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COLUMN: ‘Please Check One’

Heights Columnist

Published: Monday, February 10, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 10, 2014 00:02

America has come a long way since the Civil Rights Movement 50 years ago. During that time, black Americans were believed not to have the same capacity of feeling and level of intelligence as white Americans, they were not allowed to attend the same places of learning or eat at the same table, and could even get beaten for simply looking a white person in the eye. The prejudice and hatred which predated the inception of this nation was practically eradicated in a matter of years thanks to the efforts of the real-life angels involved in the movement, and I am proud to be part of a generation that is not only fair in legislation, but also socially accepts and celebrates interracial and multicultural families to the point that we have a black commander-in-chief of mixed race heritage. That being said, we are still trying to get past the negative repercussions centuries of oppression have had in the form of residual ignorance and a lack of diversity in highly ranked private universities and certain sectors of the job market. For this reason, the diversity form, the race/ethnicity survey included in most every standardized test, census survey, college and job application, has taken a position of prominence in the effort against a lack of diversity. In my opinion, though, diversity forms in the 21st century are ineffective, losing relevancy, and could possibly be undermining the advances we have made with regard to race in America.

First, race/ethnicity surveys are often non-compulsory, anonymous, and simply used for statistical purposes such as to assess the diversity within an organization. In the application process, it is also at times used to identify minority students and has been purportedly used as a “tie-breaker” in some instances in order to boost campus diversity. However, regardless of any perceived “advantage” diversity forms give minorities, one of the main issues with these surveys is that in an age in which interracial and multicultural families are normal and steadily increasing, how many people do you think can—or, in the future, will be able to—answer “Which racial/ethnic group do you identify with? Please check one,” without labeling themselves or alienating part of their heritage? This very issue was highlighted by Lenny Kravitz in an interview for Oprah Winfrey’s Master Class, which was reiterated in a Huffington Post article last May. In the interview, Kravitz detailed his experience as a multiracial child where he recalled “feeling stumped when filling out the ‘race’ section on school forms. My great-grandmother’s Cherokee Indian. My father’s a Russian Jew. My mom’s Bahamian, [I thought], ‘What the hell do I put on this thing?’ ... The teachers came over and [said], ‘Black. That’s what you are.’ And so, so many parts of your heritage are just squashed. ‘That’s it. You’re that.’ I didn’t like that.”

So, can you summarize your heritage into one category? The answer is that what makes up our heritage, like ethnicity and culture, is not tidy and cannot be reduced to just one check mark on a form. Even individuals who believe that they have a “boring” and homogeneous background probably have an exciting array of ethnicities—so, why limit race/ethnicity forms to only a handful of categories and even go to the extent of further refining the white category to “White (not including Hispanics)”? Heritage cannot become a single check mark ... but the color of your skin can, and this is perhaps the uglier conclusion we can get from oversimplified diversity forms.

I understand that job recruiters and admissions officers turn to these forms to create a more diverse community and that providing tidy categories like “white,” “black,” “Asian,” and “Hispanic” may be done for the sake of simplicity, but the fact is that when a form explicitly states “please check one” and even creates a special niche for a particular race, it sounds as if administrators are trying to employ a process of elimination. We cannot, as a society, continue to move forward if we perpetuate an image of racism, exclusion and “cherry-picking,” especially when there are accounts of well-qualified minority job applicants losing out to white applicants in predominantly white sectors, like finance. In those instances, people will blame diversity forms, whether it’s true or not, due to the selectivity in these forms.

Then, we have the flip side, where the achievements of minorities are overshadowed by the allegations that affirmative action is solely responsible for them obtaining the job, scholarship, or college acceptance letter. In many instances, I believe that these individuals would have received the same accolades and achievements if they had checked “white” or even scribbled “Martian” on the form, but because it was disclosed, this gives people the excuse to belittle achievements and even go to the extent of crying discrimination such as in the highly-publicized Fisher v. University of Texas case, in which a white woman claimed that she was denied a spot at UT because affirmative action policies discriminated against her race. It seems that whether you believe it screens-out or “screens-in” minorities, diversity forms have the adverse effect of perpetuating negative emotions and stereotypes, along with creating an image of an ethnically illiterate America. All of which undermines the true spirit and great progress made.

Some may scoff at the idea that a form can cause all of these issues, let alone cause someone to feel uncomfortable, but it’s true. So, being a little mutt—a Mediterranean mix with a Hispanic and European background—I don’t check “white,” I check the ambiguous but true “other,” which is probably what the vast majority of Americans should check because it is the most accurate and honest answer, even though it is difficult to put a face on. I think that the biggest indication of how far our nation has evolved is when we no longer feel the need to have diversity forms, because we will be so truly integrated that the divisions will be arbitrary, uncomfortable, and make no sense, as they are already becoming. So, ironically, because of how many feel uncomfortable with this “please check one” question, I think we’re heading in the right direction.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights

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