University of Sydney ‘marketing portfolio’ needs to take a humanities class

As the Guardian reported on Friday, a University of Sydney ad intended to recruit students to study at the sandstone institution has been found racially discriminatory — for the second time. The Advertising Standards Bureau says that an ad with the slogan ‘unlearn criminal’ featuring brown hands behind a chain-link fence perpetuates the stereotype of non-white people being more likely to be criminals.

Decision-makers in the university’s marketing portfolio could have avoided this scandal simply by engaging with some first-year critical thinking exercises. ‘Unlearning privilege’, for example, is a key concept in postcolonial theory, which (unless things have changed since my student/teacher days) is taught in Usyd humanities and social science departments and originates with Columbia University professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The thinking exercise of ‘unlearning privilege’ is intended precisely to examine the assumptions and stereotypes of a society like Australia where white people are in power. One of the key markers of these societies is the criminalisation and over-incarceration of people who are not white.

The campaign is not only a missed opportunity to use the critical thinking that we supposedly go to university to learn, but I wonder if it may also be bad for business. The financial future of Usyd, like most Australian universities, relies on the recruitment of international students who will mostly, also, not be white. They may understandably be unenthusiastic about attending an institution that uses their bodies as an advertising punchline.

Image is the ‘Judging Spivak’ meme. It depicts Professor Spivak, an Indian woman with very short hair and wearing glasses. Spivak is frowning and rolling her eyes. Behind here is a white woman wearing a lanyard and several other people. They all appear to be attending a lecture or a talk.