Filling in the blank

EACH YEAR, the University's diversity pie includes a certain slice of admitted students who left their race blank on their applications. A recent study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities with the James Irvine Foundation found what many students could have told you: The vast majority of those students actually identify as white.

The study confirms my own experience: I'm white and I left my race blank on my application to the University.

I have always supported affirmative action, but as a high school student facing an uncertain future, I wasn't thinking about the larger principle. I was worried about getting into college. Facing the question, I reasoned, "Being white can only hurt me, so I should just leave it blank."

Four years later, I regret that decision, and I have since identified my race on graduate school and scholarship applications. But while I'm not proud of my choice, I offer the example because it's important for the University to understand that a number of white students have the same misperceptions about affirmative action. According to enrollment statistics for 2005, about 6.8 percent of enrolled undergraduates, or 906 students, declined to identify their race. This percentage has been rising steadily over the past four years, suggesting that the number of unclassified students will continue to rise in the future.

The University certainly has a more accurate picture of its diversity than some schools: One school in the study had an unknown population of 32 percent, most of whom would later identify as white.

White applicants' reluctance to identify their race is understandable. Media coverage of the affirmative action controversy includes little statistical information on the actual consequences of identifying as one racial category or another. When the issue is framed as unfairly denying admission to qualified white students, it's easy to imagine admissions officers thinking, "Another white person? Throw it out, we have enough of those."

In reality, identifying as white has very little impact on the admission chances of an individual applicant. In a study of admissions at the top public and private universities, former Harvard President Derek Bok and former Princeton University President William G. Bowen found that race-blind admissions would increase the probability of admission by only one-half of a percentage point for white students.

University Chief Diversity Officer William Harvey said in an interview that white students' reluctance to identify their race is probably due to "some unfortunate distortions that people with political agendas have offered in order to misrepresent what affirmative action is and how it really works." He expressed concern that white students think they are advantaging themselves by leaving the question blank, because the rationale behind the decision represents a misunderstanding of the admissions process.

Some white students might truly feel that the race question asks for an offensive simplification of their heritage. Race is, after all, a social construction, and each category encompasses a wide range of cultures and geographic origins.

It's also hard to admit to whiteness when the category is associated with the oppression of other groups. But even as we understand that racial categories aren't based on biological reality, it's important to acknowledge that appearing "white" or "black" or "Asian" has mattered tremendously in our nation's history, and we are still a long way from racial equality.

For students who genuinely identify as multiracial or a category not included on the application, it's perfectly fine to leave the question blank or check "other/unknown." But students of purely European heritage who identify as white should acknowledge their race when asked.

Your race will not be the only deciding factor, and more importantly, identifying your race helps schools to create a diverse student body -- something that we should all value. If the number of white students who leave their race blank continues to grow, it will become harder and harder to ensure that minority groups are represented.

Universities should emphasize to their applicants that race is one small factor in a complex process; qualified applicants will be seriously considered no matter which box they check. And as long as a percentage of applicants continue to leave the race question blank, we should assume that most of these students are probably white. An honest assessment of the "unknown" category will help us to judge the true diversity of the University.

Cari Lynn Hennessy's column usually appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at chennessy@cavalierdaily.com.

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