How to take down a woman of colour with one word


Ruby Hamad

Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

On Monday, a Texas-based group calling itself Students For Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, arguing that all affirmative action programs should be banned in the United States.

This case highlights the increasing resentment felt towards anti-discrimination policies. One result of this resentment is the tendency for the success of women and racial minorities to be dismissed as tokenistic and undeserved.

"I was told I would make the Tropfest (Short Film Festival) finals because I am female," my friend Alethea Jones, a film director, told me. "I felt demoralised. I used to have moments when I thought they were right."

Her story is not unique. When Kathryn Bigelow won the directing Oscar for The Hurt Locker, author Brett Easton Ellis, claimed she was a "very hot woman" who was "overrated."


This casual dismissal of the talents of historically marginalised groups crosses geographical and occupational boundaries. "Ann," who works for a regional Australian arts program serving a highly culturally diverse area, says she always encounters resistance when attempting to appoint a person of colour (PoC) to the advisory board. Her colleagues dismiss the move as "tokenistic" regardless of the person's skills, betraying what Ann calls a "nasty protectionist streak".

On that note, in his now infamous leaked email, Sydney University poetry professor Barry Spurr scoffed that Australian of the Year Adam Goodes only received the honour so that Prime Minister Tony Abbott, "could put Abos in the constitution."

And it didn't take long after his election for Barack Obama to be derided as America's "Affirmative Action President", with one commentator describing his election as a "baffling breed of mass hysteria akin…to the witch craze of the Middle Ages."

Tellingly, those who question Obama's credentials do not, as The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, harbour such concerns when it comes to the easy success of rivals such as Mitt Romney:

"No one wonders what advantages accrued to Mitt Romney, a man who spent his early life ensconced in the preserve of...metropolitan Detroit. Romney's Detroit (like most of the country) prohibited black people from the best jobs, the best schools, the best neighbourhoods, and the best of everything else. The exclusive Detroit Golf Club, a short walk from one of Romney's childhood homes, didn't integrate until 1986. No one is skeptical of Mitt Romney because of the broader systemic advantages he enjoyed, advantages erected largely to ensure that this country would ever be run by men who looked like him."

Indeed, when someone like Romney succeeds, those who resent the success of minorities are the first ignore systemic privilege, and claim he did so on "merit." Merit. That elusive quality that seems to elude almost all women and PoC even as it drenches white, straight, middle-upper class men in its sweet nectar of privilege.

Let's get real. When it comes to the politics of the workplace, the word "merit" means approximately nothing in a country with only one female cabinet minister, and where just 13 per cent of parliamentarians are migrants or the children of migrants from non-English speaking countries. Not to mention, more broadly, where job candidates with Arab, Chinese and Indigenous-sounding names are up to 64 percent less likely to land an interview than those with Caucasian names.

And yet, "affirmative action" and "quotas" are becoming more controversial than the discrimination they were designed to address. These are now akin to swear words, flung in the faces of the marginalised to remind us of our inferiority. When a person of colour, or a woman, or heaven forbid, a woman of colour gets too outspoken, or too successful, or just too visible, they are the weapon used to put us in our rightful place.

I'm no stranger to people criticising my work, nor am I adverse to constructive criticism. But I was shocked to see three white writers -all published in major media outlets- suggest in a series of highly unprofessional (but now-deleted) tweets, that "quotas" were the likely answer to the "mystery" of how my writing "gets past an editor."

This is contemporary white supremacy in action. It is a not so subtle reminder that people of colour are interlopers, that we neither belong nor qualify, that we will always be less than, and any success we have has come at the expense of more deserving whites. And that of course, puts people of colour in the difficult position where we have to deny we only succeed because of quotas or because of affirmative action, which appears to be an admission that these are inherently bad things.

To the contrary, these programs, as United States Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayer, the first Latina woman appointed to the bench, revealed in a television interview, assist the talented but disadvantaged in overcoming discrimination. Indeed, affirmative action helped Sotomayer gain entry into Princeton, "a door-opener that changed the course of my life," but one that she was made to feel she hadn't earned.

We have to be clear on this. Affirmative action and quotas do not give minorities and women an unfair advantage. They give qualified and deserving people who would otherwise be cruelly overlooked an opportunity to compete with the beneficiaries of centuries of systemic privilege.

 "It seems that the Old Guard of white men protecting the barricades against hordes of women wanting jobs, voice and opportunity are now being replaced by the Old Guard of frightened white folk who cannot shake their deeply held prejudices," says Ann, the art program director. "(And they) can't even begin to imagine a world where PoC aren't just driving taxis and serving in takeaways but are equally represented and changing things in business, community and the arts."

Here is where we hit on an uncomfortable truth. It is, perhaps, those who protest loudest about quotas, and who trumpet the value of "merit" that just might have the least of it. As for my friend Alethea, not only did she make the Tropfest finals, she went on to win the competition with her film Lemonade Stand.

She is now in Hollywood having signed on to direct her first feature film.