Sunday, January 08, 2006

Unknown but not unknowable

Jeremy Reff has a post up on Crescat about a study seeking to determine just who falls into the race:unknown category on college applications. He writes that "the study's suggestion that my decision to report my race as 'Other' was motivated out of self-interest (or some desire to hide my possible selection of 'white') strikes me as incorrect, if not borderline offensive." True enough. I always assumed putting "other" or "prefer not to respond" effectively meant classifying one's self as "white." So it's odd that schools would think to count anyone not going out of their way to say, "white," as "of color." Ideally, those applicants wishing for whatever reason to opt out of affirmative action would simply be counted as "generic non-underrepresented," and thus would not benefit from affirmative action as "people of color," but would also not have their identities prodded any further.

Collecting all possible information sounds appealing from a scientific perspective, but intentional ignorance has its place. Those "unknowns" did not wish to provide certain voluntary information, and ought to be left alone. Even if it could be found out through other means what the "unknown" students "really" are, if they wish to be considered unknown, that should be that.

One can agree that affirmative action is necessary, agree that there are certain instances where the benefits outweigh the creepiness of collecting racial data, and still wish for such data to come from applicants, etc., on a voluntary basis. Even if schools are required to produce hard numbers, they need not require individual applicants to check a box. Voluntarily offered racial information is one thing; digging and digging until the "truth" finally appears is another. Even individuals who make a point to never, ever provide racial information on application-type forms, even before this study, sometimes find that someone else kindly took the time to fill the box in for them. (I have discovered, at various instances, that I am "officially" white and Jewish according to various entities at Chicago, though I never mark this information down on forms.) While it no longer exists, U.S. colleges at one point had a "Jewish" category, if a less formal, less self-identified, and more sinister one, so maybe I should rejoice that while my grandparents' generation didn't get to be white, I do. Er, yay? That would just be bizarre.

You don't have to be multiracial to be genuinely confused by the boxes. Even though to my knowledge my entire ancestry is Ashkenazi Jewish, a category typically thought of as falling under "white," I can think of situations when I have felt very white (on the CTA, in my Stuyvesant homeroom) as well as ones when I have felt very much "of color" (Chicago's Lincoln Park, rural Missouri, the private school scene in NYC in the early-mid 1990s). And given that the Jewish national center is in Asia, not Europe (as is the case for Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans, and other "ethnic" hyphen-claiming groups), it seems odd that Jews are considered white while South Americans of equal pallor are considered Latino. Not that it would somehow change where Jewish applicants stand in the affirmative-action framework if they got lumped into the "Asian" category, but my point is simply that there's no objective truth to someone such as myself being considered white. I don't ask to be considered "of color," nor do I wish to deny others the option of self-identification. I simply want to have my "race" officially stamped as few places as possible, and to be lumped in with whichever "unknown so might as well count as white or Asian" category schools may come up with.

The study's authors urge the following:

To capture a more accurate picture of their entering classes, campus leaders should also collect information on students’ race/ethnicity postenrollment, when presumably students would not fear any repercussions for their self-identification.

Ugh, no. This is information that should only be collected when it absolutely must be amassed, to right historical wrongs, to preserve the American meritocracy, and so forth. To have special officers sent out to pester students about their race, during college, ideally a time when young adults are busy transcending and exploring beyond their backgrounds, is really awful. It's sneaky and upsetting that schools would go to such lengths to prevent students from opting out of "voluntary" racial self-identification.


petey said...

"it seems odd that Jews are considered white while South Americans of equal pallor are considered Latino."

Latino and Hispanic are language categories, not ethnic categories. You can be of purebred European or African decent and still be Latino. Native American decent is not required.

In some racial classification forms, "white" is referred to as "non-hispanic white".


Jews ain't really Asian. The most useful ethnic grouping is Mediterranean, which does put them along with Greeks and Italians.

triticale said...

And Jewish, while to some extent an ethnicity, is also what the forms used to call a "church preference". My sister, a devoutly secular Jew, always answered that one with "red brick".

codone said...

They rarely if ever have "Metis" which is essentially the same thing in terms of being a First Nations + European mix.

Other it is for "white" old multi-racial me.

PG said...

Hispanic = Spanish-speaking
Latino = Native American (probably + Spanish)
You can be Hispanic white, but not Latino white.