A recent series of postings on the NACAC e-list chewed over the propriety of a white South African in the U.S. checking “African American” on the college application “ethnicity” box. It was determined that she could possibly call herself a White African American, which manages to be insulting and logically twisted on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. Further discussion revealed that counselors have also had to deal with issues of apparently white students “actually” being black (by virtue of the “one drop” rule, I suppose–seems almost medieval though). Others noted the various dilemmas of those living abroad who aren’t sure what ethnic box to check, some less legit than others. I recall from my Amherst admission days the well-to-do Jewish students living in Argentina (mostly descendants of refugees from Nazi Germany) who wanted to call themselves “Hispanic.”
I’m a naturally suspicious person, so I see most of these inquirers as trying to get permission to game the system, that is, presenting themselves as African American or Hispanic in order to reap the benefits colleges bestow on those groups as a result of their histories and conditions in the United States. In the ultra-competitive environment of college admission, this sneaky attempt to piggyback on well-intentioned college admission policies seems only natural if repulsive. But rather than blame the hopeful perpetrators, perhaps we should look at the system that encourages this behavior.
In 19th-century New Orleans a highly complex system of classification sorted African Americans into categories depending on the supposed ratio of white to black blood they possessed. There were quadroons (one quarter white) and octaroons (one-eighth white) and others with varying degrees on either side. This system translated into, or rather, paralleled, an equally complex social/class system that tried to assign everyone into a very specific slot within New Orleans society. (Wealthy white men often had two families–their legitimate ones, with wife and children living in the American sector of the city, and their “illegitimate” ones in the French Quarter, with perhaps an octaroon wife and their mutual children, who were often well-cared for and educated.) Naturally, this complexity created a vast web of social interaction and relation nearly impossible to sustain.
We seem to have reached a similar point in our attempt to classify the racial characteristics of an increasingly interactive population. When one has to ask a question like “How black is she?” perhaps it’s time to revisit the whole concept of racial classification (at least in the area of college admission) and replace it with a social/class based system that may be more useful.
Although the question “How black/Hispanic is he?” (and its variant, “Is she black/Hispanic enough?”) seems crude, it is often simply another way of asking, “Does this applicant embody the characteristics we expect to see when we see a black/Hispanic applicant?” To upack the question even more: “Is this candidate sufficiently disadvantaged/culturally different/needy to meet our criteria for creating a diverse class?” Of course, this line of questioning is based on stereotypes when you work at a highly competitive college. Even though you do it with the best of intentions, you are asking these students to conform to the idea that black and Hispanic students are disadvantaged, etc.
As long as students who have checked the box “African American” or “Hispanic” (or any other similar boxes) conform to the idea we need to have of them, there aren’t usually problems. Difficulties arise when, for example, a black student raised at a New England boarding school by two black faculty members has a below average academic record and a lackluster involvement in any other activities. What should take precedence, her race or her accomplishments? Should someone who’s had every advantage but not really done much with them be given a boost because of her race? Conversely, how should one respond to the comment of an (African American) admission officer who contends that a straight-A, high testing lacrosse player “isn’t black enough?”
I believe these absurdities could be drastically reduced if we asked every student to live up to or exceed the best standards of his or her environment, regardless of race or ethnicity. Instead of asking for an essentially meaningless characteristic (skin color in relation to academic potential), it’s far more relevant and useful to ask for a student’s economic/social background. Doing so can provide much more important information when trying to assess how a student will do in the college environment. Quality of education, determination in the face of adversity, willingness to persevere, and leadership can fill out a great deal of a student’s application. We already try to put students in conext, why not expand that idea? Relying on ethnicity as a prime factor only encourages us to deal in stereotypes that lead to fatuous conclusions.
So to all you “white African Americans” and others of similar ilk– we’re on to your game. Stop trying to take advantage of our colleges’ good nature! And colleges, look into dropping the simplistic race/ethnicity check boxes and replacing them with deeper and farther-ranging questions that can help you better assess a student’s potential membership in your community. It’s more complicated but in the end will probably be more compelling. In this age of globalization and increasing interaction among races and ethnicities, there seems to be less and less justification for keeping rigid divisions in place.