The Academic One Drop Rule

“The one drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the United States that holds that a person with any trace of African ancestry is considered black.”

Although this narrow definition is no longer truly applicable as individuals now have the ability to identify with a number of groups and the concept of multiracial is no longer taboo. However, due to the dearth of researchers of color, the one drop rule emerges again in the academic realm, wherein one drop of non-white ancestry can come to define an individual and their work, especially in the fields of humanities and social sciences, resulting in a variety of outcomes.

One of the most pressing is the implicit responsibility to bring the topic of race to the table in seminars or discussion groups. I believe that this emerges from an academic (and cultural) desire towards multiculturalism and diversity. There is a sense of accomplishment that comes from the ability to “address all sides of an issue,” regardless of its validity. My point is really that this voice may speak even when distanced from the culture at hand. Being raised by a single (mostly) Chinese-Caribbean mother, I am distanced from the black (read: African American) perspective that dominates the binary discussions around American politics, culture, and psychology. However, my social upbringing and research gives me the relative background to present a voice, if not necessarily the voice, and the aforementioned lack of diverse voices at the table leads me to vocalize my opinions, albeit with feelings of hesitancy because of my distanced perspective.

Which leads to my second effect: the illusion of expertise. Although I often feel that the one-drop rule in academia is negative both for the individual and the discussion at hand, it affords the speaker some expertise, a strange position given the aforementioned hesitancy. Suddenly, there is a person of color in the discussion; therefore they must have something important to say. I don’t consider this a positive aspect, it perpetuates a lack of progress similar to *not* having a person of color in the room, but everyone feels better about the decisions made due to the simple mention of alternative perspectives.

And this defines my overall impression of the one drop rule: although it gives the illusion of diversity and multiculturalism, true progress and perspective will only come from incorporating other voices (not just faces) in the discussion. Diversity does not simply come from the existence of different colors, but from the mixing of different ideologies and perspectives. Furthermore, researchers and academics will never be able to speak to the population at large because of this lack of diversity, a lack so great so as to expect *any* representation to be *the* representation. I had a conversation with a girlfriend of mine who studies video games regarding whether or not the experience of video games can ever speak to “minority” audiences if there is no representation of these groups at the development level. Much like video games for girls, the development industry is dominated by white middle class men who cannot conceive of what will sell to girls or consumers of color; until we can encourage children of all backgrounds to pursue degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, and other necessary academic fields, components of our culture (video games *and* academia) will remain foreign and beyond their reach.

It is important to note that being a minority in a given group describes an experience that may be similar across various identity groups (e.g., women in science, or a boy raised in the Bronx as the secretary of state in the white house); individuals in these positions feel an overwhelming urge to explain and represent their minority experiences, while simultaneously trying to blend into the larger group and subdue their personal differences.

However, the academic one drop rule is special insomuch that multiracial individuals straddle multiple identifications, that is to say, that despite your personal identity as mixed, your department may identify you as black, thus categorizing you regardless of your own identification. I found this issue quite prevalent in the USC process; the fellowship application that I completed asked to “check one box” and did not offer an “other” or “mixed” option. I was shocked, as this was the application for the “diversity fellowship” which only emphasized USC’s need for actual diversity, not just color representation.

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
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