I Am A Barbarian, Imprecisely

October 04, 2014

Every time a company in the U.S. releases a "diversity" report I have to groan.

As a programmer this type of broad, poorly-defined concept is the bane of every programming project: the customer really doesn't know what they want so they toss out some vague description hoping it will somehow succeed. Then this vagary becomes a requirement that cannot ever be implemented to anyone's satisfaction.

For many reasons people insist that this statistic be carefully calculated, tabulated and reported in somber tones. The reality is that the numbers may as well be random given the imprecision of the definition of who we are.

I am considered white, yet my ancestry is German so I think of myself as a German-American. However, the town my ancestors were from was in the mid 1800's Prussia, so I could be a Prussian-American. Go back a little further, like 1500 years ago and the Romans might have thought of my ancestors the Thuringii to be, you guessed it, Barbarians. Can I be a Barbarian-American?

Now Asians clearly come from Asia, unless you come from Russia, which has a region called the Caucauses, from which comes Caucasian, so they have to be white of course. The Arab world as well are all in Asia. Only part of Egypt is considered Asian so if you want to be Asian you better be from the right part and not the left.

If you are from Spain you are clearly Hispanic, but if you are from next-door Portugal, you are white I assume. Or if you are from right across the border from Spain anywhere you are also white. Mexicans are Hispanic of course. So what are you if you are purely descended from Pre-Columbian native peoples in Mexico? Hispanic. What?

Clearly people from Africa who become American are African-Americans, unless you are from parts of South Africa even with 200 years of residence. Indians of course are Asian, unless your ancestors lived in Africa for the past 200 years and came to the US, which makes you African-Asian-American or something. I have no idea.

Native Americans were here in this country before the Europeans, some of whom were classified as Hispanic, showed up. Of course some of these natives themselves displaced other natives but I have no idea what to call them. Pre-Natives? Go back far enough and everyone is of African descent, which makes us all Native something.

Tiger Woods: I have no idea what category he is in. Is there a rule for people whose ancestry is a combination? Max rule? Percentage? Random? Maybe you add a bit to each category? I have friends where one is Indian (the Asian kind) and the other is mixed German-Irish. If their kids grow up and marry someone from Africa everyone will be confused.

What about people from Pluto? Oh wait, it's just a planet again. I would like to meet a Pluton-American some day though. What if they worked for Microsoft?

Reporting on gender of course is simple, there are only two, except there are many more than two. Even defining how you define a gender is diverse. Biologically speaking it isn't even that easy, much less sociologically. So even this easy category is imprecise.

Seriously speaking, the one diversity category that one could actually measure accurately is never mentioned and that is age. Everyone was born on some specific day. It's easy to measure and report on but no one does. Yet we speak of age discrimination all the time. Perhaps reporting on age is discriminatory. Especially for those of us who have ages with several digits it's pretty relevant. Why do U.S. companies not report how many of each age group they have? If the desire is to point out how diverse (or depending on who is commenting) un-diverse you are, age would seem an easy and useful statistic to see. Yet I am getting old waiting for it.

Mark Zuckerberg at one time thought that only programmers under 30 were worth hiring. I imagine that will change as he gets older. It's like hearing Paul sing about being 64 or the Who talking about their Generation.

Another interesting fact is the definition of "differences". We are all different people and have different ideas on what different really is. There was a commercial on TV recently where a lot of celebrities talked about celebrating differences and how wonderful being different is. I had to laugh at it because I figured that if I mentioned Jeffrey Dahmer, who liked to eat people, they probably wouldn't have celebrated him at all. So in fact any definition of "different" is imprecise: your definition of different is different than mine and it might be very different leading to argument about whose different is more or less different, whatever that means. Of course by not including my different celebrating different is, again, a not very precise definition. I will never again write such a different paragraph.

As a programmer I like things to be well defined, but diversity isn't remotely defined well at all. People are what they want to be but that often doesn't match what someone else wants them to be, or needs them to be. So you pick an arbitrary classification that pleases no one which may trigger nothing more than limp discussion or lead to terrible argument. In the end no one can win since everyone's opinion is so diverse about diversity. We all feel the need to be fair without really being able to explain what that is exactly so in the end no one is happy.

If you ask me who I am I can only answer to me. But if you have to classify me I am a Programmer-American of Barbarian descent.