U of S : Communications : OCN : Sep 5, 1997
Media coverage has reported evidence of overt racism on campus - Native students' posters defaced, their lounge vandalized, etc. But few people have paid attention to covert racism, which discriminates against racial minorities in the form of oblique attacks that appear non-discriminatory on the surface.
To avoid detection or litigation, this type of racism is usually expressed in muted tones or in ways that appear to be justifiable.
Covert racism is exemplified in a 1996 campus incident that demonstrates how easily a visible minority member can be denied an equal employment opportunity in a tenure-track position.
Last year, the Department of Sociology advertised a tenure-track position. The advertisement stated the University "...is committed to the principles of Employment Equity and welcomes applications from all qualified candidates. Women, people of Aboriginal descent, members of visible minorities, and people with disabilities are invited to identify themselves as members of these designated groups on their applications."
A visible minority male, who had been working in the Department with term since 1993, was short-listed. But a few faculty members tried vehemently to reject him on the grounds that only a woman should be hired.
It was a calculated move not to challenge the principle of employment equity for four target groups, when the original advertisement was placed, and then to insist on hiring a woman only. Such action is typical of covert racial discrimination, as evident in the U.S. in the 1970s and Toronto in the 1980s, when black applicants were routinely told that jobs were unavailable when in fact employers were interested in hiring white applicants only.
As it turned out, the visible minority candidate was recommended for the position on the basis of his qualifications and record by the majority of faculty, including a widely recognized feminist professor. The appointment was conducted in accordance with procedures established by the Collective Agreement.
The few faculty members who tried to exclude him were unhappy with the recommendation and made several attempts to stop his appointment both at the College and University levels, and within the Faculty Association.
Only by a woman
Even though the University duly appointed the recommended candidate after considering the minority view, they continued to belittle him as a minority male professor whose position, in their view, should be held only by a woman. Indeed, they have continued to seek support from other Departments and even the Faculty Association by making the appointment into a gender issue.
On October 3, 1996, a senior professor of the English Department published an article in the Star Phoenix. The same article was also published in the October 18, 1996, issue of On Campus News.
In it, the author misrepresented facts and selectively used gender terms to make allegations about the Department's hiring practices. She said the appointment was a "violation" of employment equity principles, but failed to mention that the new appointee was a visible minority male who also belongs to a disadvantaged group that the Employment Equity Program is designed for.
Moreover, the appointee in Sociology was only one of several male tenure-track faculty members appointed in 1996 in various Departments on campus. Why did the author name only the Sociology appointment as constituting a "violation" of employment equity principles?
The professor's position concerning employment equity is disingenuous. If she were really concerned about employment equity, why wouldn't she mention that her own Department still has no visible minority faculty members, even though for years there has not been a shortage of well-qualified visible minority PhDs applying for jobs ? And why, when her own Department hired a white male over other females this year, is she silent? - unless of course she has one employment equity standard for whites and one for non-whites.
On October 4, 1996, a senior Sociology professor posted the above-mentioned article outside his office door.
This action provoked further queries about the appointment of the visible minority male, who was subjected first to the public attack by the author of the article then to harassment by another senior member of his Department.
More harassment was to follow. On October 15, 1996, an anonymous author wrote an article in the USFA Bulletin entitled "Moving Gender Issues to The Front Burner: To Ignite or To Stew?" In it, the author used misleading facts and cited the Sociology appointment as an example of a "violation" of employment equity principles.
Again, the implication is that the new appointee in Sociology was improperly appointed because the position must belong to a woman. And again, the above-mentioned senior professor posted the article outside his office.
These actions have undermined the new appointee's capacity to function as a professor. Before, during, and after the appointment, he has been suffering mental and emotional stress and finding it difficult to concentrate on his work within such an environment. Today, overt racism is unacceptable in our society, especially in the the university context. Use of the term "gender equity" to cover up racial discrimination is a new strategy for those who still hold prejudicial attitudes towards visible minorities.
The consequence of covert racism is tantamount to overt racism: it excludes or undermines qualified visible minorities from equal opportunity for employment in professional jobs and diminishes their occupational stature.
Misusing the term "gender equity" also prevents the victim from complaining about racial discrimination. Statements such as "This has nothing to do with the individual," or "This is not racism because I'm fighting for women" are powerful tools to silence the victim. The distinction has to be made between those who really support gender equity and others who use gender politics to advance their personal interests. Racial issues and gender issues are equally important and should not be allowed to stand against one another. When anyone uses "gender equity" to perpetrate discriminatory actions against visible minorities, everyone loses. Covert racism is anathema to the principle of equity.
- Li Zong is an assistant professor of sociology at the U of S.