Believe it or not, your mother is a beneficiary of affirmative action.
You. Yes, you. Yes, Mister or Miss “My-family-pulled-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps,” you too. While the discussions around campus on affirmative action default to racial factors, we often neglect the conversation on the role that gender plays in such policies.
As result of the “affirmative action” taken on by companies and universities, women have made rapid gains since the 1970s. Fast forward to today and women still receive the benefits of such policies through targeted recruitment programs from top companies such as Goldman Sachs’ “Women’s Leadership Camp.” Even in the political sphere, Mitt Romney ineloquently stated his use of AA-like policies when, in order to increase the gender diversity of his gubernatorial cabinet, women’s groups supplied him with “binders full of women.”
But to my broader point, I think that it is crucial that we bring women’s issues back into the scope of these affirmative action debates because it brings gender equality into the forefront as well as sheds light on how we seek to tackle issues of equality. Oftentimes, the policies that have eliminated the barriers to entry for women in universities and institutions are vehemently opposed when parallel programs are offered to those of color.
But what most people don’t realize is that when you are against affirmative action based on race you are inadvertently against affirmative action for women. You cannot be for one and against the other unless you are willing to admit that certain types of diversity are more preferred or certain groups are more “deserving” than others.
I believe that this disconnect stems from the assumptions about the beneficiaries of affirmative action legislation. While I am not seeking to discredit the negative pushback on women for these policies, I wish to point out the more visceral reactions to race-based initiatives. Specifically, on the university level, the language used often insinuates that students of color are “unqualified” or didn’t “earn” their admission.
While race may give one an “advantage” in the college process, it does not mean that one’s application was not competitive and it is only one of many other holistic “advantages” such as gender, sexuality and legacy. Why would Penn admit any student that it knew could not succeed?
Many opponents of race-based affirmative action support programs based solely on socioeconomic factors and are against “diversity for the sake of diversity.” I argue against this proposal because economic background is already taken into account and would not cover issues of race as the majority of those below poverty identify as white. Instead, I would like to a step forward and advocate for the importance diversity has in and of itself.
While columnist Max Scheiber argued that pushes for diversity are a “superficial” ploy done by universities, I believe that the presence of women and students of color is anything but “superficial”. Such an argument suggests that our backgrounds, experiences and cultural perspectives provide nothing more to the intellectual community at Penn beyond a photo-op.
Through this benevolent attempt to be color-blind, we would cause more harm to ourselves by denying the very aspects that shape who we are and how the world sees us.
For me, it is impossible to detach myself from the weight of being both black and a woman.
In the same vein, we would not deny the social perspective of an LGBT student or suggest that the religious heritage of a Jewish student is irrelevant to who they are. Whether we are deemed “qualified” or not, our presence and identity on this campus matters.
In general, we must remember that gender and racial affirmative action are interconnected and of equal importance. In debating the merits of such policies, we cannot pick and choose which factors to support without implicitly showing our prejudices. It is either all or nothing.
While affirmative action is not a cure-all for the decades of entrenched socioeconomic inequalities, I am not willing to so easily give up on progressive legislation that has opened doors for millions of minorities (and yes, contrary to popular belief, this includes women). The glass ceiling won’t break itself.
Christina Hardison is a Wharton sophomore. Her email address is email@example.com.
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