Perhaps because I am not Caucasian. some friends and colleagues have been asking for my opinion on the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016. To one such query, I replied cryptically, “People should stop whining, and just get on with it.” Not surprisingly, my politically incorrect response was met with uncomfortable silence. Truth of the matter is, I have kept quiet about my own encounters with affirmative action for thirty years. I have managed to “get on with it,” but I think perhaps the time has now come for me to tell my story.
Up till the mid-1980s, I was content to be a “lecturer” in the English department at the University of Kansas, because the half-time appointment gave me a lot of time to pursue my own writing. However, being on half-time also meant that mine was not a tenure-track position, that there were only a limited number of courses I was allowed to teach, mostly classes in Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric, with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward. This went on for a number of years, and then an opportunity presented itself in the mid-1980s. There was suddenly an opening for a creative writing position in the department.
Although I was known at that time primarily as a playwright, having written nine plays, one of which had been presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and two of which had been produced Off-Broadway in New York, I had also already published a collection of my earlier, prize-winning short fiction. Out of curiosity, I asked the chair of the department if I should apply for the creative writing position, because I could teach playwriting as well as fiction. “Why not?” he smiled amiably. “You have all the right qualifications. Besides, it would make Affirmative Action happy.” Although I was startled by his remark, I tried not to dwell on it. So I applied for the position, submitting all the necessary documents required—samples of my work, reviews from the press, student evaluations, letters of recommendations from peers and colleagues, etc.
Weeks went by. I heard that there were a lot of applications from all over the country, but that the committee in charge had narrowed down the list of candidates to six, who were all going to be interviewed at the MLA convention in December. My name was not on the list, but I was told that I was still being considered. “Should I go to the MLA convention in Chicago?” I asked. “No need,” a member of the committee reassured me. “We know all about you and your accomplishments, so there is no need for us to interview you.”
At the start of the spring semester in January, the department was told that two of the applicants who had been interviewed in Chicago were being invited for campus visits for further scrutiny and evaluation. No more was said about my application, so I simply assumed, quite correctly, that I was no longer being considered. The two candidates who were brought in were Carolyn Doty and Tom Lorenz, both of whom were novelists. When their campus visits were over, the department was overjoyed to learn that the administrators in Strong Hall had been so impressed by both Carolyn and Tom, they had decided the department could hire both of them, even though only one position had been advertised.
Another couple of years went by. After I turned 44 and had given up all hope of ever teaching anything beyond Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric, with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward, K.U. had a new chancellor, Robert Hemenway, who was very concerned about the lack of diversity among the faculty. He sent out word that anyone of color who was already on the periphery at the university, should be brought into the fold quickly, bypassing the usual national search. The same English department chair who had encouraged me to make Affirmative Action happy, now took it upon himself to champion my cause with the new chancellor. Thus, in 1989, I stopped being a “lecturer,” and became a legitimate tenure-track professor at K.U. Another lecturer with whom I had been friendly, a lesbian from Australia who was also a novelist, confronted me at a party shortly afterwards and said drunkenly, “I may be the right gender, but my skin is the wrong color, and my eyes are the wrong shape.” I don’t know how many others in the department shared her opinion.
So that’s how I was hired, in my mind not because I was good or because I had invaluable experience to offer my potential students in creative writing, but because I was a person of color whose presence on the faculty would prove that the University of Kansas was a colorful oasis. Feeling very much like a second-class citizen, I was determined to prove my worth by working harder than anyone in the department. In 1989, when all this happened, I convinced my good friend Grant Goodman to fund not only the first Asian-American Festival at the University of Kansas, bringing in an astonishing array of Asian-American artists and scholars for a week-long celebration the likes of which has never been rivaled at the university, but also the creation of English Alternative Theatre (EAT) to produce the plays yet to be written by my future playwriting students. Sometime in the early 1990s, Carolyn Doty took me aside and said, “Stop doing so much. You make the rest of us look bad.” In the intervening years, even though I have won every single teaching award the University of Kansas has to offer, it never seems enough, because the feeling of being a second-class citizen has never gone away.
When I finally decided to retire in 2010, there was a great deal of controversy in the English department as to whether another playwriting teacher should be hired to replace me. By then, Carolyn Doty had died, and Tom Lorenz argued very persuasively that there were more students interested in fiction writing than in playwriting, so it was more important to hire someone in fiction. The new chair of the department was caught in a dilemma, and she asked me if I knew of any young playwrights of color who could be hired the same way I was hired back in 1989, bypassing a national search, so the department could have its cake and eat it too. A former student told me about Darren Canady, a young African-American playwright originally from Topeka who had moved to New York but who still had strong ties to Kansas. I put forth his name, and he was hired after a whirlwind campus visit and interview. Darren has not kept in touch with me since he was hired five years ago, so I have no idea how he feels about the way he was hired.
But, back to the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016. I have yet to see Chi-Raq or Concussion, so I have no opinion about whether or not these movies or anyone involved with their creation should have been nominated for any Academy Awards. Having lived all these years in the shadow of Affirmative Action, forgive me for thinking that the brouhaha is brouhohum.