Identity-specific jobs adverts are discriminatory. Why can’t we say so?

While well intentioned, reserving positions for under-represented groups only takes us further away from the colour-blind ideal, says an academic

April 21, 2024
Black and white chess pawns separated by a barrier
Source: iStock/Radachynskyi

Like several of my colleagues, I would have considered applying for one of two currently advertised professorships at a Canadian university, but I’m not eligible because of my ethnic origin.

This exclusion relates to a job advertisement from the University of Waterloo that is specific about who should bother applying for two Tier 1 research chair positions in computer science. One position is “open only to qualified individuals who self-identify as women, transgender, gender-fluid, non-binary, or Two-spirit”, while the other is reserved for those who “self-identify as a member of a racialized minority”.

The intention behind these postings is not malicious; rather, it aims to correct historical injustices. The attempted correction, however, only adds to the injustice of discrimination.

Why is academia so equivocal about making a universal condemnation of discrimination?

First, it is challenging to combat what has lost its meaning. Discrimination is the unfair or unequal treatment of individuals based on incidental personal characteristics. But nowadays it is often confused with the under-representation of specific demographic groups. For instance, fewer women than men are found in computer science departments, and the proportion of Indigenous people in those departments is significantly lower than their national population share. This, some claim, is evidence of systemic sexism and racism. However, it assumes that differences in sex or culture don’t influence interests, behaviours or priorities. This inherently flawed position nonetheless resonates in many academic circles that entrench taboos around it.

Second, modern social scientists have resurrected the Marxist distinction between oppressed and oppressors and have sanctioned actions taken in the name of the oppressed without much regard for their consequences. However, interpreting society in terms of power struggle has the perverse effect of dividing people into classes and reinforcing their sense of belonging. One group must feel guilty. The other, victimised. Not for their own actions but because they resemble those who were involved in past injustices. This division perpetuates the false and dangerous idea that scars are passed down through generations, as if modern-day French children should cultivate hatred towards Germans because of the world wars.

Third, the debate is stifled. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment that followed were based on the realisation that there is no authoritative source of truth and, consequently, that everything can be subject to critical investigation. This led to the fall of taboos. The clash of ideas became commonplace and even welcomed. And the result of this unprecedented freedom of thought was a burst of new ideas that continually replaced those found to be flawed.

Worldwide, universities became sanctuaries of civilised debate, where attacking an idea was celebrated, but targeting its bearer forbidden. On many campuses today, however, ideas related to minority representations trump this etiquette: accusations of bigotry silence dissent, leaving a one-sided message to prevail.

While intellectual and cultural diversity enriches humanity, equality in dignity unites us in a spirit of fraternity. Discrimination violates this moral equality, fosters resentment, undermines social cohesion, instrumentalises individuals and conveys the fatalistic and wrong idea that one’s path is determined by one’s ethnicity or gender. These severe consequences are wishfully thought to be dodged when discrimination is given a different name. But they are not.

The academic mission is the advancement of knowledge, the education of the young and the maintenance of a tradition of scholarship. If a social agenda is pursued instead, it comes at the expense of university quality.

Discriminatory policies also have a high cost for the favoured individuals. How will those selected by Waterloo be regarded by colleagues who entered through the front door? If this type of posting is the beginning of a trend, universities will effectively institutionalise a two-tier selection regime. We will then be concerned about the ammunition this gives to those who claim there is a competency gap between different groups; the last place we want to be to rid ourselves of discriminatory fractures.

We can’t change history; therefore we can’t repair it. But we write tomorrow’s history with today’s choices. The antiracist movement’s standard bearer, Ibram X. Kendi, proposes (seriously) that “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Is this our societal project? Alarmingly, in its advertisement, the University of Waterloo claims to embrace the values of antiracism.

Finally, the problem goes beyond discrimination. It is by waving the flag of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) that Waterloo sanctions these inequitable and exclusive postings. But this Orwellian approach actually damages the diversity of ideas – notably on matters of EDI philosophy.

What about the ideal of Martin Luther King, which I advocate here, of treating people with no more regard to their skin colour than to the shape of their ears? To the EDI antiracist subculture, that message is outright condemned as “racist” (Orwell again).

I would have proudly claimed authorship of this critique, but given the EDI statements required by my professorship applications I cannot risk being identified as Luther King’s ally. Trampling on the very principles that fuel scientific enquiry, I have to write in those ideological loyalty oaths what the university’s thought police expect me to write, lest my application be rejected for ideological reasons.

Alas, declaring allegiance to universal non-discrimination is now considered reason enough for someone to be EDI-filtered from an academic career.

The author has chosen to remain anonymous.

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Reader's comments (1)

This is illogical, anti-factual, and ahistorical. The anonymous author misrepresents Martin Luther King by taking his words out of their historical context. And Orwell in 2024? Their relevance to Ontario in particular and Canada in general is completely unclear I am lost in the move from gender to race, and ideology to ideology. If any reader is in doubt, allow me to quote Anon: " I have to write in those ideological loyalty oaths what the university’s thought police expect me to write, lest my application be rejected for ideological reasons. "Alas, declaring allegiance to universal non-discrimination is now considered reason enough for someone to be EDI-filtered from an academic career." The self-contradictions are too numerous to count. Need anyone say more?