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Racial Construction and the Job Market


Racial Construction and the Job Market

Thomas Whitley


As most of you know, I am in the midst of applying for jobs. That means that my life looks something like this. It's a blast. Really. I have noticed an interesting trend, though, particularly among those positions which use their own website for applications (as opposed to third-party services like Interfolio). There are voluntary self identification questions to help each institution gather data about just who is applying for their jobs. I think this is great, but the categories offered leave a lot to be desired.

Besides the obvious fact that "race" is a completely constructed and contested category in the first place, I've never given much thought to my personal racial classification/identification - "white." That is, until my recent experiences with these job application sites. Here is a question I encountered today.

Affirmative Action Voluntary Self Identification Form-Race Question

As a person of European origins, I selected "white," but as I have noticed on other questions of this nature, those who have origins in the Middle East or North Africa are included in the same category. The problems with the categories of race used by the US Census Bureau have been apparent for some time now (see here and here). On the face of it, it is difficult to see how someone from Egypt would be in the same racial classification as someone from Germany or how someone from New England with Irish ancestors would be classified the same as someone who emigrated from Tunisia. Also not adequately represented in the above options are those who identify as "black" but have origins from any of the Caribbean islands.

If these categories are so flawed and clearly constructed, then why do we keep them? Why do we still engage in such a process of classification not only of our citizens, but of all humans? Why do we so obviously leave out certain groups?

The "Black or African-American" category seems to be based solely on skin color, for why else would those who have origins in a white racial group of Africa be excluded from this group? How should white South Africans respond to this question? The "White" category, conversely, does not appear to be based solely on skin color, as I (someone of Germanic origin) do not look like a Libyan or Egyptian. Yet, according to these categories, we are the same "race." Why the need to separate the African continent? It is not completely based on skin color, even though there is an idea that North Africans are lighter-skinned than other Africans, or else white South Africans would somehow be included with North Africans. Why, when asking for someone's race, is racial included in the response (e.g., "a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa")? This begs the question. Further, if "black" is a "race," then what exactly are "black racial groups"? Are there also "white racial groups"?

Further, why the focus on "origins" and the "original peoples" of an area? How exactly does where my ancestors lived a few generations ago affect my "race"? Why does my current location not affect my "race"? Also, how far back must we go to find the "original peoples" of Europe? Should we look back to the "Middle Ages"? Should we go back to Romans living in modern-day Europe during the Roman Empire? Why not go back further to those who lived in Europe before Roman expansion, e.g., the "barbarians" of Britain? Have we not yet learned that there is never such a thing as pristine origins?

These racial categories are obviously problematic, but they serve merely to highlight the problematic and arbitrarily constructed nature of "race" on the whole. It is most disappointing, though, to see institutions of higher education allowing such acts of classification to go unchallenged.

Image: Map of races in the Meyers Konversation-Lexikon of 1885-90 by Herman Rudi Julius via Wikimedia Commons.