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Flap over Elizabeth Warren’s heritage shows: Mixed-race Americans face awkward questions

In the mid-’90s, around the time Elizabeth Warren’s name was appearing on a list of minority law professors, I was applying for entry-level reporting jobs at dozens of newspapers. In a few cases — one of which involved a summer job at a paper tartly critical of affirmative action — something odd happened. First came the nibble of interest; later, the bashful questions: What, exactly, was my ethnic background? Perhaps I’d like to be considered for a minority internship?

At the time, I was in my early 20s, underemployed, and eager to please. But did I qualify? It was hard to say. One of my parents is Filipino; the other is white; my surname is Spanish. Still, I disliked the implication that my dull, dutiful stories, which I’d clipped to my resume, were suddenly fascinating if their author were less ambiguously ethnic. What grated most — what steered me away from these strange, unbidden opportunities — was that no one asked: Are you actually disadvantaged in some way? Does your ethnicity relate in any way to what you’ve written?

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Which brings us back to Elizabeth Warren. We may never know whether she played up her scant Native American ancestry to advance her academic career. But whatever the flap says about the Harvard law professor’s US Senate campaign, it also reflects badly on the ham-fisted, box-checking approach that many employers once took toward diversity — and that some still use today.

Especially in the 1980s and ’90s, the heyday of identity politics, the well-justified desire to open academia and other fields to people of color led in practice to some awkward moments, at least for those who bristled at having their experiences of life reduced to “white,” “black,” “Asian,” “Hispanic,” or “Native American.” And even now, when jobs and school admissions may still ride on these crude categories, anyone whose ancestry falls outside or between them is in a painful spot.

As for Warren, it’s easy to imagine that, in their rush to get less white and less male quickly, law school faculties might have scrounged around in a promising job candidate’s background in the hope of finding some diversity. Warren comes from a state crafted from the former Indian Territory, a state whose license plates bear the slogan “Native America.” You can almost hear a wishful line of questioning: “You’re from Oklahoma? Are you, by any chance, part Indian?” To which a legal scholar who’s at least 1/32nd-Cherokee could answer honestly: “Well, I’m not not.”

This lets Warren off too easily. On Wednesday, she said she’d identified herself as a member of a minority in a directory of law professors because she wanted to connect with others “for whom Native American is part of their heritage and part of their hearts.” Her explanation makes little sense. Why not join a genealogy club instead?

Yet if Warren handled this subject badly, let’s admit that it’s impossible to handle well. The question still lurks: Are you “diverse” or not? For mixed-race Americans who mean neither to exploit their ancestry nor minimize it, politely brushing aside the issue is harder than it seems.

Meanwhile, the usual ethnic categories keep blurring at the edges; the 2010 census counted over 9 million Americans as multiracial. Yet as The New York Times reported last summer, many elite colleges still can’t say how multiracial applicants fit in with their diversity goals. So applicants are left to fret: Check every box that applies, or hope that skipping the question entirely won’t keep you from getting in?

This isn’t a rant against promoting diversity. We need lawyers and doctors and teachers and reporters who’ve known life outside the affluent, often monochrome suburbs of the Northeast Corridor, and who’ve done something besides jumping from one parentally subsidized resume-building activity to the next.

But even today, our Dilbert-like workplace bureaucracies — the hiring committees, the stilted phone interviews, the people scurrying around to deliver what they think the boss wants — often can’t detect the kinds of diversity that matter most. They just aren’t up to the task of judging how applicants’ backgrounds might influence their work.

Under different circumstances, mixed ancestry could be a gift, one that brings the ability to float above America’s long, tortured racial history and observe it from a critical distance. With time, the old categories may blur enough, and old prejudices may erode enough, to make this whole subject seem quaint.

For now, though, the hiring committee and the admissions office are sending a different message: You’re not so special. Just check a box.

Dante Ramos is deputy editor of the Globe’s editorial page. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.
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