When I was looking for a teaching position in the early 2000s I repeatedly encountered a variant of this statement in countless job descriptions:
We especially welcome applications from women and visible minorities.
That was a bit discouraging, as you can imagine. To be sure, I understood the reasoning: society in general, and academic institutions in particular, have long especially welcomed applications from white guys. So how about redressing the balance?
At the same time, we should recognize that the stipulation was clearly discriminatory. To be sure, that doesn’t mean it was wrong: to discriminate v. to differentiate; recognize a difference. The logic was that prioritizing those who are not Caucasian males is a justified discrimination because it intentionally redresses societal imbalances that favor Caucasian males.
At the same time, this prioritization of diversity is far from a precise tool. Consider my Caucasian male friend Brad. He grew up in Japan (MK) and South Africa. As such, he speaks fluent Japanese and is at home in Japanese culture (indeed, Brad called himself an “egg”). Brad would bring a rich cross-cultural diversity to any community that would be lost by simply judging his sex and skin color.
But if the tool was at times rather blunt, the argument was that it was still on the whole useful. After all, not many white guys are like Brad.
This brings us to the next question. If discrimination of this kind is a valuable tool in fostering diversity on university faculties, then how discriminating can/should one be in intentional pursuit of diversity? Fifteen years ago a friend of mine was a professor in the history department of a major North American university. He was also the head of the search committee to hire a new faculty member. The committee decided that they wanted to hire not simply a female historian: they also wanted her to be black to enrich the diversity of the department.
The department prioritized one candidate based on her CV and particular assumptions about her name. And when they picked her up at the airport for her candidacy they were shocked and deflated to discover that she was Caucasian.
To sum up, I find myself conflicted about affirmative action policies. On the one hand, I agree that they redress systemic imbalances in society. But on the other hand, they can be a blunt tool that prioritizes particular forms of diversity over other forms. And ironically enough, attention to various forms of gender, ethnic, and class differentiation can marginalize the unique distinctiveness of each individual.