Open thread: rejecting affirmative action

In a recent preview screening of a documentary called Black in America 4:

Blogger-turned-investor Michael Arrington ignited a controversy with his comments about the visibility of minority-led companies. In the documentary, which airs November 13, Arrington talked about his difficulties finding African-American entrepreneurs to launch their ventures at his TechCrunch Disrupt conference… “His startup’s really cool. But he could’ve launched a clown show on stage, and I would’ve put him up there, absolutely,” Arrington said. “I think it’s the first time we’ve had an African-American [be] the sole founder.”

This remark was apparently interpreted as meaning Arrington didn’t care about the founder’s merit – just his race. I don’t read this quote the same way – I think he’s saying he doesn’t care if it’s tech-relevant, he would still like to fund an African American startup of any sort whatsoever, which to me is very different. But maybe there was some context the article failed to convey. In any case, let’s go with the way it was interpreted and assume it was reasonable, because that’s not what I wanted to debate. A Twitter eruption followed:

“I don’t want to be funded b/c I’m a woman, and I certainly don’t want ppl to believe that’s why I’m funded,” wrote Katrina Stevens, co-founder of LessonCast, a training website for teachers.

Now, if you follow the link to the article, you’ll find no end of stuff to discuss, because Arrington (a white man) goes on to insist there is no gender or race discrimination at Silicon Valley, and a number of people actually in a position to answer that question say he’s wrong and talk about ways they’ve worked around it (one hired a white man to be his spokesperson). There’s a lot of absurdity.

But what I want to talk about is the above quote by Katrina Stevens. Is it wrong to receive positive discrimination? Should we eschew it and struggle to make it on our own, often with less resources than men get even if we have twice the brains?

I say no, because for years, white men were the recipients of positive discrimination. Employers refused to hire anyone but white men; schools refused to educate anyone but white men and boys; many organizations proved they were willing to accepted the least qualified white guys on the planet before they would hire a woman or minority. It was just normal for so long that we forget it’s really the same thing as affirmative action, but applied to a majority instead of a minority.

If a majority like white guys didn’t shy away in shame or for fear of public ridicule from getting through life on their skin color and gender, should we? I have to admit, no one has ever offered me something just for being female, so I can’t say for sure what that feels like. Perhaps there’s something about the experience that would cause me to reject it (say, a sense they’re trying to use me and figure I’m vulnerable). But in principle, I say white men have enjoyed this for centuries, so there’s nothing unfair about everyone else getting a little for a few decades.

Comments

  1. Gabriella says

    It’s my dad’s pet soapbox to bitch about the wommenz and abos who get jobs over white men who are less qualified and proceed to quit soon after for being so far out of their depth and start the whole circus all over again. And I’m like, well the REASON we have affirmative action is that for decades – centuries, even – the reverse was happening, white men were getting jobs over everyone else regardless of qualification. I don’t agree with aa because in a perfect world, we’d be living in a meritocracy and gender, sexuality and race would have nothing to do with it. But we don’t, so aa is just reversing aeons of discrimination. And if it forces employees to choose from the best of a bad bunch, well, as a culture, they only have themselves to blame for perpetuating a system where women didn’t have access to the same education, training, encouragement that they could excel at xyz job.

  2. zgeycp says

    I almost never comment, but let me see if I can phrase this right.

    I agree on the basis that positive and negative discrimination aren’t mutually exclusive. I think if even unconscious racism, sexism, disappeared from the Earth overnight (and we lived in a world where the past had no bearing on the present), there would be an issue with anyone getting positive discrimination, but that’s obviously not the case.

    Anything approaching equality is going to take a lot of push and pull.

  3. igglanova says

    I ultimately agree with you, but I also sympathize with Stevens. If I were given an opportunity solely because of my -ism persecution, you bet your ass I would grab onto that fucker with both hands. Being consistently ignored, dismissed, and / or belittled unjustly tends to give one a certain cynically desperate outlook. :P But my emotional reaction to statements like Arrington’s [going with the interpretation you've accepted for the sake of argument] is dismay at, yet again, not receiving due credit for the quality of my ideas. It’s another way of patronizing and subtly belittling my creative legitimacy, and ultimately my intelligence. That touches some old, old hurt.

    I don’t exactly have a viable method for preventing this torn reaction, but sometimes it’s helpful just to point out that it’s there.

  4. says

    Gabriella,

    I’ve heard stories from Baby Boomers (who were around for the big AffAct push in the 60s) about employers deliberately hiring the least qualified minorities available to create the very situation your dad assumes is the norm – and bragging about it. The “logic”, such as it was, went: if you can find one unqualified minority, by implication all members of that minority are unqualified… and yet somehow, all those unqualified white guys who exist on Earth do not reflect on white guys in general. It’s the same thing we see in film: if a female-led movie fails, it did so because it had a female lead. But if a male-led movie fails, we look hard for the specific reasons instead of concluding, “Audiences just won’t want movies with men!”

    zgeycp,

    I think you phrased it well, and I think we’re in agreement: from the perspective of an ideal world, both kinds of discrimination are wrong, especially because one causes the other. But in the messy imperfect real world, sometimes it really DOES take two wrongs to make a right. There’s just no other way to bring things into balance.

  5. Sabrina says

    Weirdly enough I think a big contributing factor to this mess is the believe in the Just World Myth. Most of us were surely raised with the premise that when you work hard enough you will be rewarded with a great job. Though being the best you can be certainly isn’t a bad goal it brutally clashes with the -isms of the real world. And the amazing thing here is that no matter how shitty the world treats them people still continue to believe in a Just World – which is probably best illustrated with the 53% tumblr where people are posting heart-wrenching stories of their more or less shitty lives and they still defend the system cause all you guys need to do is just work harder! BOOTSTRAPS, BABY!

    The Just World Myth really is the key to make those who are suppressed by the system your allies. If life doesn’t treat you well it’s all your fault, simple as that. All those White guys at the top? They totally worked their asses off and if you work hard enough you can get there, too! (Except you won’t, it’s in the fine print. Sucks to be you!)

    And of course when people work their asses off they don’t want to be told they just got hired because they’re part of a certain minority. They want to get hired because of their skills and expertise. And here I agree with igglanova: When you believe in a Just World being hired because of a quota sucks. You really have a hard time to understand that everyone else also was hired because of an invisible White guy quota.
    At the moment there’s a big discussion about a quota for women here in Germany and sadly enough many women insist that they don’t want this cause they want to be hired for their skills. It’s nearly impossible to make them understand that they’ll still be hired for their skills – just with the advantage that the employers just can’t hire that more or less equally qualified guy they’d usually hire in such a situation. A quota for women would just tear down their stupid “Bros b4 Hoes” recruitment policy.

  6. Gabriella says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    Sadly, that doesn’t surprise me. If you can get hold of it, you should read Zelda D’Aprano’s autobiography. She was a trade-union feminist (Melbourne-based, I believe, but I tend to tune out if it doesn’t expressly involve WA) in the 50′s and 60′s – basically, the mother to the baby boomers – and she was constantly surprised at the depth of spite and pettiness that men went to when it came to undermining women’s equaliy, Aboriginal equality, basically, anything that questioned their right to do, as straight white men, exactly as they pleased.

  7. Cassandra Davis says

    Sabrina:
    [People] don’t want to be told they just got hired because they’re part of a certain minority. They want to get hired because of their skills and expertise.

    I think this is the thing, for me. If I apply for a job, and I’m told “OK, you seem very good for this, and by the way, we’re really excited to have you because at the moment only 25% of our employees are women”, I’d be fine with that (which is actually the sentiment I read out of the Arrington quote).

    On the other hand, if I’m told “Well, you’re not actually qualified, but we’re giving you this job because the law says we need to hire women”, I’d be upset. But I also think that if I was told “You’re not actually qualified, but we’re giving you this job because the other people who applied were all African-American, and we want to hire white people,” I’d also be upset, in the same way (a way I would probably describe as personal pride, because as Sabrina said, I really would like to be hired on my own merits).

    The thing is, though, that people don’t really say most of these things- they might think them, or they might be subconscious, but either way, I don’t know if or not they happened. And this is particularly true for the last one, in which most people *don’t* say that, they just do it. So unless it’s brought up, I probably won’t think about it, and since not thinking about is also what allows me to feel good about myself, I’m even more likely to go that route. (Which I suppose is what privilege lists are for- stuff you didn’t think about, but just took for granted).

    Meanwhile, people actually *do* say the middle thing, because they feel resentful about it, so in that case, I wouldn’t have the luxury of not knowing, and I’d have to decide between taking it anyway, and seeing what I could do with it, or not taking it. Which would be even harder if I was in financial need and didn’t have other options.

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