Should universities hire "visible minorities"?

Professor Pettigrew proposes a commonsense alternative

Having served on many university hiring committees, I have always been mildly troubled by the term “visible minorities,” a term often seen in job ads.

So I was not entirely outraged when I learned that folks down at the UN are upset with how Canadians throw that term around.

Admittedly, it’s frustrating to see an anti-racist policy critiqued for supposedly racist language. Indeed, so many terms are politically charged that it’s hard to know what constitutes appropriate care and what constitutes politically-correct nitpicking. Is “cotton-pickin’” a racist term? Is “pork barrell“? Is “boy“?

Frustrating as it is, we shouldn’t dismiss such concerns. After all, many terms that seemed unobjectionable or even progressive in the past now seem awkward if not offensive. I remember wincing when my grandmother said “coloured” and wondering why she couldn’t say “black” like civilized people. Except that, now, civilized people are increasingly uncomfortable with “black.” I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandchildren find it hard to believe that anyone could ever have used a term so insensitive as “African Canadian.”

The knock against “visible minority” is that it arguably identifies white as the standard, normal way to be, and places non-white people in some lesser, “other” category. But isn’t the whole point of equitable hiring practices to acknowledge that white men really have been seen as the standard and that women and minorities have, for this reason, been unfairly disadvantaged? You can’t make the problem go away by getting rid of terms that identify the problem.

Some prefer a term like “racialized communities” but I’m not convinced it’s any better than what we have now. To my ear, it seems to imply that certain groups have had their ethnic or racial origins imposed upon them and that their identities are merely a mark of their oppression — rather than a heritage of which they can be proud. You’d be fine, if you hadn’t been racialized. It sounds wrong.

Still, “visible minority” leaves a lot to be desired. For one thing, what about invisible minorities? Jewish people have suffered through long periods of oppression, and anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past — but while there may be cultural cues that might indicate that a candidate is Jewish, I doubt most Jewish candidates would self-identify as a visible minority. What about gay applicants? They are part of a disadvantaged minority, but, again, not a visible one.

Still further, exactly how visible does one’s minority status have to be to be a member of a visible minority? I have met many Canadians who identify as Aboriginals, but whose physical characteristics are not stereotypically “native.” Are they still members of visible minorities? Is a blond aboriginal person less entitled to affirmative action than a dark-haired aboriginal person?

Perhaps it’s time to simply invite candidates to indicate, if they choose, whether they believe that elements of their identity have disadvantaged them in some way. Then, hiring committees could take those disadvantages into account during the vetting process.  It’s not a perfect solution, but at least we could stop trying to come up with a term that includes certain people but not others while implying only positive things.

After all, even if we came up with such a term, it’s going to sound wrong twenty years from now.