What’s in a Name? A Lot

A very interesting article crossed my desk this week. It detailed an incident involving Sherman Alexie — American poet, writer and filmmaker and guest editor of 2015’s Best American Poetry — and his personal and professional issues with bias over a particular poem.

 

On the lookout for under the radar poets for the anthology, Alexie evaluated hundreds of candidates and selected a poem by Yi-Fen Chou. However, when the author wrote him, he learned Chou was not Chinese-American as he’d thought; he wasn’t Chinese at all. Chou was actually Michael Derrick Hudson.

Alexie said Hudson, who is white, chose a Chinese pseudonym “as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business.” Needless to say he wasn’t pleased with this discovery — few people like being fooled. The editor said, “I silently cursed him and wondered how I would deal with this colonial theft.” But despite urgings from other poets, he ultimately decided to stand by his selection:

“Trust me, I would much rather be getting praised by you poets than receiving the vilification I am getting now.

But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise.

If I’d pulled the poem, then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym.

If I’d pulled the poem, then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.”

Alexie even came up with some rules to avoid reading future poems in a biased way, which is great. He not only acknowledged his bias — “Nepotism is as common as oxygen,” he wrote — but also set up a system to avoid it in the future.

He didn’t shy away from the mistake; he had no need to. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We will all fall prey to bias at some point or another. Like Jesse Singal said in his article discussing the incident, bias is part of being human.

But unlike Alexie, not all of us own up to our bias, nor do we make efforts to correct it. While it’s unreasonable to think we can avoid bias entirely, there are mechanisms human resources and diversity leaders can put in place to ensue natural bias doesn’t turn into a series of unfortunate events that predominantly affect women and minorities.

For instance, some recruiters have said eliminating names from résumés might level the selection playing field. It reminds me of a similar scenario I read about where musician tryouts happen behind a curtain so the judges can’t see the musician’s sex and must instead focus solely on the talent presented. 

The auditioning musicians also approach the stage barefoot. Women tend to wear heels, you see, which click tellingly as they walk across the stage to take their place behind the curtain. It’s a simple, effective technique that might be difficult to replicate in something as nuanced as the recruiting or interview process. To combat bias effectively, we’ll need that level of detail and thoughtfulness, that deep preparedness and consideration.

Cynical beast that I am, I’d say the case of the white-Asian poet demonstrates another kind of bias. The title of Singal’s piece calls this evidence of deception a “kerfluffle,” which is much milder than saying lie or fraud, both of which are accurate descriptors for the situation. I wonder if Michael Derrick Hudson had been revealed as another race, would that poem have made its way into the anthology? And before you cry out, Kellye, really! Must you be THAT cynical? I have two words for you — Rachel Dolezal.