Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Cliff at the End of the Self-Identification Road

Over 8 years ago I wrote about a student who was seeking a leg-up in college admissions:
I have a student who has a very Hispanic last name. If he added an accent mark to his first name (his middle name is already acceptable), he'd be about as Hispanic as one could get.

He's also about as white as one could be. And I don't just mean in skin color.
It's a short post, go take a read.

I send you there because that post came to mind when I read this one today:
So now that NAACP’s Rachel Dolezal has been “outed” as “white,” it makes me wonder: What is “white” anyway? Okay, admittedly, Dolezal doesn’t appear to have any African ancestry in her blood, as her parents say she is of German, Czech, and Swedish ancestry, with a smidgen of Native American in there somewhere...

The question arises more recently with our current President, Barack Obama, whose mother is white and father is black/Kenyan. Despite this 50/50 white/black ancestry, President Obama self-identifies as “black.”  But why? If one is of “mixed” race, may one simply choose whichever race one wishes?

What makes someone “black,” for example? Was Plessy really “black”? The railroad conductor thought he was. Is one’s race merely a subjective matter of self-identification?

Self-identification does appear, at least to the political left, to be the sine qua non of gender.

Progressives/liberals have aggressively defended the “right” of Bruce Jenner to call himself a “woman,” if/when he so desires, despite the fact that he has not yet had his male genitalia removed, and will always have male XY chromosomes.

If gender is merely a matter of self-identification, should not race be also? I have always thought that, given the affirmative action-laden higher education admissions process, applicants should self-identify as “black” or “Native American” whenever they so desire.  I mean, why not? If they feel black or Native American, should not they be able to claim such an identity, as Rachel Dolezal has done? Doing so would quickly cause affirmative action to collapse of its own ridiculous weight...

What would a university do if an applicant self-identified as “black” on an application but showed up looking “white”? And if the university made such a judgment, what on earth would that mean? How would the university defend its belief that a student didn’t “look” black?  What sort of bizarre racial stereotypes would it rely upon in making such an appearance-based judgment? And if the university actually decided to take action against the student for racial misrepresentation, what on earth would that mean? How would the university judge whether the student was really “black”?  What percentage of blood would suffice for such a progressive institution? Fifty percent? Ten percent? One percent?


Anonymous said...

Some years ago, I remember reading about a woman admitted to an elite university, as an African-American. On her arrival, there was some consternation about her very Caucasian appearance and she was challenged (forget by whom). She was born in South Africa, of Dutch and/or English parents, IIRC. I also know a student admitted to an Ivy whom I assume had checked that same box, as his parents were Tunisian or Moroccan, and he had not taken the kind of HS AP courses usually demanded by such schools, and which were the norm for top students at his high-performing HS.

maxutils said...

See: the movie "Soul Man." Actually, don't … it's terrible. but it does fit your premise. I think black people get a bit of a pass on this because in the days of slavery, and later Jim Crow, even a small percentage of black ancestry made you black, to your disadvantage. So, fair's fair: if you still have that in your background, and can use it tio our advantage? Go for it. I like to self identify as Native American … because, having been born in America, by definition I must be. The larger point is why do we still care?

BT said...

I know a child so white he will get a sun burn on a cloudy day. Red hair, freckles, the lot. His mother is African-American. Not a deep ebony but very obviously "black". His dad is Irish and he follows suite. He is being raised in what I'd call "white culture" and I hope to heck he selects African American on everything he fills out. I would pay to see the admissions officer who sees his application, then sees him, then sees his mother... and the officer's head just explodes from cognitive dissonance.

At some point, the concept of race just breaks down and the idea of basing any decisions on it, even in the name of diversity is ludicrous. There are arguments to be made for making decisions based on socio-economic level, culture, belief and if you are really stretching for some sort of criteria, you might even consider merit. Whenever there is a system, and particularly a high stakes system, people are going to game that system. And this particular system is ripe for gaming with self-identification.

In my mind, it all comes down to the misnomer that is "Affirmative Action", which is neither affirmative nor taking action. Rather, AA is passively promoting people without giving them the skills or support to succeed. A real Affirmative Action system would start at least in elementary school if not at birth. The problem isn't that minority students are being discriminated against by admissions officers; the problem is that students, who are disproportionately minority, go through a broken primary education system. But that takes a lot more money, will power, and the ability to discuss uncomfortable truths than just saying "you're of this race so you get an extra 200 SAT points"

maxutils said...

Actually, I take back part of what I said … seeing C. Thomas Howell in actual black face … relatively recently? it's worth ten minutes or so. Then, try the original, "The Hitcher" so ou can wash the taste out of your mouth ...