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Taking In the Scenery: Affirmative Action's Patronizing Welcome Insults Us All

Stacey E. Blau

Almost every debate about affirmative action eventually shifts to a discussion of certain women and minorities: the truly deserving. The truly deserving are the women and minorities who are exceedingly intelligent, impeccably qualified but will have to forever endure the unspoken assumption that they got where they are because of their gender or race. In seeking to right past wrongs and foster diversity, critics say, affirmative action does nothing more than insult the truly deserving because it too often promotes the less-than-qualified. Critics regularly cite this point as a prime failure of affirmative action.

In the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, the character played by Sidney Poitier, a black man, comes to the house of his young white fiancee to meet her parents. The parents, lifelong liberals, are suddenly confronted with a true test of their values. How comfortable are they letting their daughter marry a black man? The parents are initially skeptical, and there are some tensions. But all is set right when the parents check up on Poitier's background. They find a list a mile long of his achievements. His background is absolutely unimpeachable. Their fears are assuaged. They give their approval.

But let's face facts. Not everyone is Sidney Poitier. Not everyone is perfect. Some people - in fact, by definition, most people - are simply average or thereabouts. No one likes to talk about the average woman or minority member. Few ask questions about how the merely average feel when they are confronted with the sometimes spoken but mostly unspoken assumption that they got where they are because of their gender or race.

The situation is very complicated. An average person may be qualified for a position, but there's no clear way of telling. When women and minorities are qualified beyond question, it's easier. Their stellar qualifications speak for themselves. But when they are not quite so perfect, doubts creep in.

Those doubts are not a question of an inferiority complex. Everyone knows affirmative action exists. Many women and minorities can tell you that schools and potential employers go out of their way to welcome them and tell them that their school or company has a goal of fostering diversity. How do average women and minorities know to what extent they are simply part of that diversity goal? It becomes very hard to tell if they are where they are because they did well or because of the incidental fact that they are women or members of a minority group. The assumptions hurt, mainly because there may be some truth to them.

Assumptions also hurt because they reduce women and minorities to pawns in the game of achieving diversity. How does it feel to be told that you are especially welcome because you are a woman or a minority? To be sure, it feels better than being told you're not welcome or being shut out because you are a woman or minority. But does anyone enjoy special favorable treatment because of the incidental fact of gender or minority status? For average women and minorities, the insult is all the more bothersome because the doubts are already there.

The welcoming efforts only enforce the idea that women and minorities are chosen to fulfill a goal. Women and minorities weekend at MIT each spring is a perfect example. Women and minorities receive their MIT acceptance letters, and right underneath is an invitation to a special weekend for women and minorities. I know many students who say that they will never forget that insult, the completely stark message that they were wanted because they are women or minorities.

The fact is that diversity goals are thoroughly insulting. Who is this diversity for? Presumably, diversity is a goal to make sure, for example, that a school isn't full of white men. So what are women and minorities? Scenery for white men? A way for them to see that there's something beyond white men in this world? I've never heard of anyone describe affirmative action as a way to diversify the lives of women and minorities by showing them white men. That's because it's not. "Diversify" means "bring in women and minorities." One would be hard-pressed to come up with something more patronizing than that.

The way people discuss diversity goals in practice only drives this point home. A friend of mine told me that when a minority was hired in one MIT office, people hailed the decision to "procure a minority presence" for the office. The way they described it, my friend said, you'd think "a minority presence" was something you pick up off a shelf at the supermarket.

The fact is that women and minorities don't need the patronizing help of affirmative action. If they want to know whether they are welcome somewhere, they can do what everyone else does when they have a question: Ask. They don't need a special and patronizing message. They don't need distorted impressions of other people's true opinions of them. And they don't need treatment and favors beyond what they deserve.

Affirmative action warps every notion of equality. The backlash and that has been going on against affirmative action for decades is no surprise. The backlash, however, has come mostly from white men who feel wronged. But it is not just white men who are hurt by affirmative action and its outright discrimination and insults. Everyone - men, women, minorities, the super-qualified, and the average - should be angry.