Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Navigating color without a line

The Felix Chronicles, #8

In which a colorless person
considers a question of terminology

The table produced by the admissions office had the statistics all neatly in a row: total applied, total admitted, comparisons with other schools, and so on. And an additional set of statistics, using the label “SOC.” It took a moment to realize what that was: “students of color.” In recent years this has become the term of art in multicultural affairs, replacing “race” as a category.

It’s not hard to see why. For one thing, the term “color” reminds us that race was once largely treated as a black-and-white-affair in terms of numbers, if never officially as the sole categories of demographic sorting. “Color,” by contrast, is perceived to more clearly encompass Native Americans and Asians, each term denoting many tribes or nationalities within it. But the reach of “color” also extends to Latinos – older term: “Hispanics” – who were once widely denoted as “ethnic,” back when the term was used to sort various white groups. A century ago, one could casually speak of the “Syrian” race or the “Slavic” race, but such terminology fell out of favor after the Second World War, in part because the Final Solution gave terms like the “Jewish race” even more ominous overtones than they had before the war.

“Color” is also a useful concept in an age of accelerating interracial marriage and child-rearing. We have long recognized that most African Americans, for example, have white “blood” – yet another word which, strictly speaking, requires quotation marks to suggest a figurative rather than literal or scientific reality – in their heritage. Light-skinned “black” people sometimes “passed” for “white”; we now live in a world where it is tactically possible, for admissions purposes at least, for such people to pass for black (or, at any rate, for such suspicions to take shape in less than fully charitable minds). The concept of color allows us to avoid a problematic attempt to sort or define a fixed definition of race while preserving a sense of racial consciousness for the sake of diversity.

Or, I should say,
seem to avoid a problematic attempt. Because the phrase “of color” is not finally tenable as a description of reality or as a means to social justice. The most obvious objection, of course, comes from those of us who are ineluctably defined as “colorless” people, which this gringo experiences a definition in terms of deficiency, a lack, an absence of that which is now widely embraced (see: President of the United States). One could of course respond that this is a form of just desserts, or, at the very least, a sensitivity that does not necessarily need to be at the top of any list of linguistic reform regarding the question of “minorities” – yet another term that is losing taxonomic meaning in many U.S. cities and suburbs. A reminder that my own personal comfort should not be a collective priority is, in fact, what I usually tell myself when my mind turns to such subjects. Yet it also occurs to me that it remains an issue even for the “colored” (once a common, casually racist term), because “people of color” are still defining themselves in terms of a racial void. “White” remains the point of all orientation for the non-white, which keeps whiteness in a position of centrality on the one hand and confers an ultimately corrosive psychic wage of superiority on the other (“at least I’m not white.”) Either stance makes some sense, of course, in that white people as a group still control a majority of stake of wealth and power in contemporary society, and the people who use the term “of color” in positions of policy are presumably, and appropriately, interested in changing that.

But this in turn begs the question of
which white people have this illegitimate power, how whiteness no less than blackness is defined, and how other categories such as gender, sexuality, or class figure into it, not to mention less well-established markers of identity like religion or region. These are of course not new problems. Nor will any rhetorical sleight-of-hand make them go away.

Still, it may be worth posing a question whether it’s time to consider a new, inevitably perishable, piece of terminology. I not sure what’s likely to work best, but in the spirit of offering some alternative to that which I criticize, I’ll endorse the emerging phrase “traditionally under-represented groups” (TUGs). This isn’t perfect either; Irish immigrants, for example, were once traditionally underrepresented in college admissions, though it would be hard to argue that Americans of Irish descent are rare at most schools and colleges today. Perhaps "recently under-represented groups" (RUGs) would be better (perhaps "relatively under-represented groups would be better still). Either term is in any case elastic enough to encompass any number of designations, while making clear that depending on your applicant pool, there are some groups (e.g. heterosexuals) who cannot really be considered under-represented while still giving traditional racial identity a centrality it in many cases merits. As it has played out in U.S. history, fairness is less a matter of attaining a kind of fixed equilibrium than maintaining a flexible process that strives to realize the promise of American life as broadly as is practical. Ideally, policies like Affirmative Action, if they are to have a viable future, should reflect this reality in name no less than practice.

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote in 1903. (That's him in the upper right hand corner, around the time of his classic book
The Souls of Black Folk.) The problem of the twenty-first may well be navigating color without a line.