Do you recall the first time you stepped into an international business reception at a major hotel and found yourself amidst a sea of Asian faces? If so, you may also have noticed a diversity of Asian cultures and conversations in some incomprehensible languages: Cantonese Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and perhaps others. If you have been put off when people in your presence have spoken a language other than English, you are not alone.
Meet the Class of 2020:
Kevin Womack Works to Increase Diversity in Data Science
As an undergraduate student at Morehouse College, Kevin Womack double majored in mathematics and computer science. To study two such demanding fields was doubly difficult, he says. But, crediting his mother (an engineer) and his father (a computer scientist), Womack says that quantitative reasoning came naturally to him and he was undaunted by the workload. Now a student in the master’s degree program at the Data Science Institute at Columbia University, Womack excels in his coursework and is an advocate for increased diversity in data science. Here, he discusses his background, his career goals, and his commitment to diversity.
Tell us about your time as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Years ago, I penned a piece, “The N-Word Still Stings,” a day after having the word – rather, the dagger – hurled at me from beer guzzling cowards on the back of a pickup truck while I was out walking in the neighborhood. Which brings us back into the N-word conundrum in February 2020. It continues to raise its ugly head – during African American History Month 2020, mind you. During “post racial America,” mind you. During America “made great again,” mind you.
You see, in a small city in the South, one still reeling from an acrimonious removal of the name of a Confederate general from the local school, a white kid called an African American classmate the “N-Word.” And the black kid’s mom went ballistic. When the local newspaper picked up on this controversy, it published it. Soon the small city deteriorated into a city-wide freak out along racial line.
James Baldwin, the 20th century black intellectual, renaissance author and cultural critic, once observed: “History is the present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal.”
In addition to recognizing African American trailblazers of centuries past during Black History Month, it’s also instructive to consider more recent history. That’s why a compelling new book by historian Elwood David Watson, Ph.D. is recommended reading:
Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press).
Our world is burning up from within. We need action – now – to lower the earth’s temperature, to stop mass incarceration , child abuse, and human trafficking. And what about self-harm and self-hate? Why does our own spirit twist against us so violently?
Searching for more answers – or at least some deeper insights – I turned to the lives of three people burned by hate, and burning with love. The first is Vietnamese monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh.
On Monday the nation will pause to observe the annual holiday honoring the life and legacy of iconic civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet too many Millennials and members of their younger cohort, Generation Z, consider civil rights history as ancient history at the dawn of a new millennium.
However, there are profound and poignant lessons which today’s young people need to learn. The most important lesson is how to make major changes in society through the type of peaceful means championed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights leaders of the time.
A term of significance for young people to comprehend is: “civil disobedience.”
Then and Now
From 1868 (and a 14th amendment that gave birth to black “Americans”) to 1968 (which saw the brutal murder of a black Christian preacher whose elevated voice of the oppressed was silenced), 100 years of segregationist policies and practices protected and preserved white supremacy and oppressed nonwhites.
Those policies & practices didn’t die with the reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They remain in place today, more than 50 years later, in every city in America.
Intersectionality in 2020
Camila and Susana are two Latinx professional women. Also, they are not Latinx – there is more to them than meets the eye or ear. Camila grew up in Buenos Aires with an Argentinian mom and a Guatemalan dad, but as the Jewish granddaughter of European immigrants, she feels most connected to Israel. Susana is biologically White, but as a fluent Spanish speaker with decades of close ties to Mexico, and cultural comfort with Latinos, she often passes as Latinx.
Since most organizations strive to categorize people into simple identity boxes, intersectional multi-identity people like Camila and Susana present challenges we’ve already discussed. “Intersectionality” was coined by scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how interlocking systems of power affect marginalized people through the combination of our various identities – for example a woman of color’s experience is different from that of a man of color because of her gender. And while there are concrete practices others can adopt that create more inclusive environments for multi-identity people, those like us who live intersectionality every day often struggle with existential questions: What makes someone Latinx? And who has the right to claim a Latinx identity?
Is identity a choice?
While others can adapt to be more inclusive of multi-identity people and reap the rewards, intersectional individuals have to adapt by engaging the questions our multi-identity raises. When the world constantly asks us to choose between our multiple selves, or regularly dismisses one of them, how do we identify in a way that makes sense and feels right? What do we have the right to identify with?
The individualistic answer would be: you have the right to identify however you wish. This approach is tempting because it’s simple and empowering. However, identity has always been co-created with one’s group because it functions to identify a person as a member of that group and bestow the corresponding benefits and responsibilities. The individualistic answer can be dangerous precisely because of those benefits and responsibilities.
Is it ok to claim a Latinx identity without biological Latinx heritage?
While “passing” as White or male is an historic strategy that women and people of color have long employed to enjoy greater physical safety, work opportunities and social access, proclaiming membership in a community of color without the corresponding genes presents an entirely different dynamic because it represents a “power-down” rather than “power-up” move in the social hierarchy. Doing so at one’s own discretion can confer unearned benefits without taking on the responsibilities. Responsibilities include assuming the duties and disadvantages of the identity. Individuals who claim membership in a community of color only when it’s convenient, and do so without “permission,” are rightly accused of exercising white privilege or cultural appropriation. One need only look to Rachel Dolezal’s infamous “passing” as an African American for an example of the destruction such identity appropriation can cause.
However, if a community confers their identity on an individual, that is another matter. Susana has only identified herself as Latina twice – both in superficial social situations just to see if she could get away with it. On official documents she identifies as White, “other” or “it’s complicated.” However, many Mexicans, Latin@s and Chicano@s have identified her as Mexican, Latina or Chicana for three decades. It’s through an interplay between others’ perceptions and Susana’s own sense of belonging in Latinx culture that her multi-identity was forged.
Is it ok to not identify primarily as Latina if one was born in Latin America?
For intersectional, multi-identity people like Camila, the invitation is also to explore an interplay between self-perception and others’ views. Camila has every right to identify as Jewish instead of Latin American or Argentinian because she is a member of all three identities –in fact, her recent 23&Me genetic test revealed her to be 99% Ashkenazi Jewish. Conversely, she doesn’t have the right to deny the community that raised her their right to view her as Latina since Argentinian and Guatemalan heritage also defined her foundation.
Resolving the dilemmas of identity
Today’s complex identity milieu may require new terms, such as “transcultural.” In a research paper Susana presented at an academic conference in 2003, transculturals are “individuals that find themselves to be more culturally similar to members of groups that are not of their same race or ethnicity but with whom these individuals resonate, and perhaps identify, and by whom they are accepted.”
But being transcultural requires great conscientiousness. “I’ve had to ‘come out’ as White several times to friends, colleagues and clients – a few of whom still don’t believe I’m not biologically Latina,” says Susana. “It would have been easier to just assume a Latina identity. I’ve been selected over Latinos for jobs because I was more fluent in Spanish. I’ve had Chicanos and mexicanos tell me they consider me Latina or a person of color…It’s confusing and I don’t always know what’s right.”
For those like Susana, the invitation is to explore multi-identity with integrity, and to engage in ongoing internal dialogue with their motivations, choices and consequences. For Camila, being an intersectional person means she can choose to identify as both Jewish and Latina without apology – reveling both in Bat Mitzvahs and dancing salsa even if one of her identities prevails as her most defining.
Susana’s and Camila’s stories illustrate how identity is a combination of what we feel or claim as well as how others perceive us. This is what it means to be part of a human community. Taking on whatever identity we think is trendy – or an a-la-carte approach where we take a little of this-and-that without also owning the downsides and duties – is disrespectful and harmful. Identity then becomes like clothing instead of skin, with all the corresponding creative license but superficiality and capriciousness.
A Latinx answer to the question of “right to identity” might be “both-and” instead of “either-or.” The answer lies in the space between personal choice and absolute deference to what the tribe dictates – in an ongoing, active dialogue between self and other, self and society. Perhaps it also lies in the space between “should” and “is.” Many believe identity “should” not matter in how people are perceived and treated, but science as well as our human experience show that what “is” is that we inhabit bodies that others interpret and categorize – and that we interpret and categorize others all day, every day. ■
Note: Names and some details have been changed to protect anonymity.
When people talk about “Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices in the legal profession” we hear a lot of the same things over and over again. Well, I have come across a first, a truly innovative Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leading best practice. You heard it from me first, right here, right now.
Harrity is the nation’s leading patent preparation and prosecution firm specializing in the electrical and mechanical technology areas, and is considered a Go-To firm for the Patent 300. Harrity recently launched its first Minority Firm Incubator program to help train, develop, and launch minority-owned patent law firms. This paid program is an integral part of the firm’s ongoing diversity initiative to recruit, retain, and advance attorneys who will contribute to the increasing diversity of the patent field.
His name is Stan Maclin. He lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, having moved there 20 years ago. He is the founder and curator of the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center in that city.
It should come as no surprise then that Maclin’s Center has garnered national attention and many phone calls ignited by the recently released movie “Harriett,” the story of Harriett Tubman who single handedly made many forays deep into the south to free slaves.
When asked why he started the Center, in words that undoubtedly flowed from his mouth hundreds of times over the years, Maclin said that he wanted to open a place where African Americans can learn about their history, identity, and culture. He wanted to be able the educate future generations so that history does not repeat itself.