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.

white chess piecesOne 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?

(With thanks to my good friend Dr Tseen Khoo, who wrote a blog post which inspired me to write this piece and provided me with some great feedback to make it better)

Related posts:

Are you just a student?

The academic migrant experience

53 thoughts on “People like us?

  1. cannopener says:

    We were discussing this very issue (though not in a great deal of depth) in my Health Psychology class a couple of weeks ago. My friend, whose surname is Yung, pointed out the trouble he has every time census time comes around. See, on the NZ census, and just about any form requiring personal information, you get the following options: NZ European (Pakeha), Maori, Pacific Island, Asian, Other … Now, Mr Yung was born here. He considers himself a New Zealander, a kiwi, but he’s definitely not a NZ European. Does that make him Asian? when he was born here? My mother wasn’t born here, she was born in London, and in fact was technically an illegal overstayer until about five years ago (getting married to a Kiwi doesn’t make you one, apparently). That makes him and me equally recent immigrants. We speak with the same accent. Yet I get to pick the default option, and he doesn’t.

    He makes self-deprecating jokes about being Asian, and teases us that we’re racist. I find it offensive, to be honest. But I can’t imagine how tiresome it is growing up with that kind of casual racism all the time. I can imagine developing similar strategies to deal with it though.

  2. Beth Dumont says:

    Hey INger
    Not just in academia, but in all walks of life. I am currently applying for rental properties, and they want to know the make, model and rego of my car, for pete’s sake. What has that to do with applying for a rental property, except to exclude me in some way?
    Life is all about connections and reputation – you need to have the right references from the right people to get a job, rental property, what ever it is you are looking for. If you can’t supply the right references from the right people, you are generally sunk.
    I long for a community where it is all about your merits and capacity to do what is required – where people are willing to give you a chance and not write you off because you cannot provide them with the references they need to see
    If anyone has any idea as to how we get this community, please let me, and all the other social scientists know..

  3. Susan Mayson says:

    Great post Inger. I can report a similar ah ha! moment one of my male students had when were were discussing employment discrimination and its impact on women. He said…well if women are good enough they will get there. I then asked him how many faces like his (South Asian) he saw in the senior management of the ASX 100 firms. He immediately got discrimination!

  4. jjourneys says:

    Thanks to my teacher for the postgrad subject I took this semester (Experimental Economics), I learnt about a study uses experiment to test the employability (getting the interview call) of fake resumes for applicants who have same skills and capabilities, just the names used to identify races are different. Guess what? A person with Asian name has to try twice as hard as a Caucasian applicant(submitting double the applications). The study conducted in Australia where we think it’s a multicultural society. And yes, discrimination still exists

  5. Eljee Javier says:

    Thank you for this post Inger. This is an awkward yet necessary conversation that isn’t addressed explicitly in academia. I feel this is because issues racial discrimination aren’t seen as a ‘white’ problem and so, these conversations take place on the fringes rather than brought to the forefront. I think raising awareness that EVERYONE is implicated, regardless of race, would be the first step in getting a more meaningful dialogue happening. Given the situation in the academy, we could be here a while…

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      Sadly, I think I have to agree with you. Change in the academy takes a long time. I sometimes think it’s an anti-change machinery for society. But that’s only in my bleaker moments 🙂

  6. Westerners are "ex-pats", "the rest" are immigrants. says:

    It’s not even a matter of ethnicity, but a blatant matter of national superirority, as assumed by your surname and the color of your passport. You don’t get a European passport? You don’t get to work that easily in the UK academic circle, particularly in Social Sciences and Humanities. You’ve got the same qualifications and records than your Swedish and Danish (er, white) colleagues, but you’ve got a strong accent. there shouldn’t be a problem with my accent, right? I’m not expected to speak Oxbridge’s English. After all, plenty of Italian, Russian and French professors speak with accent as well. Oh, wait, they are “like us”, with accent but like us (i.e. white). I, on the other hand, am a “thirdworlder”, white-ish and with an accent, BUT a thirdworlder.

    • Ros says:

      I think there is a difference between the kind of white blindness that happens within hiring departments and the implementation of national immigration policy. At the very least there is a difference in how to address that problem. In the UK, the government changed the immigration policy recently, in a way that makes it very difficult to hire anyone from a non-EU country. That’s not something that university faculties have any say over, whereas the white blindness is something they can work to address themselves. It’s definitely still an issue – there is nothing like the diversity of the general population reflected in university faculty.

  7. Westerners are "ex-pats", "the rest" are immigrants. says:

    Oh, and have you noticed how the African/Asian/Latin fellows giving papers at international conferences get their business cards asked for much less than their whiter counterparts? and less interest in their papers? (I’m sure there must be probing empirical evidence of that somewhere if you ask me, ethnographic or otherwise) Of course, these type of fellows come to conferences to be enlightened by white superiority, so they should be the ones asking for business cards, not the other way round.

  8. Business school academic says:

    I think I am lucky in that my business school is quite multicultural and multi-gendered, which doesn’t of course mean that our students don’t make particularly feral racist remarks on the student evaluations. Given that my uni actually takes reaction level questionnaires somewhat seriously, while people from many races get jobs, it doesn’t mean that they will be treated fairly by everyone.

  9. Pikkumyy says:

    Hi Thesis Whisperer,

    This is THE post my friend and I have been waiting for.

    But in our attempts to understand the privilege and discrimination in our own department we think that race (or skin colour) intersects with class and other nationality/ethnicity related characteristics too (there I go sounding like my supervisor).

    You mention Peter and doubts about whether he can speak English because of his race. We can all speak English otherwise we wouldn’t be doing PhDs in an English-speaking country, but we have seen a lot of subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination towards people regarding the way they speak English. First with respect to how supervisors deal with language errors in their students’ work. If the student is a native English speaker or dyslexic, these errors are glossed over and the supervisor merely suggests a proofreader/editor. If the student is not a native speaker but nonetheless functionally fluent (including if they are white), these errors can get magnified to challenge their entire intellectual ability. We have seen supervisors dismiss such students as being stupid, saying they will never complete their thesis, because their writing contains some language errors. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    In fact we have so many examples of supervisors treating non-native English speakers as inferior we can’t count them. It’s almost worst among faculty who aren’t themselves native speakers – now what does that tell you.

    Second there is the issue of accent. A student can get away with having an accent as long as it is the right kind of accent; Scottish or Irish, American or Australian is fine. So is an upper-class Indian or Egyptian accent, particularly if you have a massive grant from your government or really rich parents. But a southern European accent, or Chinese – don’t even go there. Or a working class British accent, or from the wrong region (I’m thinking Birmingham or East London) – I’ve never even met anyone in academia with those accents!

    What my friend calls ‘linguisism’ is, we think, one of the big hidden forms of discrimination (linked to gender AND race/origin and class) in academia. Whoever speaks the loudest, most articulately in English, with the right accent, gets listened to more. Period. And we have to challenge ourselves – in meetings, classes or seminars, do we interrupt others or talk over them, or give them time to speak, or invite them into the conversation, or do we equate their silence with shyness or stupidity?

    All of the faculty in our department are British, European or American, or from a very privileged sector of society from a country in the global South. The vast majority are white, and/or upper middle class. So racial bias is definitely there, it is starkly present. (I don’t say white privilege necessarily because I think there is a gradation of racial privileges, so in certain circumstances a British person of Indian descent will be treated more favourably than a British person of African heritage.) And this racial bias intersects with class privilege, with class even ‘trumping’ race in some ways. Although they are of course still very present, gender and racial bias have at least been openly challenged and there is some awareness of them even if the problem hasn’t been solved – in my country at least. Class discrimination on the other hand is terribly pervasive but remains invisible and as yet largely unchallenged.

  10. Bob says:

    This is a fascinating discussion, even if controversial.

    I wonder what the right way forward is, though? Affirmative action? That too has its flaws.

    I suspect even policies built on meritocracy will still be imperfect because unequal access is inherent to all social communities.

    Specific to this post, might the problem be that snobbery (and however its translated in real-life) is built into the profession because we are, after all, in the business of arguing. At the end of the day, you want, and fight hard, for your opinion to be the best, the most persuasive, and I think such an attitude can inadvertently be pollutive. An example of this is how we like to associate with like-minded individuals of the same “calibre,” which is often subjectively determined. I think Inger’s post on academic assholery (a very good one too) highlights this. Would the solution then be to make the university environment more inclusive, instead of allowing, or even expecting, egos to be cultivated? I think too little is invested on building a proper, inclusive social community in universities. The emphasis is always on getting together to do research, but not to get to know people.

    I also think the fact that many of us fear presentations because we’re afraid of being “torn a new one” by those in the audience speaks volumes about how exclusive academia can be.

    • annekenewman says:

      I like this comment. I recently heard a presentation by Gemma Burford at the University of Brighton, who is working on how to integrate values into teaching and pedagogy – very interesting stuff at She said, how can we build in values like community and respect and equality when the industry we work in (indeed, the very world we live in) is grounded in frameworks of competition?

      I believe it is possible, but we have to make a commitment to it in little everyday ways. I see the academics alongside me, and they seem to fall into two categories: those who see everyone else as competitors, and those who see everyone else as collaborators. And it shows through in their research, their interactions with peers, as well as interactions with students and non academics. I like to think the latter approach pays off more in the long run.

    • Hillary Rettig says:

      >At the end of the day, you want, and fight hard, for your opinion to be the best, the most persuasive, and I think such an attitude can inadvertently be pollutive.

      But I think Inger’s point is exactly the opposite; it’s the people without necessarily the best opinions and argumentation who are getting promoted, based on their possessing the “right” sex or skin tone or accent.

      Agree that the viciousness of some academic discourse is a problem, and it’s a related problem, but it’s not the same problem.

      • Bob says:

        Yes that’s true and it is indeed a separate but related argument. But what ties everything together, I think, is how academia promotes a culture of exclusivity because of a culture of competition that sometimes gets out of hand. One of the off-shoots of such a culture is the creation of powerful elite networks which are hard to break into if you don’t play the game well, or even know what the rules are. I think that’s the reason why those who are amply qualified still remain on the fringes – they’re just not part of the club. And as you point out, these networks can even allow contradictions (such as the promotion of those who are less qualified) to exist or even thrive.

        Sounds like high school all over again haha.

        I think annekenewman is spot on about collaboration. Too bad too many institutions talk about it with only research output in mind!

        Maybe this is a gap in PhD training. We’re allowed to enter silos too early and start picking up these “bad” habits and attitudes.

  11. Elma says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I’m a UK native, English-speaking female. I’ve always assumed that if I was going to be discriminated against, it would be because of my sex/gender. I think of myself as culturally white British, and by appearance I pretty much look that way – but I’m actually mixed race. My parents are divorced, and I really don’t feel that my father’s heritage has had a significant impact on my culture or identity – but I have his surname, which is quite clearly not British. It never occurred to me before that I might be discriminated against for that instead of / as well as being female. I guess I’ve been a bit naive!

  12. Aka says:

    Indigenous Australians remain the most discriminated in academia. Despite all the grandiose statements, the fact is that employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is falling dramatically in a Australian universities.
    There is enough evidence that anyone, even from a different discipline, is preferable to employ than the growing number of Indigenous Australians in academia.
    For those disciplines that want to be seen as accepting of Indigenous peoples, the propensity to employ non-white, non-Indigenous people ahead of qualified Indigenous applicants, is downright racist.

    But the reality is when things get tight things revert to the default position – the default position is white. Of course family of colleagues do get a better score by the interview team – wink-wink-nod-nod.

    • Emily Poelina-Hunter says:

      Aka – you read my mind. I have recently joined an Indigenous Employment Framework committee at my university in Melbourne. As an Aboriginal woman I feel very depressed about my departmental work place and the lack of role models. But universities have to change their hiring processes. I think there needs to be a way of weighting gender and indigeneity along with other key criteria for various positions to achieve equity in both professional (administrative) and academic staff levels across the whole university. Not just in the ‘indigenous subjects’.

  13. Hillary Rettig says:

    It is likely that women and men from marginalized groups are being suppressed more or less constantly, and in big and small ways. Here’s a good link regarding sexism:

    And I’ve yet to meet a stalled or underproductive academic who wasn’t seriously discriminated against or harassed at some point in her career.

    The fact that this happens in academia, where people are supposed to be “better” often just adds to the shock, and the injury.

  14. MP says:

    My graduate school in California recently did a self study and found that minority students take much longer to finish their degrees and feel less supported by their advisors and their departments than white students.

    I teach at a community college, and a colleague at the tutoring center advises coworkers with foreign names to change their names as he did when he began seeking employment. Many are horrified by this suggestion, but he is convinced that his name change was crucial to his hiring.

  15. Kaniz Sattar says:

    Thank you for sharing that, I found it very useful and reassuring. Having completed and passed my PhD in law from a wonderful British university, I applied to a local Canadian University for the position of a ‘mere’ research assistant, to Professors (who in my opinion are excellent) but do not have a PhD, and I was completely rejected, they refused to even meet me for an informal chat, I was told that they are too busy. In my desperation I even considered formal postgraduate research, that is applying as a student yet again, in the vain hope of ‘getting my foot in the door.’ In short, I really appreciated your article. I guess post-doc academic work is like a PhD itself in not giving up, determination to get to the finish line, or in this case to the goal of entry into academia………. Kaniz


    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I read somewhere that in a competitive environment, academics are less likely to employ entry level people who are better than they are. Personally I have certainly experienced this – more than once.

  16. Sui says:

    nice and a bit heart-wrenching article. To be honest, similar inequities can be found even in an Asian city context, among organizations and ordinary people. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter that you outspeak or otherwise.

  17. winarnorambar says:

    Reblogged this on Winarno De inlaander Blog and commented:
    usually people who many know it was a person who would rather read and people who do not want to know are the ones who don’t like to read how to play chess is a basis for learning to read step by step the opponent’s mind and how to be herded to the pulse points latest bleeding a.k.a. “Check Mate”

  18. joaquinbarroso says:

    “there is nothing quite as satisfying as bitching to someone who truly understands how crap it all is.” and I would add: and who won’t think all gets solved by telling you: ‘if it’s all crap then quit and do something different!’ yeah! like the thought never crossed my mind.

  19. joaquinbarroso says:

    There is an anecdote that says Sammy Davis Jr. was playing golf and someone asked what his handicap was, to which he replied: “I’m a black half latino jew with one eye!”
    Talk about blindness!

  20. Vijay says:

    Inger………I really surprised that you didnt know about race racism:(. I think Australia had the policy of promoting only white people till 70’s. Though that practice is gone but its open secret that its still followed. I just looked around in my department and the building 100% of them were white:(

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I did know bout Australia’s problems Vijay – but I think the extent of the problem in academia really hit me only 10 years ago. It’s easy to slip into white privilege and NOT notice, eespecially when the narrative around academia is that it is a meritocracy. Look at our appointments processes and promotion processes – they LOOK fair, but they don’t always produce fairness, the certainly don’t seem to be producing diversity. That was my point I guess. Expressing incredulity is more of a rhetorical device than how I really feel. I feel angry. But I prefer anger to guilt.

  21. Anonymous says:

    The University of Bradistan- sorry I mean Bradford UK is just plain awful. Racism, snobbery, bullying, ect ect and this is from some of the lecturers as well as students, ask the academics in Bradford University if this is going on and they will gie a glowing report on how wonderful the establishment is. Oh did i mention im a white uk national with a foreign name.!!

  22. Kate says:

    Thanks for this post. An article on theconversation had a link to the following website that allows you to check your implicit biases against against particular groups of people. If you think that you aren’t racist or sexist yo might want to try this out…. really surprising results but I think we all need to know if we do have an unconcious bias.

  23. Yu says:

    This is a very interesting post indeed! I am doing a PhD research about something similar to this topic! I am from Europe but not from the UK. That’s make the difference!

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