Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Black Like Me: Vol. 1

The topic of race is a tricky subject to discuss. Especially in those sections of the country where diversity is scarce. So what about those parts of the country where diversity is plentiful? In places like, oh I dunno, Newark, New Jersey, for example. Surely race can be discussed freely in a community as rich with diversity as Newark right?

Well maybe not.

On Monday, May 11, 2009, a white male medical student by the name of Paulo Serodio filed a discrimination law suit in federal court against the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) for a reason that may surprise you. This was not your standard run of the mill "reverse discrimination" claim like we've grown accustomed to seeing in other higher education law suits. He's not claiming that anybody took his seat; in fact, he was finishing up his 2nd year of med school when the incident in question took place. No, Mr. Serodio brought this suit against UMDNJ because he claims he was discriminated against for being...(are you ready for it?)...a "White African American."

You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried.

Yes, folks, Mr. Serodio, who for all intents and purposes is White, identifies himself as an African American - a White African American to be exact. What is his background, you ask? Good question. His ancestry is European, hailing from Portugal. Three generations ago, his grandfather migrated from Portugal to Mozambique, Africa, where Serodio was born and raised. Then in 1984, Serodio came to the United States and is now a naturalized United States citizen.

In 2006, while attending UMDNJ, he and his classmates were asked to identify themselves culturally as an exercise aimed at discussing culture and medicine. When the teacher came around to Serodio, he defined himself as a White African American which offended some students in his class who felt that it was disrespectful for Serodio to define himself as African American since he had white skin. Complaints were made, and Serodio was told by the faculty not to define himself as a White African American again because it was offensive to the people of color in his class.

Subsequent to that event, racial tensions escalated between Serodio and his classmates until finally he was suspended from UMDNJ for "unprofessional conduct" stemming from an article he wrote in the student paper in an attempt to explain his view on his own racial identity.

Which leads us to the question of the day: given everything we know about race, culture, color, and national origin in this country, can a white person, especially one in Paulo Serodio's position, be classified as an African American?

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