St. Patrick’s Day: A History of Racism, A Celebration of Whiteness

Today in New York City and throughout the U.S., Irish-Americans will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage.  What few will acknowledge in this day of celebration is the way in which the Irish in American deployed whiteness in order to deflect the racism they encountered in the U.S.

Kerry Band from the Bronx

(Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: ktylerconk)

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century. The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina). Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater. Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish. However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically. The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs. Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon). For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes. And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic). In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods. Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs. So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks. While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture. In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe, Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America. Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article, in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.'” While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

From the archive (originally posted 03-17-2009)

Tiger Couple Gets It Wrong On Immigrant Success

[Shortened version of a review in The Boston Review (March 11, 2014)

Review of The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

The tiger couple is chasing its own tail, which is to say, they are stuck in circular reasoning. In their new book, The Triple Package, Amy Chua, author of the best-selling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and Jed Rubenfeld tackle the question of why certain groups are overrepresented in the pantheon of success. They postulate the reason for their success is that these groups are endowed with “the triple package”: a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity, and impulse control. The skeptic asks, “How do we know that?” To which they respond: “They’re successful, aren’t they?”

But Chua and Rubenfeld proffer no facts to show that their exemplars of ethnic success—Jewish Nobel Prize winners, Mormon business magnates, Cuban exiles, Indian and Chinese super-achievers—actually possess this triple package. Or that possessing these traits is what explains their disproportionate success. For that matter, they do not demonstrate that possessing the triple package is connected, through the mystical cord of history, to Jewish sages, Confucian precepts, or Mormon dogma. Perhaps, as critics of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism have contended, success came first and only later was wrapped in the cloth of religion. In other words, like elites throughout history, Chua and Rubenfeld’s exemplars enshroud their success in whatever system of cultural tropes was available, whether in the Talmud, Confucianism, Mormonism, or the idolatry of White Supremacy. The common thread that runs through these myths of success is that they provide indispensable legitimacy for social class hierarchy. . . .

Chua and Rubenfeld give us old wine in new bottles: they invoke the idea used the world over to justify entrenched systems of social stratification—that success comes to the culturally deserving. This was precisely the argument put forward by Thomas Sowell in his 1981 book Ethnic America. For Sowell, “Jews are the classic American success story—from rags to riches against all opposition.” For Chua and Rubenfeld,

the two million Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America in the early 1990s brought with them habits of heightened discipline, religious prohibition, and hard work that they not only practiced themselves but passed down to their children.

Furthermore, both books contrast Jewish success in overcoming persecution and poverty with a deeply ingrained “defeatism” among blacks who bear the scars of centuries of slavery and denigration. As Sowell writes:

Groups today plagued by absenteeism, tardiness, and a need for constant supervision at work or in school are typically descendants of people with the same habits a century or more ago. The cultural inheritance can be more important than biological inheritance, although the latter stirs more controversy.

There you have it: the problem is to be found, not in the genes, but rather in the cultural DNA, which is even “more important than biological inheritance.” Since 1981, however, anthropologists and sociologists have developed a large canon of work that dissects and discredits theories that reduce inequality to culture. This scholarship was reflected during their book tour when Chua and Rubenfeld were challenged with questions about the racist implications of their theory. Is their point that African Americans are culturally deficient? Are they using “culture” to blame the victim, and to deflect attention away from persistent racist barriers that limit opportunity? For that matter, what about the 99 percent of people in “successful groups” who do not reach the top 1 percent? Are they less Jewish, Asian, Cuban, Mormon than Jews, Asians, Cubans, and Mormons who have “made it”? Do they suffer from a paucity of the traits that make up the triple package? Chua and Rubenfeld invoke an idea that justifies entrenched systems of social stratification: that success comes to the culturally deserving.

If not culture, what does explain Jewish “success against all opposition?” As I argue in The Ethnic Myth (1981), Jewish success is chiefly the result of factors that go back to the condition of Jews in their countries of origin. The shtetls romanticized in Fiddler on the Roof were small towns, proximate to cities, where Jews carved out niches between rural and urban economies. Many were traders who purchased agricultural products, animal hides, and raw materials from peasants and sold them to factories in cities, eking out a small profit. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were large concentrations of Jews in cities, and they played a key role in the critical early phases of industrialization. A 1945 survey of “Jews in the Russian Economy,” assembled by a group of Russian-Jewish immigrants, reported the following:

By 1832 Jews owned 149 [textile] factories and plants out of the total 528 existing at the time in eight provinces. . . . From the 1870s until the First World War, the Jews played a major part in the development of the sugar industry. . . . Flour milling was quite widespread among Jews within the Pale of Settlement. . . . By the early years of the twentieth century Jews owned or leased 365 mills with an annual business of 20 million rubles. . . . The same can be said of tobacco production, which had long been concentrated in Jewish hands. . . . In the Russian leather industry Jews also played a substantial role. . . . In the woodworking industry, Jews were prominent chiefly in the sawmill business. . . . In the grain and timber trade, Jews . . . may be said to have brought Russia into the world market.

In short, Jews were on the forefront of commerce and industrialization in Eastern Europe, and Jewish immigrants to the United States arrived with previous industrial experience and a higher rate of literacy that gave them a decisive head start over other immigrants, most of whom came from peasant origins.

Jewish immigrants also had skills in a wide array of crafts. A study conducted by the U.S. Immigration Commission in 1911 found that Jews ranked first in thirty-six of forty-seven trades:

They constituted 80 percent of the hat and cap makers, 75 percent of the furriers, 68 percent of the tailors and bookbinders, 60 percent of the watchmakers and milliners, and 55 percent of the cigarmakers and tinsmiths. They totaled 30 to 50 percent of the immigrant classified as tanners, turners, undergarment makers, jewelers, painters, glaziers, dressmakers, photographers, saddlemakers, locksmiths, and metal workers in other than iron and steel. They ranked first among immigrant printers, bakers, carpenters, cigar-packer, blacksmiths, and building trades workmen.

These skills were in demand in the burgeoning economies of the cities where they settled. Many Jewish immigrants used their craft skills to establish small family businesses that allowed them to secure an occupational and economic foothold that served as a springboard of mobility for their children. Typically their sons went into the family business, and at the point that their grandchildren began streaming into college, there was a fortuitous expansion of American higher education, especially during the period after World War II. Jews were the right people in the right place and the right time, and this is why they were able to escape the poverty of the immigrant generation more rapidly than others.
None of this is to say that culture does not matter. The whole point is that culture does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is one factor within a large matrix of social and material factors.

As I write in The Ethnic Myth:

If Jews set high goals, it is because they had a realistic chance of achieving them. If they worked hard, it is because they could see the fruits of their labor. If they were willing to forgo the pleasures of the moment, it is because they could realistically plan for the future, for their children if not for themselves. In short there was much in the everyday experience of Jewish immigrants to activate and sustain their highest aspirations. Without this reinforcement, their values would have been scaled down accordingly, and more successful outsiders would today be speculating about how much further Jews might have gone if only they had aimed higher.

The fatal flaw of The Triple Package is that its authors treat their magic trifecta as disembodied values, putatively rooted in ancient cultures. But they provide no evidence that their exemplars are actually immersed in these cultural systems. Rather, there are more mundane reasons why they might exhibit the magic trifecta, connected with their social class and circumstances. Chua’s parents were not just struggling immigrants—they were educated professionals with the social and material resources that allowed them to sustain their aspirations for their children. Rubenfeld was raised in upper-middle class affluence, which put him on a fast track to success. Their circumstances positioned the tiger parents to raise two achieving daughters, one bound for the Harvard (their parents’ alma mater), the other for Yale (their parents’ workshop). In other words mobility is not an individual achievement so much as it is a family project that occurs incrementally across generations. . . .

The demystification of the Jewish success story has implications for rendering a more truthful account of the success stories at the center of Chua and Rubenfeld’s book. In each case, pre-migration factors and selective migration go a long way to explaining group success:

• Nigerian immigrants at Harvard Business School are no success story whatsoever. They come from Nigeria’s educated and affluent elite. If anything, this is a case of a transfer of human capital from one nation to another. Or, to put it bluntly, a brain drain. The same can be seen in Iranian and Lebanese immigrants.
• A socialist revolution made refugees of Cuba’s political oligarchs and economic elites and sent them in flight to Miami. Recovery was not easy, but neither were they the “huddled masses” of yore. From the Small Business Administration and other government agencies, Cuban refugees received credit and loans whose purpose was to showcase the superiority of American capitalism over Cuban socialism. In contrast the Cubans who arrived in the 1980 “Mariel Boatlift” came from the poorest segments of the Cuban population. Unlike in 1966, there were no articles in Fortune Magazine entitled “Those Amazing Cuban Émigrés.”
• The first wave of Asian immigrants after the 1965 Immigration Act consisted mostly of professionals who sought more lucrative employment in the United States. Later these immigrants were able to send for their poorer relatives under the family reunification provision in immigration law. Like Jews, many Asians found a niche in the enclave economy and used their success as entrepreneurs as a springboard of mobility for their children.
• Chua and Rubenfeld have a field day with the statistic that Asians comprise nearly three quarters of the students at Stuyvesant, New York City’s elite high school. They claim that many of these students come from parents who are restaurant or factory workers, but they have no evidence on the actual class background of students who make the cut for Stuyvesant. Their source is a single local news story about a school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where children, at great expense to their working-class parents, are enrolled for years in a test-prep program called “Horizons.” Nor is there mention of the cottage industry of test-prep programs in Chinatown, which are now cashing in by attracting non-Asians as well.
• The droves of foreign students in the nation’s colleges and universities who overstay their visas are another source of immigrant achievers. These students come mostly from middle-class or affluent families who can afford to enroll their children in American universities. Again, a case of selective migration, not a success story.
• As for the Caribbean students who succeed, whether in college admissions or in business, they rarely come from affluent families, but they still have class advantages that place them a rung higher on the ladder than African Americans, and they encounter less racism as a result. On the other hand, the Jamaican seasonal farm workers who harvest apples in upstate New York are no success story.
• Why Mormons, regarded fifty years ago as a fringe group, have made recent strides in the business world is mysterious, but one thing is certain: Mormon religion did not change. On the contrary, as was true of immigrant Jews, the Mormons who were catapulted to success probably had to break away from the strictures and doctrines of pre-modern religions in order to achieve the success they sought in the material world. Sure, like Mitt Romney and like the protagonist in Abraham Cahan’s 1917 novel, The Rise of David Levinsky—they look back nostalgically on their youthful allegiances, but the discontinuities are far more important than the continuities.

When the tiger couple appeared on Fareed Zakaria’s weekly show on CNN, Zakaria observed that the nations that supposedly embody the magic trifecta have, until recently, been “basket cases.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Rubenfeld averred that in their home countries, they had only two of the three requisite traits—an ingrained sense of superiority and impulse control. Only when they arrived on American shores did they develop the sense of vulnerability that allowed the trifecta to have its magical result. These are the absurd lengths that Rubenfeld must go to in order to save his pet theory from its glaring overstatements and fatal omissions. . . .

In their whirlwind interviews, Chua and Rubenfeld were often asked whether their theory has a racist flipside, and their prompt riposte was that blacks, too, could achieve success if only they cultivated the magic trifecta. It is worth pointing out, though, that most of the groups that Chua and Rubenfeld tout as exemplars of success would not be on American soil but for the 1965 Immigration Act that was passed on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. Not only that, but thanks to the black protest movement, immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America entered a nation with a far more favorable climate of tolerance than existed in times past. Finally, it is safe to assume that some of Chua and Rubenfeld’s exemplars reaped the advantage of affirmative action programs, which were developed in the cauldron of black protest and gutted by the Supreme Court.

There is bitter irony when the paragons in Chua and Rubenfeld’s narrative are used to make invidious comparisons to African Americans who, throughout American history, have been pushed further back from doors of opportunity by successive waves of immigrants. As Toni Morrison wrote years ago, their success comes “on the back of blacks,” whose struggles are similarly eclipsed in this facile and fallacious book.

The Paradox of Free Speech within the Context of White Supremacy

Kanye West was recently arrested for punching a man in his grill for calling his wife (Kim Kardishian) a nigger-lover. While it is up for debate as to the context in which the name-calling incident began, West settled out of court for roughly 250K of his hard earned cash.

Celebrities Kim Kardashian and Kanye West

(Image source) 

Although I fully understand that violence is not the answer, there is power in language. More specifically, there is power in the word “nigger” – used by white people and people of color for very different historical and bloody reasons. Yet, this powerful word gets used and protected in the U.S. by the first amendment to the constitution, which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I will not be arguing to take away or strike down the first amendment. The first freedoms granted to the citizens of The United States are among the most beautiful and poignant expressions of individuality to date; however, there are exceptions to every rule. The government cannot abrogate your freedom of speech, unless you happen to be in a crowded movie theater (Schenck v. United States). Therefore, our freedom of speech has limitations.

Given the historical context of white supremacy from the Spanish Asiento to English culpability in the institution of African slavery in the American colonies, the modern use of the word “nigger” continues to carries with it collective memories of a violent and oppressive era.  It is because of this past that the use of this word by white people is unacceptable. No other word inflames the passion of black Americans more than the word “nigger” as it is a constant reminder of the debased status of blacks in the United States and justice that never fully materialized in our so-called post racial society.

Some white Americans, whether conscious or not, use the word “nigger” to provoke black Americans into confrontation. Marcus Smart, a sophomore basketball player at Oklahoma St. and a top 10 NBA prospect in the 2014 draft, dove into the crowd to save a ball during a game. As he stands and gathers his composure preparing to return to the court, a white man (who has been deemed the biggest Texas Tech basketball fan and was profiled by the team) yells a derogatory something at him.

Marcus Smart Confrontation with Fan

(Image source)

Marcus Smart turns around charges and shoved the fan. It is up for debate as to the specific words used—the fan swears he did not use the word “nigger”; Smart is adamant that “nigger” was used in his direction by the fan. Again, violence is not the answer and this is not a call for vigilante justice. I am, however, concerned with the ability for a person to wave a piece of meat in front of a lion and then claim the lion to be a savage beast when it attacks. For black people, the word “nigger” is the carrot on a stick; it is used in order to generate a reaction that will then have serious and real-world repercussions, not for the name caller, but for the one called names.

Smart was suspended for three games and forced to write a full apology to the fan; the same man that Texas Tech and the media framed as a lifelong and avid fan which may have in the past toed the line of obscene comments, but that has never crossed said line. Bullshit. They praise the one who used the language; they made the victim, yes, the victim of racist actions surrender without any humility; dehumanization.

The ability of some white people to shout a single word to enact such rage among such a large group, and then cry when said rage ensues, should be charged with a crime. I understand that personal judgment is subjective and does not hold weight in court, but the use of this word to tease black people into confrontation should not be legally sanctioned, by omission.

I don’t know the answer I am trying to get at; hell I don’t know the question. I do know that in this age of colorblindness even though overt racism is evermore present today than in the past, the school to prison pipeline at its strongest, and capitalism’s uncanny stranglehold on education has created a false sense of a post-racial America. This pseudo-post-racial-world that is being created in attitudes and minds of younger Americans but which is not actualizing and materializing in real life, has as much supporting theory as trickledown economics.

We are on a slippery slope that descends us back into pre-civil rights times. The ability to use language in this manner, as a carrot on a stick in which I will beat you once you reach for the carrot, is the same structure that was used to dehumanize the large swaths of people that have been systematically oppressed.

(W)e (T)he (P)eople, pertaining to whites only, can freely speak their minds without thought.

(W)e (T)he brown (P)eople must succumb to their freedom of speech embedded in White Supremacy.

~ R. Jamaal Downey is a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You can find him on Twitter at @RJamaalDowney

White Women and Affirmative Action: Prime Beneficiaries and Opponents

When it comes to affirmative action, white women occupy a rather peculiar position. White women are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action policies, and also the most likely to sue over them (at least when it comes to education). Today continues the Trouble with White Women series, with a focus on white women and affirmative action.

As Sally Kohn cogently points out, women weren’t even included in the original legislation that attempt to level the playing field in education and employment that we now refer to as “affirmation action”.   (The same policies are known as “employment equity” in Canada and “positive action” in the UK.) The first affirmative action measure in America was an executive order signed by President Kennedy in 1961 requiring that federal contractors “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” In 1967, President Johnson amended this, and a subsequent measure included sex, recognizing that women also faced many discriminatory barriers and hurdles to equal opportunity. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only included sex in the list of prohibited forms of discrimination because conservative opponents of the legislation hoped that including it would sway moderate members of Congress to withdraw their support for the bill.

My own narrative intersects with affirmative action at key points. I was born in 1961, the year President Kennedy started requiring federal contractors to “take affirmative action.” When I started applying to colleges in Texas in the late 1970s, my father – who claimed Indian heritage – urged me to “check the box” for Native American on my college applications and to pursue student loans based on this (for me) faux-identity. Years later, with PhD in hand, I began the often painful task of getting turned down for a tenure-track job, and being told by a white colleague on the search committee that they “had to give it to the Latina,” who, it was implied, was less qualified than I for the position (more about this in a moment).

So, where’s the evidence that we, as white women, are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action policies? Well, there’s lots of it – but it can be hard to find, as Jennifer Hochschild points out (Affirmative Action as Culture War. In: The Cultural Territories of Race: Black and White Boundaries. edited by Michèle Lamont. Chicago IL and New York: University of Chicago Press and Russell Sage Foundation; 1999. pp. 343-368).  According to the United States Labor Department, the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action are white women. The Department of Labor estimated that 6 million white women workers are in higher occupational classifications today than they would have been without affirmative action policies. This pays off in dividends in the labor force and to (mostly) white men and families. You can see how some of these benefits accrue to white women in the following infographic from the Center for American Progress (from 2012):

White, Black, Latina Women's Income Chart

 (Infographic source)

While people of color, individually and as groups, have been helped by affirmative action, but data and studies suggest that women — white women in particular — have benefited disproportionately from these policies. In many ways, affirmative action has moved white women into a structural position in which they share more in common with white men than they do with black or Latina women.

Another study shows that women made greater gains in employment at companies that do business with the federal government, which are therefore subject to federal affirmative-action requirements, than in other companies — with female employment rising 15.2% at federal contractors but only 2.2% elsewhere. And the women working for federal-contractor companies also held higher positions and were paid better. Again, this data often lumps “all women” together (without distinguishing by race), so it’s a bit of a fuzzy issue.

Even in the private sector, white women have moved in and up at numbers that far eclipse those of people of color. After IBM established its own affirmative-action program, the numbers of women in management positions more than tripled in less than 10 years. Data from subsequent years show that the number of executives of color at IBM also grew, but not nearly at the same rate.
Given these incredible gains by white women, it might seem logical that this demographic would be among the biggest supporters of affirmative action.  This is not the case. At least when it comes to education, it’s white women who have been at the forefront of lawsuits brought to challenge affirmative action.

When Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas at Austin, she claimed that the University had discriminated against her in the undergraduate admissions process.  As you probably know, this case went all the way to Supreme Court. What you may not know is that post-Bakke (1978), the people suing universities for discrimination in the academic admissions process have been white women: Abigail Fisher (Fisher v. University of Texas); Barbara Grutter (Grutter v. Bollinger); Jennifer Gratz (Gratz v. Bollinger);  and Cheryl Hopwood (Hopwood v. Texas).

Screenshot of Abigail Fisher on CNN

(Image source)

So, what’s up with white women? Why are white women playing the aggrieved party when we – as a protected class – have gained so much from these policies?

Let’s go back to the story I mentioned of the tenure-track job I did not get (one of many, for the record).  I happened to know the Latina woman who was also in competition for this job, and we were identically well-qualified for that job. There was virtually no difference between us as applicants for that position. We’d both taught at that institution as part-time or non-tenure-track faculty, students liked us both, we had the same number of publications at that point (somewhere between zero and one), and we both really, really wanted that job.

She got it, I didn’t, that’s how it goes.  On to the next thing.  (And, as life does with such disappointments, today I’m grateful to have not gotten that job, but I digress…)

The fact that the white person on the search committee made a point of telling me that they “had to give the job to her” is, in my view, a manifestation of color-blind racism.  Part of what he was saying to me was, “if things were fair, if there weren’t affirmative action, you would have had this job.” In a way, he was inviting me to say, later, in the re-telling of this story: “I didn’t get this job because of a Latina….”  This is precisely the form of color-blind racism that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Amanda Lewis, and David G. Embrick point out in their work. ( ““I Did Not Get that Job Because of a Black Man…”: The Story Lines and Testimonies of Color-Blind Racism.” In Sociological Forum, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 555-581, 2004).

I choose to resist such a re-telling of that story because it is not true.  I resist such a re-telling because it supports other untruths about who is deserving, qualified, and should be in leadership positions.  But I know that such resistance is relatively rare among white women. And, I think this is where some of the explanation begins for why it is white women who are suing to challenge affirmative action.

To risk stating the obvious here, I think that what’s happened with Abigail Fisher is that despite her incredibly privileged structural position within the U.S., she still feels aggrieved because her expectation, growing up as a white girl, that she was entitled to an education at the top university in her state even though she didn’t have the grades to qualify.

When confronted with the reality that she didn’t get in to her top school, the explanation that occurred to her is that some person of darker complexion and lesser qualifications had taken her place. Fisher, like so many white women of her generation, believe that their peers who are black and Latina have it “easy” when it comes to getting into college, as if they only had to send in their photograph with their application. Contrast Fisher’s perceived struggle with the #itooam Harvard campaign launched by social media savvy students there about the racial discrimination they face.

Harvard student holds sign

 

What Fisher was asserting in her lawsuit is a stake on the terrain of “racial innocence” because central to her claim, laden though it is with race, is that her denial at the doors to the University of Texas was based on an unfair reliance on race as a criterion for admission. This claim for “racial innocence” is at the heart of the backlash against affirmative action, as Jennifer Pierce has noted in her work (“Racing for innocence”: Whiteness, corporate culture, and the backlash against affirmative action.” Qualitative Sociology 26, no. 1 (2003): 53-70).

The claim on “racial innocence” seems a tenuous one at best for white women as both the prime beneficiaries of affirmative action, and some of its most ardent critics.

I’ll be back next Tuesday with another installment of the Trouble with White Women series, to discuss the recent admonishes to ‘lean in” to corporate feminism.

 >>>> Read next post in series

Research Brief: New Books in the Field


Breaking Ground:
My Life in Medicine

by Louis W. Sullivan with David Chanoff
(University of Georgia Press)

Gendered Resistance:
Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner

edited by Mary E. Frederickson and Delores M. Walters
(University of Illinois Press)

River of Hope:
Black Politics and the Memphis Freedom Movement, 1865–1954

by Elizabeth Gritter
(University Press of Kentucky)

The Great White Way:
Race and the Broadway Musical

by Warren Hoffman
(Rutgers University Press)
~ This collection of reading was originally posted at the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education website.

Law Partner Tracks & Asian Americans: Struggles to Affirm Positive Self-Identity

Helen Wan’s The Partner Track is a newly published novel that paints a vivid picture of life inside a corporate law firm and the internal struggles and challenges of a female, Asian-American lawyer seeking to become partner. The book illuminates the ways in which minorities and women are still viewed within hierarchical, white male-dominated organizational structures and highlights the particular embarrassment that can result from being singled out to personify the firm’s diversity initiatives. In situations of high competition, minority and female status can even be seen as a threat, since some may mistakenly presume that such status confers advantage.

Ingrid Yung, the protagonist in the novel, is a descendant of immigrant parents from Taiwan, who knows how to speak Mandarin, but prefers to separate herself from identification with her ethnic roots in the presence of a competing, yet socially awkward attorney from mainland China. The nuances of her relationship with her parents are delicately portrayed. Ingrid’s mother addresses her on the phone as “Ingrid-ah”—perhaps reflecting the difficulty in enunciating the syllables in American names. Ingrid’s parents sacrificed much for her success, and are justifiably proud of her groundbreaking accomplishments. As her mother declares, “Nobody bosses my Ingrid around.” It is this unmistakable sense of pride and independence that accompanies Ingrid as she confronts repeated incidents that question her identity, her right to be at the firm, and her competence.

Without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, the most telling revelation comes when Ingrid realizes that it was not hard work that would land her a partnership and that her mistakes would count more heavily than for others. As Ingrid reflects (p. 238):

I had completely bought into the myth of a meritocracy. Somehow I’d actually been foolish enough to believe that if I simply kept my head down and worked hard, and did everything, everything that was asked of me, I would be rewarded. What an idiot.

The novel also chronicles with subtle humor Ingrid’s interactions with the firm’s diversity consultant who has been hired after a tasteless, racialized skit at the firm’s corporate outing. Later when Ingrid is singled out at the firm’s diversity event designed to repair the damage from the skit at the outing, she is unwittingly made the poster child for the diversity initiative and later suffers consequences for her required participation.

Ingrid describes her valiant efforts to stay at the corporate law firm for eight years, hoping that “all of these little humiliations and exclusions amount to something.” As she reflects,

More than anything, I wanted, once and for all, to shake that haunting suspicious that, while my record impressed and my work made the grade, I was ultimately not valued (p, 164).

The themes of the book underscore the research perspectives shared by Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin in Two-faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage.

This study identifies the spatial nature of modern-day discrimination based on the review of the diary accounts of 1000 college students. Based on this extensive research data, Picca and Feagin conclude that performances or comments made by white actors in the frontstage when diverse individuals are present significantly diverge from closed-door backstage performances that occurred when only whites are present. Similarly, Ingrid struggles with her own identity as she gains glimpses of the backstage while she is simultaneously paraded as a model of diversity in the frontstage.

Yet at the same time, there are hopeful notes sounded in Helen Wan’s beautifully narrated story. The novel has much to offer in terms of charting the progressive pathway toward a self-affirming identity for women and minority professionals and leaders. And as Alvin Evans and I highlight in The New Talent Acquisition Frontier, from an organizational perspective, talent is the most important strategic asset necessary for success and survival in a globally interconnected world. As a result, empowering diverse and talented employees and eliminating the spatial separation between frontstage and backstage performances are essential steps in the attainment of social integration and genuinely inclusive workplaces.

Why isn’t College for Learning About Mixed-Race Identities?

Learning

There are some incredible opportunities out there right now to get certificates, higher ed and even advanced degrees specializing in the experience of Americans of color. Want a degree in Asian American Studies? Sure. How about African American, Native or American Indian, Latin American, Mexican American or Chicano studies? Absolutely. Google all of these and you’ll find brilliant choices to be credentialed in these heritage experiences at very fine colleges and universities.

But what if you ID as mixed-race multicultural across any of these racial lines? Is there a degree for that?

“Not that I’m aware of,” writes Steven F. Riley of MixedRaceStudies.org (46), “The vast majority of courses on mixed-race studies are within the disciplines of Sociology, Psychology, History and Literature, etc.” Despite the fact that the crop of students moving through college today is the largest group of self-identified mixed-race people ever to come of age in the U.S., “In traditional Ethnic Studies,” writes University of California, Berkeley: Center for Race and Gender, “Mixed race scholarship has often been marginalized, misappropriated, tokenized or simply left out.”

Indeed it has only been in recent history that an arena for multi-race discourse has even forcibly begun construction mostly due to multiracials themselves. In the US this is because we have (a) not only a history of denying mixed race which persists but (b) a habit of continuing to operate under the assumption that race can be easily identified and filed away. Anyone who can’t be instantly categorized by visual scanning either gets shoved into something that kinda sorta fits, shows up as a mere blip on the cognitive-radar screen or flies under it completely. Case in point, whether by choice or lack of choice, some of the more visible mixed-race Asian scholars/authors right now are embedded in other departments at their campuses: Laura Kina (Art, Media, & Design, DePaul University), Leilani Nishime (Dept of Communication, University of Washington), Stephen Shigematsu-Murphy (Asian American Studies, Stanford University), Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain (Sociology, University of Ireland).

I woke up one morning and had this great idea to write a post on multiracial studies, classes and programs in higher ed. The first day I sat in front of the screen I naively believed I could come up with some sort of beginner, working list through a neat Google Search. Within 15 minutes I had searched about five or six variations of “mixed race studies,” found shockingly little, threw up my hands, and was so irritated I gave up. In fact after that quarter hour I was pretty sure I didn’t want to write this post at all. I supposed stuff was out there but felt confounded to find it without launching an epic dissertation-level exhaustive research project.

“Well,” I thought to myself, “Why don’t I just leave it to college counselors, professors and academics who have the inside scoop.” But then I thought twice. What about the exploding number of young people such as mixed race high schoolers (one day my son) who are starting to think about college, have a blossoming awareness of their multiraciality and would like to be in an environment that supports them, even allows them to pursue degrees along those lines? For that matter, what about any number of mixed race folk wanting to pursue professional certificates or advanced degrees along those lines, or the millions of others increasingly vested in mixed race issues? Are any of these folks going to sit at a computer for hours on a fruitless wild-goose chase that dead-ends in needing to rely on others “more in the know”?

Now I’m not talking student interest clubs and groups here. Those seem to abound and admittedly, are deeply important. But such involvement may or may not be resume material and, let’s be honest, in our society extracurricular certainly doesn’t hold the weight of alphabet soup like B.A. M.A. Ph.D. etc. I also suspect such groups centrally revolve around offering social support, which is of course extremely critical, but may not offer the mixed young person academic space to round-out by learning deeply and reflecting critically upon the construction of race mixing in the US. No. What I’m talking about is also giving mixed race students the space/option to explore their history and identity in their studies, and to become credentialed experts of their own experience.

So what happens when the historically overlooked and unrecognized mixed-race person hops on Google to figure out if they can spend thousands of dollars (they probably don’t have) on an education that would enrich their existence in a racially policed/divided world? It’s not good, people. It’s not good. The average Google Search garners 92% of all its traffic on Page 1. Page 2 only sees about 5%, Page 3 about 1%, and by Page 4 – well, just forget it. In the interest of posterity, let’s take a look at the critical first page of my Google Searching for mixed race studies at college and university campuses across the US:

Search phrase: degree mixed race studies

Of 10 first page results**: The top 3 results turned up this hub, a seriously great and well-known hub of mixed race research. But a quick perusal does not immediately show a listing of places to pursue such research and as we saw earlier, Riley himself states very clearly that he knows of no specific mixed race degree program. Following the top third, 2 results turned up a fairly new endeavor spearheaded by Laura Kina (among others) out of De Paul Unviersity. It is an expanding multiracial academic community that currently includes a biannual conference and academic journal. The website certainly lists organizations and hubs but again, I didn’t see a list of schools to pursue studies.

Following this, 2 search results turned up San Francisco State University’s Master’s in Ethnic Studies which is “increasingly concerned with mixed race studies” but obviously not a mixed race degree. Of the remaining, 1 search result was a write-up of the first Critical Mixed Race Studies postgraduate symposium ever offered at the University of Leeds in May of this year, 1 search result was a graduate thesis, 1 search result was a graduate student bio and 1 search result was a listing for a design-you-own-Master’s at Southern Methodist University.

Of course we see the obvious inability to obtain a specific critical mixed-race studies degree. But also notice the heavy, heavy emphasis on graduate, postgraduate and doctoral level research. In my view this does not allow very accessible entry points into the field of multiracial studies at all. We see a possible end result – but how to even begin? And what if a person does not aspire to become a researcher? Can there be an option to learn without the pressure to contribute to a growing body of mixed-race scholarship that’s struggling to exist? Search phrases like degree multi-ethnic studies or degree multiracial studies and the outcome isn’t much better. Personally I love researching and am excited by finding any results at all. But as the mother of a mixed race child who may or may not follow in his mother’s footsteps, I always have an eye to his future and best interests too. If my 4 year old goes to college one day, I want to feel less nervous and way more comfortable that wherever he goes as a new “legal” adult and young person existing across racial lines, he will find a place to learn more about himself in a life-giving way. I think we’re headed there but we still have a long way to go. I hope to see before my son fills out his first college application (aside from maybe no racial checkboxes to deal with), at least one campus that boasts an entire Critical Mixed Race Department. Pipe dream? We’ll see…

**(Note: I recognize that Google Search results change rapidly and the first page I analyze here is only a snapshot. Subsequent searches by others may turn up different, even very different results.) See my blog, too.

Fetishizing Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress last night, for her powerful role in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen! Go Lupita!  But lately I’ve been feeling a little fatigued by the “Oh-my-god-Lupita-Nyong’o-is-so-beautiful-I-can’t-DEAL-WITH-IT!”

The current fad-like coverage of the Kenyan actress, overshadows the more interesting things about her background, the stuff that doesn’t get reported. True, I assumed she was a nobody until this slave narrative film, but a quick skim of Wikipedia reveals the stuff that the media isn’t all that interested in.

Black and white people, alike, are enamored with Nyong’o for what I believe, are different reasons. Blacks are proud that Nyong’o crushed it in her portrayal of Patsey and I’m personally excited that we’ve got another black woman winning major acting awards. Whites seems to be most preoccupied with Nyong’o’s exotic look and I think that’s something we, as a society, probably need to address.

Source

 For those who didn’t know it, Lupita Nyong’o was born in Mexico City and hails from an affluent family of artists, doctors and scholars. She attended Hampshire College, here in the states, and graduated with a degree in film and theater studies. She’s also a Yale graduate and a polyglot, fluent in several languages.

I was pretty excited to know that Nyong’o actually wrote, directed and produced a documentary, in 2009, called In My Genes, where she investigates the how Africans with albinism experiences life in a predominately black Kenya. I was stoked to know this because all I’ve seen of Lupita Nyong’o, is how beautiful she is on every red carpet she walks. Which is wonderful because Nyong’o is indeed quite beautiful! But she’s also extremely talented in other, more important ways.

I’m also weirded out by the onslaught of white people who are just plain gob-smacked by her exquisiteness. I’ve received an enormous amount of trending Facebook articles from various fashion sources that seem almost amazed by how beautiful Lupita is. It irks me that people don’t find it ironic how Nyong’o has preformed one of the most gut-wrenching representations of an enslaved black woman. Her character, Patsey, shows the reality of an enslaved body; this body is allowed to be ogled, worked to death, beaten, and raped. This body does not belong to Patsey and for some reason, it feels as though Nyong’o’s body doesn’t belong to her either.

Source

Not too much has changed in regards to the black female body. Society still turns a blind eye to the raped black female body, but leers at the black female body on display. Whether it be in a Miley Cyrus music video, on the cover of King Magazine, or on a red carpet, black female bodies are still objects to be commodified. Designers have fallen all over themselves to drape their designs on Nyong’o’s black body. When commentators talk about her many red carpet looks, I find myself wondering: “Are they talking about how lovely the dress is, being held up by a black mannequin? Or are they talking about Lupita’s fascinating dark body and face?”

Admittedly, my cynicism can be dangerous. Instead of taking white people at their word, I’m being suspicious of their motives. Whites could genuinely find Nyong’o so gorgeous that they don’t know what to do with themselves: “I CAN’T!” They might find her beautiful without even consciously understanding their exotic motivations: “She’s just so. . . noble!” For all I know, they might not be trying to be provinganything when they loudly insist how stunning she is. This is 2014, why can’t I just be happy that another black woman has won an Academy Award? Young black girls of all shades are finally able to see themselves on screen! That, in itself, is really exciting!

Ugh, but then there’s that nagging feeling, the one built upon institutionalized racism and colonialism. The feeling that tells me that Lupita Nyong’o will end up just like the rest of them:

  • Viola Davis, who white people thought was a national treasure because she played the help with such a noble, quiet strength.
  • Quvenzhané Wallis, who was actually in 12 Years a Slave, but didn’t receive much press. For her role as Hushpuppy, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she was nominated for a Best Leading Actress Oscar. During Oscars night, she was called the C-word by The Onion in a jokey tweet.
  • Gabourey Sidibe, who played Precious, another “hard to watch” film. The white criticism was mixed and decidedly trite. But almost all of it had to do with her obesity.
  • Halle Berry, the only black female to win the Best Leading Actress award. Ever. Had to preform the most cringe-worthy, upsetting sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton to be recognized by the Academy.

All of this is to say, Hopefully, one day, a black actress will win an Academy Award based on a performance that’s not based on the oppression of black women. Cate Blanchett won the award for Best Leading Actress last night. In the Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine, she plays a New York socialite, whose life falls apart, forcing her to live with her sister in San Francisco. I’m sure she did an excellent job, she’s a great actress! But did she have to prove anything or teach black people a valuable lesson in history or humanity to get her award? Was she involved in a “teachable moment?”

Just as Blanchett is classically beautiful in, I don’t know. . . a kind of timeless way, I’m still hoping for the next great black actress to be beautiful in the same way. Not in an exotic, noble, new-car smelling way.

~ This post was written by Charish Halliburton, who writes regularly at the blog Black Feminists. This piece was originally posted at Motley News.