Myth: Affirmative Action Beneficiaries are Stigmatized
| Laura M. Padilla
excerpted from: Laura M. Padilla, Intersectionality And Positionality: Situating Women of Color in The Affirmative Action Dialogue, 66 Fordham Law Review 843, 853-885 (December, 1997)(432 footnotes omitted)
The fourth myth is that affirmative action stigmatizes beneficiaries. Critics claim that affirmative action results in continued negative stereotypes of beneficiaries and causes self-doubt and low self-esteem among those beneficiaries who believe they have attained their positions because of affirmative action. For most beneficiaries, this is simply inaccurate--no evidence exists that the majority of affirmative action beneficiaries are stigmatized.
Even if there is some truth to the stigma criticism for occasional beneficiaries, for women of color who have been conditioned to feel low self- esteem and self doubt, the experience is hardly novel. For example, I have spoken with many women of color about their law school experiences of attending class, hearing a professor say something demeaning about women of color, noticing no reaction among their classmates, and ultimately wondering, "Is it just me?" To illustrate, at a conference at Harvard Law School organized by the Women of Color Collective, when one panelist described the "is it just me" phenomenon, women throughout the audience nodded their heads in understanding.
To the extent there is self-doubt or stigma among women of color, there are many explanations other than, or in addition to, affirmative action. For example, women of color already may lack confidence because of family upbringing or cultural or social conditioning, regardless of the existence of affirmative action. Furthermore, many women of color have been treated with disrespect and the expectation that they will not succeed-- too often self-fulfilling prophecies. A large percentage of women of color enter traditional occupations such as housecleaning, childcare, and other service/servant types of jobs. There are few women who look like them in positions of power or looking after them and their interests. These factors are much more likely to cause low self-esteem or stigma than affirmative action, which could give them a boost out of the colored feminization of poverty.
Regardless of affirmative action, women of color's qualifications are often suspect in the eyes of their colleagues or peers. Until we truly have a color-blind society, however, people will always wonder whether women of color qualify for positions. Women of color often have to work harder just to get the respect that their white male colleagues enjoy as a birth right. The presumption favoring white males seems to be that they are qualified until they prove otherwise. With women of color, the presumption seems to be that they are unqualified until they prove otherwise.
Blacks and whites must face the fact that affirmative action has made no significant difference in the way whites look at blacks. Competent and successful blacks are still seen as exceptional. Before and since affirmative action, most white people see another white as competent until proven incompetent and a black person as incompetent until proved competent. Thus, there is little risk that affirmative action would wound our self-esteem to the point of disabling us, and it certainly would not be the worst wound we have borne. We would welcome some open doors even with the potential accompanying "stigma risk." This risk is much more attractive than joblessness or low paying work. Furthermore, any stigma- attached downside to affirmative action does not outweigh the upside of providing opportunities for women of color that would not otherwise exist.