People like us?



Some 10 years ago my friend Joe and I worked at the same place and would occasionally meet for lunch. At the time Joe and I were both teaching computer graphics to architecture students. We were both working casually at multiple unis and hating the financially strapped and perilous lifestyle that came with it. Those lunches were good therapy for me, and, I suspect, for him: there is nothing quite as satisfying as bitching to someone who truly understands how crap it all is.

One lunch in particular stands out for me.

At the time Joe and I were both looking for more permanent work in academia. It has to be said that neither of us were having much luck. I barely waited to put in my lunch order before debriefing him on my latest unsuccessful job interview. Once again, I had been passed over for a man who, I felt, was less qualified to do the teaching than I was. It was my 5th knock back and I was beginning to seriously question my sanity.

At the time I didn’t understand that people don’t get jobs in academia just because they are good at stuff like teaching. Connections, histories, reputations – they all matter. Now it’s perfectly obvious why a professor, who had run out of soft money, would make sure his best research assistant got hired, but at the time I blamed it all on the gender thing (I still don’t think I was entirely wrong to do so).

So I got my rant on to Joe, who ate his lunch and patiently listened to me for around 20 minutes until I had exhausted my rage. Then he said something I have never forgotten:

“Inger. I understand you being pissed off. But consider this. There are some women on permanent staff in that architecture department. There are no Asians.”

I stopped mid chew.

Joe, I should point out, is of Asian descent. Actually I’m not even sure of his precise background. I’ve never asked. He was just ‘Joe’ to me. This is not to say that I “don’t see colour”, I would be lying if I said I never noticed, but Joe and I were similar in so many ways. I had never thought consciously about the implications of Joe having an Asian background and me having some kind of mongrel British one. Or, more precisely, if I did think about it I had dismissed it as irrelevant.

But suddenly I realised race did matter – at least, it seemed, in academic hiring practices. There were plenty of talented people of Asian descent, like Joe, who studied architecture with me. Plenty of these people taught architecture in that department sessionally, just like I did. But there was not one of Asian descent on permanent staff. If the past was anything to go by, I had much more chance of getting a job in that department than Joe did and that was clearly wrong. He was better at computer graphics teaching than I was and had not even been short listed for the job I missed out on.

What really tore me up though, was the way Joe talked about it. So calmly and so matter of factly. Clearly he had noticed such inequities all his life and this was but one more instance. I asked him if he ever got angry and he answered yes, of course. But he pointed out that getting angry all the time is exhausting. I nodded – I had come to the same conclusion about sexism. So we tacitly agreed to change the subject and talked about computers for the rest of lunch.

I went home afterwards feeling deeply troubled. I still feel troubled whenever I think of this moment.

The fact that race didn’t figure in my thoughts about academic hiring practice was, I realised, a symptom of my own white privilege. I was suffering from a form of White Blindness, or worse, as the Abagond blog points out, White Default. I had taken it for granted that being a woman mattered far more than being Asian when it came to being discriminated against in hiring decisions. But the numbers didn’t lie. In fact, I just checked on the website for that particular department. There are STILL no Asians on permanent staff. There is now one person with a Greek name and another who is Italian, I suppose that’s progress. I don’t have the figures on racial diversity in academia on hand, but this one architecture department certainly doesn’t reflect the diversity of students it enrols.

How does this happen? Well, just like academic assholery, I suspect it happens in small ways every day. I’ve written before about my friend Peter, who is very nearly finished his PhD. Peter is widely published and a great teacher. He is erudite, charming and funny; the perfect colleague to have at faculty lunches. Peter is also of African descent. Just quietly I have been wondering why, despite many attempts, Peter does not get hired onto permanent staff either.

Is Peter on the blunt end of persistent, silent racism?

Not long ago Peter told me about a phone interview he did. Apparently he was on the ‘long short list’ for an academic job and the hiring committee wanted to see if they would move him to the “short short list”. I asked him why there was an interview for that and he replied, again totally matter of factly with a touch of wry humour: “oh, they saw my name and probably wanted to confirm that I could speak English”.

I had no words.

I encourage you to look around you for a moment. Is it just me, or is academia in Australia very white? What gives people? Are academic hiring committees racist? Or are they just like me: largely unconcious of white privilege? Do they just keep hiring ‘people like us’ without even noticing it’s happening? Granted some departments, notably in science, are a little more diverse, but the fact that we can point to them as different is telling don’t you think? Privilege is often invisible in academia, Jessica Charbeneau points out in her thesis on the topic, perhaps because we assume that we live inside a meritocracy?

On any given day inequities of all kinds are being earnestly and carefully discussed in the seminars, cafes and lunch rooms of academia. Articles about racism written by academics appear in newspapers all the time, but we rarely subject ourselves to the same level of scrutiny and critique. I’m far from the first person to say that privilege is often mistaken as being normal – as ‘just how things are’. It can take effort to notice the systems that perpetuate privilege in action – and there can be push back if you question the way things are. As Peggy McIntosh says, individual acts are not enough, “to redesign social systems” she says, “we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions”. So maybe we can have that conversation about academia here, as well as in the lunchroom? (I hope we can do it without too much trolling…).

What do you think? Have you, like me, realised there is a blindness that comes with white privilege? Do you think you have been discriminated against in an academic hiring decision? Has race affected your marks, or even the process of getting into your research degree? What happened? What can we do to change things?