taught a class in which I had exactly 3 novels written by women and 3 novels written by men with 6 short stories written by women and 6 short stories written by men. And the comments I received in the course evals were that I taught a female dominated class--that the tenor of the class was distinctly feminist and that I taught from too much of a "female point-of-view" (by the way, that's my all-time favorite comment--because as a woman, I'm not exactly sure how I should be teaching from a "male" point-of-view).

Essentially, when my students encountered actual parity on the syllabus and in the classroom, they experienced it as "too female."

And studies have shown that this is true--when people see a photograph and ask them to measure the percentage of women vs men, and there are equal #s of both, most people rank the women at a higher percentage. Same goes for a photo with white and black people--a photo with equal #s have most people ranking it as a majority black photo.

This is a small example, but I think that, for some, having Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a Supreme Court Justice means that we have gender equity in law, when I hardly think 1 out of 9 people means gender equity.

Of course, these are my small musings, so if anyone else wants to chime in, I'm all ears (or eyes, if you will).

Cipher said...

hey mixedraceamerica blogger:

affirmative action just needs to go one more step, which is to integrate the class dynamic more firmly into its selection process...

however, i think affirmative action is obviously clearly necessary... i mean, legacy admits are NOT a thing of the past and the idea that meritocracy exists in an admissions process is so utterly untrue it's ridiculous...

Jennifer said...

I really hear you on the meritocracy thing Cipher--esp. as far as admissions goes. That's why I included the cartoon and why I highly recommend Chang's book.

And you are also right--class should also play a part in affirmative action--and I think that college admissions do try to do this. But we do have to go further. Oh, so much to little time!

Evan Carden said...

The reason I, as a white, middle class guy, support affirmitive actions has nothing to do with history and everything to do with wanting the best students at school. Sports analogy: You have two roughly equal players you could choose for your team, one recieved every available training and technical advantage, one didn't. Which one do you choose?

That's obviously a gross generalization about affirmitive action, but I think it holds true. You have to do basically as well as the white kid for affirmitive action to matter and the white kid didn't have to deal with the institutionalized racism.

As for the kids whining about losing out due to affirmitive actions. How can they possibly know that? I was rejected from a couple of schools and all they said was: 'Nope, not interested.'

Is there some sort of special form letter they send to some kids: 'We would have let you in, but we let in this black guy instead. Feel free to use this as an excuse to be a racist prick from now on'?

Jennifer said...

You are right--I think people too often jump to certain conclusions about acceptance/rejection of college admissions and about what is "due" to themselves.

It's a sense of entitlement--I admit to having this -- many of us do to large and small degrees. The idea that we are naturally owed or deserving of certain things.

Anyway, thanks again for leaving a comment!