I sat in on a conversation the other day about affirmative action.
To add a little context, it was between a white female and a white gay male – both of whom would supposedly benefit from it but both of whom were opposed to it. Their reasons were understandable, the main one being wanting to be hired for the quality of your work rather than your gender/colour/sexuality, which lots of people would agree with.
But I’d like to drop my two cents into the hat too!
For simplicity I’m going to refer to affirmative action throughout the post, in the UK we call it positive discrimination but the former has a nicer ring to it.
First of all, I hate the implication that affirmative action (aa) or quotas allows substandard individuals to gain access to (often prestigious) institutions. The black students at Oxford University weren’t picked illiterate teenagers off the streets to fill a quota, they’re students who worked their asses off like everyone else to get in. So why couldn’t they just work without the special favours I hear you ask. Because every living human on this earth is biased however pure their intentions are. This bias comes in many different sizes, from the admissions officer barely skimming over your personal statement because your name is Abdullah not James to the secretary thinking you’re a cleaner not a prospective student when you go to her for help. They’ll never confess to it but it still happens.
People of Colour (POC), LGBTQA+ and women (and good luck if you fall into all three) face this bias, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. Affirmative action is keeping your CV/personal statement/job application out of the bin unless you have a white passing name or can keep your orientation a secret so just say thank you and move on. When you’re not a straight white male, your hard work and genius will only get you so far, it’s the tragic world we live in.
The second thing implied by that phrase is that there will always be a white male who is better qualified for the job who has had their future taken away from them by these minorities and women (we may be treated like a minority but we certainly are not!). This poor men work so hard all their lives only to be cheated out of their rightful positions in society by some immigrant or some woman, how disenfranchising!
So it’s honestly easier to believe that there’ll always be a white male suited to do any degree level job than it is to believe that the asian woman in a sari sat next to him pre-interview is suited to the job? Really? Because that’s what I’m hearing.
My last point to everyone who disproves of affirmative action is take five minutes to look at the history of anything you’re passionate about. Personally for me it’s science and a recurring theme seems to be:
(Qualified) Female works very hard, discovers something groundbreaking. Man comes along, sees what she’s discovered, tweaks it slightly then presents the idea as his own genius from start to finish. And what does history do – immortalise the Watsons and Cricks, and the Kekules, whilst simultaneously making the Rosalind Franklins & Kathleen Lonsdales a footnote, three lines in a paragraph near the end.
The same happened (and is still happening today) to the black community and music, did you know The King of Rock & Roll, Elvis, shot into stardom from covering rock songs written by black artists. Artists like Ike Turner & Crudup who never reached the same heights because of segregation at the time.
Too often credit has not been given where it was due. That’s what affirmative action is trying to fix, it’s not trying to ruin lives or give unfair advantages to a select few. Knock it all you like but until we live in an ideal world with no significant biases, it’s the best we can do to get everyone a seat around the imaginary table.