Manufacturing Racism: Academic Hiring and the Diversity Mandate

Next came the creation of a shortlist of three or four candidates for interview; some members of the department were keen to stack the list with members of the diversity groups. To this end, there was much sophistry about why a (white) male candidate’s book with a prestigious university press was really no better than -- was actually perhaps a bit inferior to -- a female candidate’s single article with an academic journal of no repute; or about why a (white) male candidate’s expertise in highly competitive Shakespeare studies was no better than -- was actually far less original than -- a female candidate’s untested, largely speculative work on an obscure seventeenth-century woman playwright. Thus were well-qualified white men kept out of the competition. Moments of levity occasionally occurred when we were forced into elaborate interpretative dances to determine if a male candidate might be black or Asian or gay, though usually the savvy candidate made that clear in his cover letter.

At the hiring stage, there was the same special pleading. Poor presentations by women candidates were praised as “provocatively unorthodox” or “strategically unconventional” while polished ones by men were criticized as “safe” or “unoriginal.” Women’s mistakes could be overlooked or seen as strengths (“I like that she was courageous enough to present on material that she is still working through”) while men’s mistakes were definitive (“I’m shocked that he could be finishing a PhD and still not know that [minor detail”]). One male candidate who had given the best demonstration class I’d ever seen was criticized by our leading feminist professor -- presumably because she could find no other faults -- for having never visited England to do archival work, a criticism the poverty-conscious lady would almost certainly never have made of a struggling single-mother candidate. That a man might have life circumstances preventing him from travel seemed not to have occurred to her.

During the four years I worked at this university, we hired five new faculty members, only one of them a man. An extraordinarily well qualified candidate, he was hired in a divisive contest that saw, at its end, the same good woman who so prized archival research in tearful colloquy with our department head over the department’s failure to pursue its equity mandate. To her, equity meant that, well into the foreseeable future, no white men should be hired at all.

When the department sought to hire an Aboriginal specialist in Aboriginal literature, our desire to make amends for Canada’s “genocidal history” led to even more zealous equity measures. Early on, we determined that the normal qualification of a PhD should be waived in favor of cultural qualifications, particularly knowledge of Aboriginal lore. The PhD was, after all, a white Western construct tainted by the history of colonialism. Once framed by an anti-colonial ethic, the search process became almost unworkably burdened by white guilt. Academic publications could not be required, we reasoned, because Aboriginal culture was traditionally oral, not print-based. Aboriginal people approached teaching, learning, and cultural authority from a point of view fundamentally different from that of white scholars. Protocols of respect for elders, gift-giving, talking circles, and non-exploitative communication -- often involving long silences -- set Aboriginal knowledge practices apart from Western ones.