Several years ago a black colleague and I stood in the newsroom admiring the depth of a tan I had acquired during my Caribbean vacation. The conversation attracted the attention of a popular white editor whom I appreciated for his news savvy and quick wit. He leaned in, adopted a comic conspiratorial stance and whispered incredulously: "Black people tan?"
We searched his face for a telling smirk, bracing for a zinger punch line. None came. He was waiting in earnest for an answer.
Was he a fool? A racist? Or was it simply that he just didn't know much about blacks? After all, he'd been raised in a lily-white community, gone to predominantly white schools, and for most of his career he'd never had a black colleague.
That incident came to mind as Congress and President Bush wrangled over the Civil Rights Act of 1990, shamelessly debating the negative effect of affirmative action on white people.
I wish I could argue the virtues of affirmative action with the same degree of absolute certainty of the policy's political defenders and detractors. But, it's easy to argue abstractions. It is another matter when the most important passages of your life were shaped by a policy that has both hurt and helped you. That has been my relationship with affirmative action.
A few years before I got to my first newsroom, white malehood had predominated there. It was a reflection of the industry. Family ties, school ties, a shared barbershop, a favorite haber--er, personal interests and commonality in race and gender predicted who got the job. Understandably, where there is an option, most of us stay within our comfort zones and gravitate to what we know. So, since it was white men making the selections, it was white men who accounted for nearly all of the hires.
Were it not for the publisher's official policy to diversify that newsroom, I might still be working as a secretary for Wall Street law firms that assiduously practiced the kind of affirmative action -- which many whites will not acknowledge now -- that had for decades assuredthat all the bosses would be white males.
Affirmative action on behalf of women and minorities served as passport to journalism in much the way the recommendation of a relative to the boss serves as entree for a young family member interested in the business. I had no relatives in journalism. I didn't even know there was such a thing as black reporters. In fact, in the isolation of my neighborhood I didn't even know there was an industry that paid people to be curious and write about what they found. And my teachers helped contribute to my ignorance.
At the all-girl Catholic high school I attended, teachers steered the dozen or so black students into the "helping" professions. We would be nurses, teachers or social workers. I studied for careers in the first two disciplines but chucked them both to pursue journalism after the Kerner Commission report publicly declared what many of us already knew about the stratifying, disenfranchising impact of racism in America. There was a move afoot to change things for the better, so I thought. I saw my chance to be a part of it.
Getting in was difficult on my own. It was a five-year odyssey of rejection as I sought to crack the old-boy network that served as a barrier to women and minorities. I suffered dozens of frigid interviews with blank-eyed white editors accustomed only to hiring people who looked like themselves. It would have been far easier for me to continue peddling free-lance stories to black and suburban publications. They fit my comfort zone. But I did not want isolation. I wanted to achieve in the American mainstream.
Acceptance in a journalism program that found and trained the qualified minorities white employers swore they could not find led me to that first job.
As an apprentice I was riddled with normal amounts of self-doubt and fear of failing. Writers are a fragile lot as it is and plagued by more self-doubt than most. It is as much of an occupational hazard as libel suits. But coming into the workplace wearing the affirmative action label added to my concerns. I feared that one day someone no longer able to restrain resentment would let slip that I was there only because I was black, not because I was bright and talented.
However, I lasted and moved on to other newspapers. But after 13 years in the business, I still find myself retreating to a stall in the ladies' room after a particularly trying day, despairing and arguing with myself, questioning my abilities. "Am I good, or am I here because I am black?"
Emotional flogging is one of the legacies of affirmative action. Often, it is we "minorities" inflicting the lashes. We are always pressing to be better than our best moments, mindful of our parents' frequent admonishments that we must be "twice as good" to make it in the white world.
Affirmative action consideration thrusts us into a world where there are caveats to our successes without the luxury of being average.
But civil rights legislation was not meant to create grief.
Idealistically, it was designed to throw people together, to coax the larger society into examining its biases. In reality it was to be a balancing agent to neutralize the effect of brazen bigotry.
Instead, after 20 years, discussions have descended into rancorous debates about quotas and white backlash.
But if there is a problem with the policy, it is not with the concept but rather with the blatantly negative attitudes resisters brought to the implementation from the beginning. That persistent baseless animosity has pitched white against non-white and males against females in the workplace.
Diversity and a genuine sentiment for achieving it has not been given half a chance. If it were, each of us might grow to understand the other, respect our differences and perhaps not have to ask if brown skin burns in the sun.
Allegra Bennett is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.