One person’s affirmative action experience

I keep mulling this piece over and wondering whether to post on it. It’s written by a woman with a black conservative father who is opposed to affirmative action. So is the woman, who looks white. But she eventually decided to let her agent (she was trying to get jobs as a television writer) offer her as a “diversity” candidate. So she got interviews for “diversity” posts, at which she was quizzed about her exact racial makeup while her interlocutors tried to decide if she was black enough.

I am in fact in favour of affirmative action. But I do find myself wondering if situations like this (which I find deeply problematic) are unavoidable. If you’re going to have special consideration for people who fit some category, you’re going to have to have strict rules about who fits that category, and that gets us into very serious difficulties indeed– as anyone who has delved at all into the literature on e.g. race and gender is well aware. (Or anyone who reflects even a little!)

And then I think: Surely there’s a literature on just this issue! So, is there?

8 thoughts on “One person’s affirmative action experience

  1. You identify an argument, which is currently key to the case being made by the opponents of ações afirmativas in Brazil. I recommend that you take a look at Peter Fry’s recent article on the topic. Here is a quotation from his article:

    ‘In June 2004, under rules introduced that year, candidates for the University of Brasilia’s entrance examination formed two queues: one for those competing for the 20 % of places reserved for negros and one for the rest . Those claiming to be negro had their photographs taken: on the basis of these pictures a commission dubbed a « racial tribunal» in a recent article (Maio and Santos 2005), composed of a student, a sociologist, an anthropologist and three representatives of Brazil’s Black Movement, decided whether they were really black or not. The commission rejected 212 out of 4,385. 34 of these complained, and were interviewed by a second commission, composed of university teachers and members of non-governmental organizations, which asked among other things whether they had strong links to « black values and culture ». One young man said afterwards that they asked him whether he had belonged to the Black movement and if he had ever had a mulata girl friend. In the end only 13 of the 34 were denied a black identity’ (Fry 2009: 262).

    Fry, Peter. 2009. The politics of « racial » classification in Brazil. Journal de la Societe des Americanistes, 2009, 95-2, pp. 261 -282.

    I shall send you a PDF by email, if you ask.

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  3. In Australia the issue is dealt with – at least at the official level – by simply allowing people to self-identify, which avoids the horrible scenario in Brazil. (I’m referring here to benefits reserved for Aboriginal Australians). I gather there is scope for the welfare agency to object, but I’ve never been able to find any stats on how often that happens, or on how often the system is taken advantage of by non-Aboriginal Australians.

    Given our shameful history, though, demanding pretty much anything in the way of proof, i.e. of lineage or language, would be a double act of oppression: to destroy an individual’s connection to their family/culture, then deny them benefits on the grounds that they can’t prove their connection to their family/culture!

    I’ve got a recent paper touching on these issues that you might be interested in. It doesn’t focus on affirmative action per se, but rather the broader issue of identifying who should benefit from group-differentiated rights. (Suzy Killmister, ‘Group-Differentiated Rights and the Problem of Membership’, Social Theory and Practice, 37/2 2011, pp.227-255)

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