Picture this. Three white graduate students are earnestly discussing the future of post-colonial studies. It's happening at a symposium to honour a white English professor---a pioneer in studying the work of non-white writers from former colonies such as Jamaica, Kenya and India. During the question period, a black PhD student points out he's the only non-white person in the room. He observes that perhaps the next generation of post-colonial experts should teach in predominantly non-white high schools. Maybe that would bring the day closer, he says, when a group of academics talking about the work of non-white writers might actually include some non-whites. "After a lengthy, uncomfortable silence, one of the panellists nodded his head and agreed with me, sort of, but without any concrete engagement with what I'd said. Then the discussion went on as if I'd not spoken."
That revealing story comes from a new book about why Canadian universities urgently need to hire more non-white professors, especially in disciplines such as English, history and philosophy where questions of race and identity are extensively studied and debated. The book, You Must Be a Basketball Player was written by Anthony Stewart, an English professor at Dalhousie. Stewart, who is black and six feet, six inches tall, says if he had a dollar for every time he's mistaken for a basketball player, he might not need to work at all. He tells of being introduced to a recently retired Nova Scotia judge. "As we shook hands, the judge said, 'You must be a basketball player.'" Stewart writes that people were embarrassed "because the judge was caught making a snap judgment based on appearance."
Stewart tells another story about being on an aircraft in the southern US. The young white man seated next to him sported a shaved head, wore tattered jeans and a t-shirt, spoke with an English accent and seemed uncomfortable. "He kept fidgeting and reaching for his head with both hands." Stewart was uncomfortable too since he was sure the young man was "a genuine British skinhead." After the plane landed, Stewart mentioned to another passenger he was in Florida to attend an academic conference. The "skinhead" looked up in surprise and said he was attending it, too. It turned out he was a senior lecturer in Art and Design at Manchester University.
Stewart makes it clear that our habit of "judging books by their covers" is one likely reason why there are so few non-white professors at Canadian universities. Stewart himself is Dal's only black English professor and one of only a handful in the faculty of arts and science. He argues that the university's employment equity policies have failed to promote the hiring of more non-white professors. One reason for this failure, he argues, is that the policies are cast in negative terms. By seeking to redress past wrongs, the equity policies implicitly blame whites for centuries of racial oppression. "No one wants to be blamed for wrongs they themselves did not personally commit, even if they benefit from the legacy of those wrongs," he writes. The taint of blame generates feelings of guilt, habits of resistance and an unwillingness to acknowledge that the overwhelming whiteness of university faculties is even a problem. At the same time, Stewart writes, employment equity policies stigmatize non-whites by placing them in a group that needs to "helped" by the white majority.
Instead, he advocates drafting activist hiring policies that recognize the obvious benefits of racial integration. He imagines, for example, how much richer university discussions of post-colonial literature would be if they included non-white professors. And how much all students would benefit from an education that better prepared them for the realities of an increasingly multicultural society. "What I argue for is balance," Stewart writes "so that the everyday discussions of race within the (academic) profession...are substantially influenced by people for whom race is an everyday lived experience."
Anthony Stewart will be launching his book at 7pm on May 14 at the Halifax North Memorial Public Library. Send your thoughts on the topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.