Minority Report

Last week I sent out a job app, well, internship app to be truthful. After all I’m a grad student again. But its significant to me because it was the first one I have applied to in the field of archives. I am just now wrapping up an internship at a museum library and being that this is the first time I’ve written a cover letter for an archives position I sought out one of the senior archivists for advice. We talked about what sort of language to use, making sure I could describe the work I had already accomplished with the proper jargon.

Then he said, “And you should say something about your heritage. You’ve probably already got a couple of lines you’ve worked out. Make sure you put that in there too.” I knew exactly what he was talking about.

I think, maybe this is a defining quality of white ethnicity in the US: in certain circumstances you have the option of unlocking minority status or else opt to coast on white (male) privilege. Which version of “me” do I want to deploy in such-and-such a context? In the case of a job letter without a name that marks you as “other” it is your privilege to have the agency to chose the minority identity. Such as it is.

I did, indeed, have a couple of lines already worked out from previous letters. But to be perfectly honest I haven’t really used that language in years. This was a letter writing strategy that I employed very reliably as an ABD, particularly in the days when I was applying to everything. As time passed, I changed, my letters changed. I had other things to say.

The first thing I did, naturally, was to post something about it on my Facebook status. The senior archivist was giving me advice, he said to include the minority hire language but I don’t really do that anymore… idk…

No one in FB-land discouraged me from making a statement about my identity in the cover letter. I felt encouraged. So I went into the back-up hard drive and found the old letters. Boy there’s a trip! Go read your old job apps! I thought, “Maybe there’s a grad student or professional early in their career who could benefit from seeing this language.” So I decided to share.

I had pretty exceptional teaching experience as an ABD and I would apply to a lot of teaching heavy jobs. The cover letter would feature a paragraph on a service learning class I taught at UNC-CH on diversity and US multiculturalism. At the end of that paragraph I would transition into a personal statement: my teaching is an expression of my politics (there’s a lot of this social justice language in my early job letters). What I’m attempting to do here is position myself as uniquely qualified help minority students achieve their educational goals:

As a Mexican-American doctoral candidate who has been well served by outstanding mentors and training I am determined to seek out new ways of promoting and sustaining a diverse presence in higher education. My desire to teach anthropology has only grown as my academic career has progressed and I envision a future professional trajectory that includes recruiting, supporting, and encouraging underrepresented students in their pursuit of scholarship and personal growth. I plan on being involved in cultivating and retaining a diverse student body by being a scholar and mentor who is active in student life.

Here’s another version of the same thing. Every institution is a kind of community and those communities shape and are shaped by racial politics and local histories. Sometimes those politics are fraught with conflict, like at small liberal arts colleges that are really white and have a reputation for being really white unto the point where that it becomes highly problematic and is on the front page of the paper and stuff. For better or worse, I brought that up too:

As a Mexican-American scholar who has benefited from excellent training through institutions of public education I envision a future professional trajectory that includes recruiting, supporting, and encouraging underrepresented students in their pursuit of scholarship and personal growth. I plan on being involved in cultivating and retaining a diverse student body at U. of ____ by being a scholar and mentor who is active in student life. Moreover, I would be interested in working with administration, faculty, and students to improve the U. of ____ experience for minority students.

Basically, to claim a minority identity in a cover letter is to make a personal statement, but you are not going to get the interview based on who you are. The search committee is far more interested in what you’ve done (funding, research & publication). In 2009 I was still applying for a lot of jobs with an emphasis on teaching. Sometimes these would ask for a separate teaching philosophy and here you can say a little bit more about how who you are shapes the kind of person you are in the classroom. Meanwhile, back in the cover letter, you want to allude to your strengths in teaching and, if you’re me and wear your heart on your sleeve, some anthropology of neoliberalism filtered through bell hooks:

Institutions of higher education play an important role in the U.S. as native residents increasingly come into contact with foreign born immigrants and their American born children. Because the undergraduate experience encourages one to imagine ways of seeing and valuing the world different from one’s own it informs the way we encounter and understand human diversity. The commodities we use, the food we eat, the entertainment we consume, and the affairs of our nation are deeply enmeshed in global flows that lay just beyond our peripheral vision. Teaching young people to use critical thinking to promote engaged citizenship is incredibly vital to anthropology’s mission because it draws attention to things taken for granted and forces students to look at their own values in a new light.

As a Mexican-American scholar who has benefited from excellent training through institutions of public education I envision a future professional trajectory that includes recruiting, supporting, and encouraging underrepresented students in their pursuit of scholarship and personal growth. I plan on being involved in cultivating and retaining a diverse student body at U. of____ by being a scholar and mentor who is proactive in preparing students with the critical thinking skills they will need to be successful undergraduates and civically engaged young men and women.

So in the 2008 letter I was talking about a specific classroom experience I had that was relevant to diversity and segued from that into a statement about myself. Here in the 2009 letter I have a more political/ philosophical statement and the ethnic identity comes in to describe the sort of professional I see myself becoming in the future.

My job seeking behavior peaked in 2008 and 2009 as my wife struggled with the early years of Assistant Professor Hell and we were certain we’d be happier any place but here. By 2010 the most oppressive pre-tenure years seemed to have passed, she got used to it, or we figured we were in too deep to pull out now. From here on I applied to fewer jobs, focusing solely on what I could commute to. This is also when I started exploring other possibilities besides professordom, including the paths that eventually lead to Savage Minds and library school.

Here’s some language from an admissions officer job. This is a completely different kind of letter:

Speaking as a Mexican-American who has benefited from an excellent public education I would be honored to help U. of _____ target outstanding minority candidates. I too graduated from a public liberal arts college and it has helped me to see how course materials connect to the real world in a way that is both general and personal.

Something like an admissions officer is a very public position. Whenever you are interacting with the public as a representative of a university, optics is very important. They absolutely want to hire the right kind of minority professionals in order to recruit the right kind of minority students. If you were once where their prospective students are now, then you can relate to them, perhaps in a more personal way than someone else. That is relevant.

I guess I stopped the minority hire language by this point? I was unable to find any job letters from ’11, ’12, or ’13 that contained language that was a personal statement about my identity. I really haven’t done this in a while!

It was back to the drawing board for me. The archives job was a very different letter to write, I made no mention of my teaching experience even though I’ve been doing it professionally for the past four years. In this letter I put the personal statement last. It comes in a paragraph about what sort of professional I envision myself becoming and how this internship in particular is going to prepare me for that. What I’m emphasizing here is how I have a very unique background that is different from most other LIS students.

I feel that I have a unique set of skills and perspectives, as an anthropologist, as a Mexican-American, as a leader in my community on the public library’s Board of Trustees, that can positively contribute to how scholars approach the study of the past. I think archival work comes with it a sense of duty to the future to protect the past as if it were a precious, non-renewable resource. We don’t know what the future will find valuable in the past and so it is important, in a democratic sense, that archives be expansive and inclusive of multiple publics.

So this is a kind of stealth approach. The ethnic identity is slipped in there with other things about me that are interesting and relevant but not elaborated on elsewhere in the letter. I put it out there and move on. The politics of intentional inclusiveness are still there too, but redirected and refocused on a new topic and new work environment.

My first year in grad school one of my white, male professors stated that a minority hire was so desirable it was, in effect, a kind of tie breaker. That is, in a scenario where you had two job candidates that were equally qualified the offer would go first to the minority applicant. What he was intimating was that in such a situation the white applicant was at a disadvantage. I’m sure there are similar sentiments about hiring women in departments dominated by men such as engineering or computer science. As an applicant you don’t always know what sort of racial calculus is going on in the heads of the search committee or if claiming minority status is actually beneficial to you. If some part of your identity is legible in your name, you don’t have the privilege of that agency.

While a grad student may hone their auto-ethnographic statements writing for the Ford fellowships or the AAA dissertation awards the job letter is a different beast entirely. You could probably find better cover letter writing advice than mine. In fact after four years an adjunct I’m sure of it! But I had not seen notes on making personal statements about your identity. I just thought if I put my own lines and ideas out there a reader somewhere might share theirs in the comments.

Good luck to you all, job seekers. And happy hunting!

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

One thought on “Minority Report

  1. Interesting. I sometimes wonder about the reverse. Through marriage, I could potentially take on a Latina name (e.g. Celia Gonzales) but without ‘rights’ of ownership. Similarly, a friend of mine was invited to diversity weekend at an elite college–then the offer was rescinded when they realized that his ‘African female’ name actually belonged to an unusual white male.

    There are many studies that evaluate our impressions of faces and names, but none I know of that really differentiate what happens when a “minority” has a “white” name or when a “white” person has a “minority” name. Does it matter whether name or face comes first? Why do these two things matter so much? Does this ‘mixed’ identity matter for diversity hiring, or among discriminatory hires? I have to imagine there are both setback and benefits–and many, many questions!

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