- - Monday, April 30, 2012

During this month of May, government agencies, schools and corporate workplaces across the country will be commemorating Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. Like Black History Month (February) and Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 through Oct. 15), this flavor of the month is intended to recognize the contributions and challenges of a particular subgroup of Americans, as determined by race and ethnicity.

Albeit well-intentioned, these types of race-based commemorations are rooted in an irrational, counterproductive and, in some ways, patronizing mindset that Americans would do better to abandon. While these types of programs are ostensibly open to everyone regardless of race, it has been my personal experience in both the private and public sectors that a particular emphasis is given to employees who are deemed to fit within the racial identity dujour.

For federal agencies, race-based commemorations are typically implemented under the banner of “equal employment opportunity” offices and are particularly illogical for this reason. By their express name, these departments exist to ensure employees are treated equally. The creation of programs that single out employees for special recognition on the basis of their race instead of their individual merits runs contrary to the ostensible mission of equality.

If race-based commemorations are at odds with the language of “equality,” at least government agencies are using the right term, which is more than can be said of Corporate America. There, the intellectually sloppy but fashionable buzzword is “diversity.” Biologists typically use this word to describe the array of animal and plant life within a particular ecosystem. “Diversity” is thus concerned about characteristics that distinguish particular members of a species from other members.

What makes humans unique from other species is our sense of self-awareness, self-consciousness and self-identity. While even a young child may understand that there are not two people out of the billions on earth who are identical, it is unclear whether other species share this understanding. To apply the term “diversity” to people is thus dehumanizing. What we should be emphasizing instead is the essential human element of “individuality.” Therefore, while race-based commemorations may comport better with the private sector’s obsession with “diversity,” the motivation for such programs is no better.

Aside from their underlying logic and motivation, race-based commemorations are also counterproductive. The ostensible intent of these programs seems to be to enhance racial awareness. At this point, we should ask, awareness for what purpose? Unless one’s employment involves tabulating demographic information for the Census Bureau (a practice with certain moral questions of its own), it seems the goal of modern society should be to minimize the role of racial categorization.

Our objective should be to treat everyone equally, regardless of race. But race-based commemorations bring race to the forefront. To the extent individuals are acknowledged for their race, there is an attached implication that all individuals who share certain physical characteristics or ancestries comprising a particular race also share certain other nonphysical traits. In any other context, this is called “stereotyping.”

Yet some may still argue that logic and philosophy notwithstanding, the practical reality is that race is an integral part of identity. It is not an option for us whether we choose to wear race on our sleeves; it is indelibly etched in the color of our skin. Even if we choose not to view ourselves through the lens of race, others will still do so. This defeatist view is incorrect because it focuses not on individual identity, which derives from within one’s own person, but rather on a notion of group identity that is derivative of others. Even the pervasive association of skin color with race is often flawed, as Philip Roth illustrated in his novel-turned movie, “The Human Stain.”

If acknowledging individuals’ unique experiences is the agenda, it is also a puzzle why other characteristics aren’t used. As I am reminded every time I struggle to reach the top shelf at the store, I would posit that my height plays a much greater role in my everyday experience and identity. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the same may be true for former basketball star Yao Ming. Moreover, if equal employment opportunity and discrimination are concerns, studies have shown that there exists a strong positive workplace correlation between height and leadership positions. Yet we don’t have a Vertically Challenged Awareness Month.

More than any physical characteristic or place of ancestry, the fact that I was born in the United States of America has had the greatest impact on shaping my identity. More than just about any other country in the world, we are a society where people’s individual merits matter most. This month of May, and every month, let us celebrate that marvel of modern thinking.

Eric Wang is a Washington attorney.