I am a woman in my 20s, and I’ve been encouraged to apply for grants and fellowships intended to support people of color. They seem like great opportunities, but I’m not sure if it’s right for me to take them. On the one hand, my entire family is from the Middle East, I have a conspicuously foreign-sounding name, and I’d probably get some funny looks at a Trump rally. On the other hand, I grew up in Europe, went to top American universities, and consider myself a very privileged individual. I don’t think my “race” (whatever that might be) has ever significantly helped or hurt my career, and until recently, it never occurred to me that I might be considered anything but “white” in a personal or professional context. So I’m not sure where I stand. What matters more: that other people might see me as a POC, or that I don’t generally identify as one myself? For what it’s worth, a number of other people with my heritage publicly identify as nonwhite.—Person of (Some) Color
Opportunities to be well-paid for intellectual labor are precious. However, you are right to approach these particular opportunities with caution. I say this not because other people deserve them more than you: Though we all wish such fellowships, and affirmative action in general, were more precisely targeted to disadvantaged people—like working-class African Americans, or poor, rural white people—it is not your fault that they are not.
The problem, PO(S)C, is that reinventing yourself as a “person of color” would require you to define yourself in a way that won’t feel authentic to you. At a time when you’re still young and figuring out who you are, you don’t want to allow these institutions to figure it out for you, especially since you’re a political person, with your own ideas about race and privilege. Catherine Liu, a professor of film and media studies in the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, tells me that being anointed as a representative of elite diversity isn’t always good for people: “I’ve seen young people of color from very privileged backgrounds having trouble figuring out who they are.” Once you get a lot of career rewards for being a “person of color,” whatever that means, you may find you have to keep performing this identity.
Not only might this be limiting for you, it could also enmesh you in a neoliberal project that is at odds with your politics. According to Liu, whose recent work has explored problems with diversity, neoliberalism, and meritocracy, the presence of diversity in elite institutions is “meant to make these institutions seem more inclusive and tolerant.” This is a problem, because they aren’t; that’s what makes them elite institutions. Further, adds Liu, “once you become a representative of that diversity, you become an example of the system’s tolerance.” You are right now, Liu emphasizes, being “recruited” for this project.