Friday, February 10, 2006

This is not me!

"White (not of Hispanic origin) - A person having origins in any of the original people of Europe, Northern Africa, or the Middle East."

Do any of these categories meaningfully describe you? Does society benefit, in the long run (beginning today, not yesterday, not 1964) from the continuation of these classifications?

I do not check that box when I submit my EEO forms. It tells no one anything meaningful about me, certainly less than the picture would. In fact, I'm considering simply printing a copy of that picture of my arm, to attach to these forms. Of course, that would be a useless protest. The information is voluntary. Besides, the requirement for gathering information on these ethnic categories is defined not by the universities to which I apply for employment, but by the government.

It's not just America though. The categories are different, but essentially as meaningless in the UK, where I've also applied for work. I suppose I'd be expected there to tick the box beside "Any other White background."

Now, don't get me wrong. Please, don't get me wrong. I do not pretend to believe there is no discrimination of peoples by ethnicity, by gender, by appearance, by spoken accent. No, clearly these things, sadly, do continue. One of my proudest moments, still to this day, was hearing from an opposing candidate in the student government elections, "you are the first white man I have ever met who is not a racist." This was at CCNY in Harlem, New York in 1984. I was 16, and running for Vice President for Campus Affairs. I came in second. I will never forget our talk, because even today it brings tears to my eyes to think that his words may have been true.

But I am offended, even worried that the means we choose to redress these faults in society have the opposite effect.

Look at my picture. Read the category to which I am supposed to apply. There is so much that these don't tell you about me.

I'd like to believe that the color of my skin, or my ethnic heritage, have no impact on whether or not I am offered a job. I hope that I will be judged merely on the basis of my research and my teaching, and other relevant qualifications. I am pleased to report that when I sat on the hiring committee as a grad student rep for a major administrative post at my university, there was not even the slightest hint that anything except the qualifications and abilities of the candidates should be considered. And I am confident that the committee lived true to that expectation.

I recall a couple years ago, hosting a colleague (who happened to have just been hired as a junior faculty member at my home institution). I was overseas on a Fulbright grant, and he was visiting the city of my research for about a week. I gladly invited his visit. Superficially, we look very much alike.

We are both short, slightly built men, Eastern European Jewish extraction. We're both in the same field, both our dissertations centered on the same person. We discussed among other things affirmative action policies. He spoke of his undergraduate days at Harvard, recounting how his cohorts were mostly spoiled, unmotivated, undeserving rich kids. He passionately spoke of the need for righting the injustice to people of color. But there was something in his tone, in the way he spoke, that struck me like the voice of a well-intentioned lord doling out favors to his serfs.

His world is not mine. I did not attend Harvard. I never would have considered applying. I wasn't raised by well-off academics in Boston as he was. I grew up in Baltimore and New York. My paternal grandfather was a paperhanger. My paternal grandmother was crippled from childhood polio, and never worked outside the house. My maternal grandfather was a salesman, and a gambler. My maternal grandmother worked occasionally in clerical jobs, and refused to allow my mother to learn how to type (which to this day she hasn't).

My mother recalls a neighborhood pool where she grew up, openly displaying a sign:

No Jews or Negroes Allowed!

Unlike my friend, I have not lived a priveleged life. I have suffered less than others, sure, but never priveleged. Mine was a family that arrived in America from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. Good thing, too, or they may not have survived the Holocaust, and I might never have been born.

All my grandparents were born here. My parents met at the University of Maryland. My father graduated with a BA in English & Zoology. He was a writer. But he never got published. My mother was an artist cum teacher, who wound up years later getting a Master's degree, and serving as a school principal.

They were divorced by the time I was four. We were poor, but never hungry. I never went homeless, or shoeless, or went a day without a meal. I always considered us "lower middle class" as I had learned. I'm not the first in my family to attend college. But I am the only one of my siblings to have graduated.

I don't know where to go with this narrative. There is so much more about me, about my personal and family history. None of it is revealed by ticking "White (non-Hispanic)". None of it. I do not self-identify as that category of being.

I wonder if it were not more useful, rather than presenting a limited number of pre-formed (and thus pre-judged) categories, to ask an open ended question on EEO forms and college admissions applications: What five things about you most contribute to your self-identity? Surely for some, that may include their gender, or skin color, for others their first language, or hometown, their height, or weight, their first love, or favorite recipe, the book that changed their lives, or a loss they endured as a child, or... Wouldn't that be more revealing? I'll work on it myself, and get back to you.

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