Saturday, February 16, 2013

Acting White? by Devon W. Carbado & Mitu Gulati - Book Review

Imagine that you've grown up in a small rural village in northern New York state. Your father has spent his life establishing a career in the relatively high salaried position as a corrections officer in the regional state penitentiary. His father worked as a jack-of-all trades doing logging in winter and working for members of the summer community as a care taker for their homes. Your mother, the daughter of subsistence farmers, cleaned cottages and worked in the local grocery stocking shelves in summer when the owners needed extra help. You attended the local school, where the average graduating class varied between fifteen and twenty members, and helped your mother with the housekeeping in summer cottages from as early as you remember. You were a bright and pretty girl, and one of the “summer people” took a liking to you as you reached adolescence, offering to pay your tuition at an elite boarding school in Massachusetts. Your parents jumped at the opportunity and off you went to school.

On the first day there, you saw the other kids coming to school in large SUV's and unloading clothing, computers, and stereos, as well as strange long sticks with baskets on the end and several pairs of skis each. You saw them greeting each other after the summer with casual affection and tremendous enthusiasm. You felt out of place, disconnected from all that was familiar to you. At the same time, you realized you had been handed an opportunity to change your circumstances and future beyond anything you had previously imagined. You were bright and observant, soon realizing that in order to fit in and succeed, much about you would have to be altered. You'd need to learn to speak, walk, dress, eat, and interact differently than you had ever seen others do or imagined for yourself. How would you become a part of this environment without losing your previous self? Could you find ways to fit in? Did you really want to make yourself over? Would it be possible for you to accomplish? Now, imagine that rather than being a cute, curly haired blond, you were an African American or a Latina/o with an clearly recognizable accent applying for admission to an elite college or university, seeking employment in a law firm or corporation, and trying to earn a promotion or partnership. How would you work your personality? This, roughly, is the supposition of Acting White?: Rethinking America in a Post-Racial America by Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati (Oxford University Press, 2013, 240 pgs. $29.95).

Written in the sometimes dense language of legal scholarship, this small and important book uses actual cases and numerous hypothetical situations (and alternatives) to clarify and complicate the nuances, misunderstandings, and complications of race, ethnicity, and gender in the American academy and workplace. Devon Corrado and Mitu Gulati are law professors, at UCLA and Duke respectively, who have been thinking about the issue of “working identity” as they affect how people assimilate or seek to maintain their identity while advancing in the American workplace. They place racism into a different perspective by acknowledging that situational factors and deeply held stereotypes contribute to creating a double bind for those wishing to advance when they are not viewed as insiders in an organization. By using thought experiments as well as real world examples, the authors clarify the legal and social issues confronting minorities in a changing world.

One of the governing ideas found in Acting White? is the “double bind.” As an example, they use President Barak Obama, who, when running for President, had to present himself as being “black enough” to be acceptable to the African American voters while being “white enough” to earn the votes of white voters. When he was confronted with the inflammatory language of the pastor of his church, he gave the famous speech on race that managed to negotiate these shoals sufficiently to allow his election. This example serves as a metaphor for the tricky landscape all minorities must master in the 21st century. So, for instance, an “employer who wants his African American employee to be black enough to function as window dressing for the firm ...but not so black as to create racial conflict or discomfort within the institution” is posited. (location 343 of 3788). The various examples and cases present the choices individuals make as being largely conscious strategies minority employees might utilize to fit into the position or institution. While the authors' argument is logically organized and tightly argued, it may be that they assert a consciousness (and perhaps cynicism) about decision making for employee and employer that may often be present, but more subtly than overt racism or sexism would be.

Arguments throughout the text raise (and confirm) that the issue of racism and sexism is both more pervasive and more subtle than the law or most discussions admit as well as more difficult to counter than outright hostility would be. The relational and internal calculus of joining, fitting in, and prospering in any organizational setting places outsiders, whether their outsiderness is attributed to being new or being different, within a context of working to fit in. Such work is more fraught with potential stumbling blocks for outsiders who are different in race, gender, or sexual orientation, as well as possible physical handicaps, religion, or national origin. This raises the issue of intra-group differences in addition to inter-group differences. For instance, what do black women signify by their decision to wear their hair in braids, as natural, or smoothed? The case of Darlene Jesperson vs. Harrah's Casino was an interesting study involving a woman working as a cocktail waitress refusing to wear makeup. Such considerations have implications beyond racial or sexual discrimination.

Devon W. Carbado - UCLA Law School
Mitu Gulati - Duke Law School

Devon W. Carbado graduated from Harvard Law School and teaches at UCLA School of Law where he specializes in Constitutional Law as well as Critical Race Theory. He has twice been named Professor of the Year. Mitu Gulati teaches at Duke School of Law where he specializes in Corporate Law and employment discrimination and critical race theory. One of his colleagues refers to him as “a Renaissance man.” They have been writing together about race and gender discrimination in the workplace and organizations for a decade. In Acting White?: Rethinking Race in a Post-Racial America they have provided a valuable discussion for legal professionals and interested lay people discussing the issues of race, gender, gender orientation and the ways that those people must “work their identity” in order to experience success. At times, the argument gets a little deep in the weeds of complex legal argument, but is worth the effort for the nuances it emphasizes and the difficulties in making decisions for people seeking to overcome long-standing workplace and school discrimination. Acting White? (240 pages, $29.95) will be published by the Oxford Univeristy Press March 1, 2013 and may be available earlier. It was provided me for review through Net Galley in an electronic edition.