Welcoming 'visible minorities': Paradoxes of equity hiring in Canadian universities

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Vendredi 29 avril 2011

Carl E. James, York University
Guest Contributor

If we were to scan the academic job ads of Canadian universities today, we would notice the following:  After the description of the job, the required qualifications, and the application’s deadline, at the end there is usually a short statement that goes something like this:

“University X is strongly committed to employment equity within its community and supports diversity in its teaching, learning and work environments. We welcome applications from all qualified candidates, including women, Aboriginal people, visible minorities, and persons with disabilities, and members of sexual minority groups. Members of these designated groups are encouraged to self-identify.

Some of the equity statements are brief and to the point. Others are longer and seem to be trying to convince the reader that the university is truly committed to equity and is really a “welcoming” environment. Such attempts to “invite” and “encourage” applications from, as one statement reads “members of traditionally marginalized groups” is in keeping with the federal Employment Equity Act, which requires federal contractors to demonstrate their commitment to equitable hiring. Beyond this legal motivation, how can we know whether Canadian universities are demonstrably committed to diversity and equitable hiring? What are the implications of this “welcome” for the hiring, retention and promotion of racialized and Indigenous faculty members within academic institutions?

We know that universities have diverse student bodies. Some celebrate their multicultural programs and highlight their diversity awards. And, on their web sites, we may see diverse images and reports and statements of commitment to access, equity and social justice. Herein is the heart of the matter: Many of us within these same universities observe disconcerting paradoxes in the stated attempt to promote racial equity in their policies, programs and practices. I reflect here on three paradoxes: first, that of the “visible minority” identification; second, the unevenness or unavailability of race data; and, third, the convenience of colourblind claims.

One paradox is the “visible minority” or “non-white in colour” identification. We know that “visible minority” is the employment equity category created for the purpose of assessing the representation of non-white or racialized peoples. However, the problem with a single category, “visible minority,” is that it assumes that individuals within this heterogeneous group have the same or even similar experiences. This shoehorning of experiences – and I would suggest, essentializing of experiences – obscures the social, historical, linguistic, cultural and other differences that exist among the groups. It obscures intra-group differences. In such a context, can an institution be said to have achieved ‘equitable representation’ if it has a workforce of, say, “visible minority” members from only one or two of the 14 groups that comprise the category initially invented in Canada to capture changing demographics? One does not have to look far to observe the hyper-visibility of particular “visible minority” group members in some faculties and departments and their absence in others, including some units with the most celebratory web sites and brochures. In some cases, they are clustered in disciplines or area studies that are considered more suitable to “their kind.” Still others are shut out of the academy entirely. Of course, this state of affairs has much to do with racial trends we can trace to the professorial pipeline and that may extend back to educational streaming in high school, undergraduate and graduate programs.

The use of the “visible minority” category, into which diverse racial minority people are grouped, tends to conceal the failures or, at least, the limits of ‘equitable’ hiring initiatives for some racial groups while simultaneously showing success for others. Canadians of African, Asian, South Asian origins, among others, would be considered “visible minorities” by definition of the legislation. However, members of these groups experience different challenges and possibilities within the workplace. A nuanced understanding is necessary in order to determine the relevance and effectiveness of equity hiring strategies.

A March 2011 Statistics Canada Research Paper, Seeking success in Canada and the United States: The determinants of labour market outcomes among the children of immigrants by Garnett Picot and Feng Hou indicates that there are noticeable differences in the social and economic outcomes of racial minority Canadians. They wrote that “even after controlling for education and residential location… second generation Blacks tend to earn less while second generation Chinese tend to earn more than other visible minority groups.”  The authors suggest   that economic returns for education as well as “ethnic capital” – the advantages or disadvantages transmitted to individuals through membership in particular ethnic group – significantly influence outcomes for racialized members of the society.

Membership in particular racial groups shapes employment and earning opportunities and conditions. We need to pay attention to these differences so we don’t miss the variations among “visible minority” group members. If we don’t pay attention we are likely to miss hiring and retention issues related to factors like structural inequality, organizational culture and social exclusion within institutions. Paradoxically, some of these practices can lead to new hiring biases among racialized people, some of whom are labelled “model minorities” or a “better fit” with the existing status quo.

The cancellation of the mandatory long form census has reminded social science scholars and policymakers alike of the importance of good data for monitoring the status of equity-seeking groups over time and space. In the absence of good data, it is more difficult to monitor the compositional representation of “visible minority” faculty. How will institutions like universities be able to assess “progress” or say that their equity initiatives are or have been working for “visible minorities” or any disadvantaged group?  Herein lies the paradox of data. Too often we hear that the data for “visible minority” faculty – unlike, say, gender data – does not exist, or cannot be provided for privacy reasons. This inconsistency also allows institutions to perpetuate the myth that they are colourblind and that they only hire the “best” or “most qualified,” which is posited as incongruent with race-consciousness (i.e. the fallacious excellence vs. equity/diversity claim). The multiple meanings of “diversifying” also mean that some diversity strategies may have little to do with increasing the compositional representation or critical mass of “visible minority” among faculty, staff and administration.

As well, we are quite familiar with claims by universities that their focus is on the person’s qualifications, not her/his colour or race. The paradox of colourblindness is evident in the unacknowledged “race talk” and raced presentations. Universities, for example, have text in brochures and on web sites geared to the increasingly racialized and immigrant Canadian population, as well as to potential international students. Universities market themselves as having diverse or ‘multicultural’ student bodies and faculty. Their ads are designed to attract diverse local and international students and faculty to our campuses. Given the fact that institutions are competing in a globalized market where many of today’s potential students are racialized people it makes good business sense to include images of racialized faculty members and students on the brochures.  In such cases, institutions cannot afford to be colourblind. In these cases representing race (or at least skin colour) does matter. Likewise it is assumed potential students would want to see representations of “people like them” and the institution would want to demonstrate that it has the experience of welcoming diverse students and faculty.

In such representations, not all student markets are treated the same: Efforts are made to feature images that speak to the niche market where “the money is,” so to speak. In such cases, representation of compositional diversity and inclusion matters. So while it might be seen by some as impolite and others as offensive to talk explicitly of or represent the race of faculty and students, in the interest of multiculturalism and internationalization, in which the economic health of the university is at stake, race or “colourful” representations becomes an “asset.” An irony here is that underrepresented racialized faculty member might never benefit from this discursive diversity.

While the “welcome” in job ads is important, such ads should be assessed in terms of results.  Institutional commitment – not just awareness, kindness or sympathy – to diverse faculty is needed to give greater meaning to the welcome of racialized candidates for faculty positions.   Indeed, there needs to be ongoing critical dialogue about how and why diversity is important to our institutions and the student experience. This includes recognition that racialized faculty members advance the scholarship of our institutions, bring innovative pedagogical approaches to teaching, enhance academic programming and administrative efficiency, augment epistemological and ontological contributions, assist in student recruitment, engagement and retention, and contribute to the building of university-community partnerships. Indeed, universities stand to benefit substantially from a diverse faculty. And the presence of racialized faculty members demonstrates to the Canadian public the universities’ responsiveness to the educational and research needs, interests and aspirations of all Canadians – a truly important commitment to the public whose tax dollars finances these institutions.

Without data that tells us whether the welcome ads lead to the hiring, promotion and retention of  racialized faculty members; the general reticence in talking about or acknowledging race (and racism) in our institutions; and in the face of historical and cultural barriers and biases, universities will be slow to change and to reflect Canadian and global diversity. Despite their stated intent, many institutions still do not provide a fulsome report of the “visible minority” representation of their faculty and administrators. A fulsome discussion requires disaggregated data of racialized faculty members. We know from experience that being able to reference data benefitted women in the academy,  not only in terms of their representation, but also in terms of pay equity  and other factors that impede access, retention and opportunities to fully participate at all levels of the academy.

There is need to wrestle with these difficult yet necessary questions. The original intent of equitable hiring initiatives was promising and remains relevant. However, the operationalization of diversity, equity, and inclusion in hiring, promotion and retention is inhibited by many paradoxical factors. These include the use of “visible minority” identification; the unevenness or lack of “visible minority” or race-based data on hiring, retention and promotion; and claims of inclusion simultaneous with the myth of colourblindness.

To address these paradoxes, we need to examine the extent to which equitable employment in the academy must go beyond a too narrow and technical application of employment equity legislation. We need to ask: Are institutions placing the burden of dismantling systemic discrimination and achieving full equity on legislation that was meant as only one part of a larger social inclusion remedy?  It may be  time to engage in a revisioning of equity policies, strategies and practices to ensure a congenial climate that welcomes all qualified applications, including Aboriginal peoples and “visible minorities” among women, persons with disabilities, members of sexual minority groups, and first generation doctoral graduates.

Carl E. James, author of ‘Seeing Difference,’ is a professor in the Faculty of Education and Director of the Centre for Education and Community at York University, Toronto. 


Thank you very much for this blog, Professor James: it is packed (as the Equity and other Federation blogs so often are) with highly instructive links. I found the link from the word "operationalization" exceptionally helpful. It should be sent to all university faculty associations, and I mean to every member thereof, not just to the usual handful of exec members who tend to run the agenda and the PR for faculty associations, who also too often do not always see genuine diversity of colleagues, students, pedagogies, and knowledge as nearly as important as the daily stakes in that other game of "us/them" (we good faculty vs. evil administrators -- remember, your department chair is an administrator, too).

When collective agreements put the power for hiring, tenuring, and promoting of colleagues into the hands of departments and faculty members elected to committees, it is important that all faculty are reached and educated with documents such as the Cornell U piece on operationalizing diversity, to which your blog provides a link. That way, when an administrator who is actually working for diversity and equity turns back a departmental recommendation that merely reproduces the status quo (all in the name of "departmental autonomy"), s/he may find some allies among those faculty members who are educated about the necessity for the operationalization of diversity and equity in their institution.

One further comment, and along similar lines, about membership, communities, and individual and collective responsibilities. It is often useful to identify "institutions" such as universities with their administrators only, and to conflate administrators of universities with federal and provincial government, and to then diss all administrators for abuse of public funds when "universities" do not meet the public outcomes that many of us, including administrators, would like to see them meet. But the abuse of public funds by government, and government's arguments that use the same claims, ie., claims to public accountability (for spending, for privacy, e.g.), can also lead to ensuring that government is not accountable for outcomes that they cannot (will not) measure -- hence the disappearance of the long census form. No data, no accountability! We in the universities must not let the disappearance of the long census form halt our arguments for diversity and equity in the same way.

Again, universities in the aggregate absolutely have not done their job when it comes to accountability to the public and the public good equity and diversity -- and that's where your blog is so helpful and educational. As another commentator noted, you are "Right on, Carl!" that this work is far from done.

But we also need sometimes to disaggregate "universities" from "government," faculty association executives from faculty members at large, and administrators (including chairs) from faculty.

Part of what we, in all our diversity and inequity, are up against is an interlocking set of binaries where we may least expect them to be -- binaries that play right into the hands of folks (in any one of those categories above) who can always find some business elsewhere to be doing first, instead of working for diversity and equity, in faculty, in administrators, in universities, in government.

Thanks for the opportunity to speak, and again, let me express my deep appreciation for your blog, Professor James.

/dp (Professor, University of Western Ontario)

Hi Carl, thanks for the informative post. In BC we struggle to have an equitable portion of Aboriginal teachers in the K-12 workforce. There are many barriers prior to the hiring stage, such as the under-funding of post-secondary education for Aboriginal people and I can't stress enough that one of the primary reason that there is an under-representation of Aboriginal people in university faculties is because they struggle to even get a post-secondary education. In BC the BCTF played a key role in getting districts to apply for special program status with the Human Rights Commission so that at least at the hiring process inequities could be lessened. How it works is if a job comes up and two equally qualified candidates apply, the Aboriginal one will get the job. By participating in this program districts can actively work to increase their representation of Aboriginal teachers. You can read more about it here