I have to admit that I did not intend to start this blog and have this be the first post, but it seems impossible at the moment not to write about this. What “this” is, is a series of events wherein a UBC President resigned (Arvind Gupta), a professor who holds the title of Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and Diversity (Jennifer Berdahl) criticized this in the language of her field, was subsequently obliquely and directly threatened by the UBC board chair (John Montalbano), — which is another name for a benefactor as he is the CEO of RBC Global Asset Management — and wherein many are either siding with Berdahl (the majority of UBC faculty) or, surprisingly, defending Montalbano.
I want to focus on one opinion in particular, as it has been widely published. But since this is a philosophy blog, it will be good to lay out first of all what is actually being discussed, or what is at the heart of this controversy. These might seem like simple questions to pose, but it’s important we define our terms.
What is racism?
When we think of racism, we might first think of “race” as a concept. That is, the claim that there is some sort of biological basis for stereotyping different groups of humans based on phenotypic differences. We might then suppose that someone who “is a racist” simply holds the view that because of this arbitrary criteria, some groups of people are inherently better or worse than others. It’s not likely that many educated people would identify with this rather antiquated view, and it’s something of a strawman to identify this view with what we would define as modern racism.
What we mean most often is really “institutional racism”. This is not an individual attitude or prejudice per se, but is orders of magnitude removed and at work on a societal level. For instance, when people speak of “white privilege” they do not mean that all white people are better off than others — as there are obviously poor white demographics in the world, but that there are systemic challenges in place for non-white social groups which do not exist for the white group.
Defining a sociological concept like this is difficult, and it should be no surprise that even international human rights committees do not have a working definition.
From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the concept of discrimination:
In his review of the international treaties that outlaw discrimination, Wouter Vandenhole finds that “[t]here is no universally accepted definition of discrimination” (2005: 33). In fact, the core human rights documents fail to define discrimination at all, simply providing non-exhaustive lists of the grounds on which discrimination is to be prohibited. Thus, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares that “the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Article 26).
This vagueness no doubt contributes to the difficulty of communicating to one another what we mean when deploying terms like racism. But we have our earlier definition of a concept of individual racism, one where a biological inferiority is supposed of a certain social group, and it is then treated differently (and is disadvantaged in significant ways) within the society.
What we would like to talk about here is not this rather familiar idea of individual racism, but instead what we might call institutional, systemic, or structural racism.
In many cases, acts of discrimination are attributed to collective agents, rather than to natural persons acting in their individual capacities. Accordingly, corporations, universities, government agencies, religious bodies, and other collective agents can act in discriminatory ways.
Structural discrimination — sometimes called “institutional” (Ture and Hamilton 1992/1967: 4) — should be distinguished from organizational: the structural form concerns the rules that constitute and regulate the major sectors of life such as family relations, property ownership and exchange, political powers and responsibilities, and so on. (Pogge 2008: 37) It is true that when such rules are discriminatory, they are often — though not always — the deliberate product of some collective or individual agent, such as a legislative body or executive official. In such cases, the agents are guilty of direct discrimination. But the idea of structural discrimination is an effort to capture a wrong distinct from direct discrimination. Thus, Fred Pincus writes that “[t]he key element in structural discrimination is not the intent but the effect of keeping minority groups in a subordinate position” (1994: 84).
What does this sort of institutional racism look like in practice then?
To illustrate the idea of indirect discrimination, we can turn to the U.S. Supreme Court case, Griggs v. Duke Power (1971). A company in North Carolina used a written test to determine promotions. The use of the test had the result that almost all black employees failed to qualify for the promotions. The company was not accused of intentional (direct) discrimination, i.e., there was no claim that race was a consideration that the company took into account in deciding to use the written test. But the court found that the test did not measure skills essential for the jobs in question and that the state of North Carolina had a long history of deliberately discriminating against blacks by, among other things, providing grossly inferior education to them. The state had only very recently begun to rectify that situation. In ruling for the black plaintiffs, the court reasoned that the policy of using the test was racially discriminatory, because of the test’s disproportionate racial impact combined with the fact that it was not necessary to use the test to determine who was best qualified for promotion.
Now as a white man who is at this moment busy sketching out what this means to you, the reader, I am also forced to admit that I am part of this oppressive apparatus. It is a fact that I am part of a social group which exerts this kind of institutional control over others. What is equally important however, is that to admit this is not a confession of individual racism or an admission of helplessness in helping to facilitate change— in fact it is an affirmation of the existence of institutional racism, and a recognition that the status quo must be changed.
When we discuss issues of race/ethnicity in the workplace, we do not mean to say that these places are full of racists running rampant — which any observer can plainly see is not the case. The claim is about a more innocuous-seeming kind of racism — regardless of individual opinion, the entire business culture in a society may be racist. To refute this out of hand, then, is to look like the comedic instance of Senator James Inhofe standing in the Senate with a fresh snowball in his hand and in refutation of climate change saying “It’s very, very cold out.” That is, just because you don’t see racism at work does not necessitate that it does not exist.
As Louie C.K. puts it:
…I’m a lucky guy, I’ve got a lot going for me. I’m healthy, I’m relatively young, I’m white — which, thank God for that sh*t boy. That is a huge leg up, are you kiddin’ me?! Oh God, I love being white. I really do. Seriously if you’re not white you’re missing out, because this sh*t is thoroughly good. Let me be clear by the way. I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white, is clearly better. Who could even argue? If it was an option I’d re-up every year. “Oh yeah, I’ll take white again, absolutely, I’ve been enjoying that — I’m going to stick with white, thank you.”
What is sexsim?
And why does it apply here? After all, Dr. Arvind Gupta is a man.
Dr. Berdahl’s own blog is as good a place as any to start in terms of this particular case:
President Gupta was the first brown man to be UBC president. He isn’t tall or physically imposing. He advocates for women and visible minorities in leadership — a stance that has been empirically demonstrated to hurt men at work.
Indeed it is Dr. Berdahl’s academic project to study this particular issue, “Work as a Masculinity Contest”.
Finding empirical evidence of this bias at work in the world is not so difficult, but finding any one compact philosophical definition can be. There are many different feminist writers, theorists, philosophers, researchers, and activists who are working in the same space and who offer variations.
Most educated people these days would agree out of hand with the early philosophical feminist sentiments of John Stuart Mill when he writes, in the essay “The Subjection of Women”:
[T]he legal subordination of one sex to another — is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a system of perfect equality, admitting no power and privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.
This was written in 1869, and we’ve come some way since then — and yet we still find that sexism persists, if not so boldly as it did in Mill’s time.
Sexism then might be considered in the same light as institutional racism as a form of discrimination, and in feminist theory in particular it often is tied to some concept of a structural exertion of power (oppression). It instantiates in our language which constantly suggests that to be male is to be normal or the “default type”, in our workplaces as what is referred to as “occupational sexism”, in our entertainment (and entertainment’s workplace), and — well, you get the picture here.
A paragraph from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Topics in Feminism aptly remarks:
Although most feminists would probably agree that there is some sense of “rights” on which achieving equal rights for women is a necessary condition for feminism to succeed, most would also argue that this would not be sufficient. This is because women’s oppression under male domination rarely if ever consists solely in depriving women of political and legal “rights”, but also extends into the structure of our society and the content of our culture, and permeates our consciousness (e.g., Bartky 1990).
So what does this have to do with Arvind Gupta, after all? When Berdahl wonders whether Gupta encountered resistance from above in the workplace, she is asking not only whether the colour of his skin places him in another category apart from white men, but whether so too do his general demeanor and progressive views on women and other people of colour. Simply put, Berdahl does not see Gupta as the stereotypical executive alpha male.
Examining the Op-Ed
Before digging into Tansey’s opinion piece, it would be good to establish the UBC Faculty Association’s opinion — one which ostensibly reflects how those who he served as President viewed his abilities and character.
Having worked directly with Dr. Gupta we can attest to his sincere and driven commitment to make the university a better place for learning and research. It also makes his announced resignation all the more perplexing. Given that the Aug. 7 announcement is a serious step back for UBC, we all need to learn how such setbacks can be avoided in the future. The current lack of information does make this more difficult.
Now, on to James Tansey. A self-avowed “green capitalist”, Tansey’s background is more or less in applied ethics in business, entrepreneurship, and an interest in carbon emission regulation. Looking at his profile, he would seem to be as liberal as they come. His opinion piece begins:
Just because an academic is speaking, it doesn’t mean that what they are saying is scholarly or academic.
Dr. Jennifer Berdahl’s blog on the departure of Dr. Gupta from the role of President, which has triggered another wave of press coverage, is, by her own admission, purely speculative. Its not based on any of the real evidence, data or interviews that would normally underpin an academic study. Nobody in the institution has forced her to remove it, many have agreed and disagreed with her comments and the Chair of the Board (who made the donation that funded her position) contacted her directly to discuss it. Freedom of speech, which is really what we are talking about here, also means that others have the right to criticize what you write and say.
I don’t believe it’s disingenuous to read into these opening lines that what are important for Tansey here are respect for the authority of powerful benefactors (Berdahl should be grateful that she has a job at all, because this man made the position possible), and a rather Libertarian understanding of freedom of speech. That is, Tansey does not consider the inquiry of a professor whose title includes “Gender and Diversity” into a potential issue of discrimination at the university to be academic in nature, but does consider Montalbano’s veiled threats to be simply an exercising of the right to speak freely. Frankly it is insulting that readers should be expected to swallow this kind of rhetoric, and it is all the more surprising to be coming from such a liberal and educated UBC alumnus.
But I have seen no signs of the oppression she claims and she has tenure, so she can’t be fired. It’s an abuse of the concept of academic freedom to raise it here and as a fellow faculty member, it’s embarrassing to see this spill out into the news.
While decrying Berdahl’s concerns as “purely speculative”, Tansey sees himself as qualified to ensure us that there are no problems here, and that such talk is “embarrassing”.
This brings to mind the rather paradoxical examination of “justice” that the whistelblower has raised in modern culture. America finds whistelblowers such as Edward Snowden embarrassing and threatening for showing the crimes of the state to the public, and to the rest of the world. Ironically, the very act of exposing these crimes is deemed criminal by the state which has been exposed.
By comparison, the UBC board and Dr. Gupta are bound by the kind of confidentiality agreement that is standard in human resources at all levels. With respect to Dr. Gupta’s departure from UBC, the reality of large organizations is that sometimes things don’t work out and both parties have to be protected through a general release.
Along the same lines, it is alarming that there are those who oppose transparency at UBC — lest the university show that it has made mistakes. The great crime is not making the mistakes then, but making them known and talking about them. One can only interpret the current legal gag order Gupta is subject to as representative of UBC having something to hide — and while there may indeed be nothing to hide, this firm resistance to transparency is in itself indicative of an institutional problem. While it is true that confidentiality agreements like this can be standard procedure during a resignation, this tells us little — if Gupta was forced to resign for the reasons Berdahl suggests or for more banal reasons, it would be in Gupta’s best interest either way to accept the required confidentiality agreement in order to protect his reputation. In any case his resignation being due to something like failure to perform the job well seems like an odd explanation, given the full support he’s received from everyone he worked with during his time as President.
Tansey, shaking his head, would like to relate to us the fact of the matter — that, like a rain storm or a hurricane, these things just happen. This is, if not simply tautological (things which normally happen, happen all the time!) at least an admission of passivity in the face of a contentious action by a large organization which holds power over you.
The UBC Faculty Association, which has also chosen to weigh into this debate in a very public manner is insisting on more disclosure. This seems a little ironic, given that their job is precisely to protect the rights to privacy of faculty members including Dr. Gupta. It’s disingenuous to attack the board and Mr. Montalbano personally, when you know they can’t comment without breaching that agreement. Not much of a basis for a debate.
Tansey both suggests that this is indeed a public matter (with the sentiment, I’m sure, “No thanks to Berdahl.”), and expresses disbelief in the “ironic” actions of the UBC Faculty Association in requesting more transparency. The rhetorical spin here is of course that Tansey has nothing but respect for Gupta, and that if we question his release from the organization we are in fact invading his privacy.
Yes, that’s right — if we want to question the reasons for Arvind Gupta’s resignation, we are actually actively disrespecting the rights of Arvind Gupta.
For board members, including Mr [sic] Montalbano, who are often alumni and have made donations that support research, this controversy must seem baffling. They are selected for their integrity and contributions to the community and take on time consuming roles as board members on an unpaid voluntary basis. Many have made significant donations to the university because of their commitments to the role that research and learning play in a modern society.
Further, we should find it offensive that anyone who has donated money to the university should be questioned, as it is disrespectful. Strangely there is no hint of worry about the notion of bending the academic knee to wealthy benefactors (we are expected to be assuaged of our fears because these benefactors are often alumni, after all), but instead a sneer in the direction of someone who has questioned authority. Yes, Mr. Tansey — it sure is odd that a professor whose work is concerned with gender and diversity in business would find it worrying that the man who technically owns her position called her directly to express concern about her speaking about the matter at hand.
The other passive-aggressive jab here is that, should we question benefactors like Montalbano, we are spitting on the research dollars which uphold the academy. These are some impressive mental gymnastics, and all the more impressive since they are being performed by someone one might best describe as an environmentalist liberal philanthropist.
But the part of this story that really bothers me is that in her blog, Dr. Berdahl refers to the departing President as a ‘brown man’ who ’isn’t tall or physically imposing’. She is trying to argue that there has been a conspiracy of tall, athletic white men to exclude minorities and women from senior roles. Given the number of recent Deans, Presidents, Vice President’s and senior staff who are female at UBC, who are female and/or not Caucasian, this is misleading. At the very least, she owes him an apology.
Despite his commitment to learning, Mr. Tansey seems to express a sentiment of ignorance, real or feigned, to the very academic content of the person he is attacking. Tansey appeals, strangely, to what can only be described as a “common” or “folk-” understanding of social justice. At the most it is a narrow view of individualism in society which might posit that large, system-wide societal forces simply can’t exist because they are forces which the individual agents which constitute the system are not actively aware of.
And that’s what I want to focus on next — speaking like Tansey does here really isn’t much of a choice; biases by definition are not. A bias or a prejudice is held implicitly, not explicitly — otherwise we would just call these things “decisions”. It is implied that Berdahl’s concern requires there to be a spooky conspiracy by tall “athletic” white men in order for patriarchal pressures and latent racism to exist in society and in the workplace.
Whenever someone does this in an argument (and white men do it almost exclusively, regardless of how tall they may be) I like to picture Stephen Colbert’s oft-deployed “confetti and balloons” bit, where his character loudly celebrates that racism is over, because as a white man he doesn’t see colour. The point of the satire is simple: Look at how absurd it seems for a member of the group in power to tell the oppressed groups that their problems are now over, and to forget about it.
And let’s not miss the trickiest rhetorical maneuver here — pointing out that it was Berdahl alone who explicitly mentioned Gupta’s skin colour. Which implies both that if anyone here is racist it is Berdahl, and that actually discussing the concept of institutional racism (Berdahl’s job, I might add) is in and of itself racist — going so far as to ask that an apology be made for offending Gupta by suggesting his resignation may have been related to his ethnicity.
It seems Tansey would have us believe that there is a dichotomy here — a dilemma; either there is a conspiracy of prominent white men out to get minorities in the workplace (a case against which not being helped by prominent white men publishing articles calling Berdahl a poor scholar), or there is no chance that institutional racism/sexism can be at work. It’s simply not the case that these states of affairs must be mutually exclusive.
We might imagine Mr. Tansey taking inventory of his thoughts and finding that he does not actively hate people of other ethnicities, or women. Outraged at the suggestion that white men (especially those in positions of power) might be part of a wider cultural phenomenon over which he has little or no direct control, he defensively caricatures the opposition’s argument as one which imagines cartoonish conspiratorial misogyny, and indirectly tells Berdahl to be quiet as there is nothing to complain about.
I would ask Mr. Tansey to consider that the above is precisely an example of the type of behaviour which Berdahl is discussing, and which most everyone else is thoughtfully concerned about.
We should ultimately be skeptical of two things. The first, when an influential white man in a position of power tells us — fervently — that racism and sexism don’t exist because some of UBC’s senior administrative faculty are people of colour, or are female. The second, when such a person does so with a shocking dearth of actual information presented. There is a fundamental lack of understanding of the subject matter which Berdahl studies, yet a stern claim that what she has written is not academic.
We are to take Tansey’s word that inaction is the best course of action here (and the university will take care of the matter internally, behind closed doors, as the issue recedes from the public consciousness), and yet he provides an argument whose only merit is the rhetorical weight granted by his position in the very organization to be investigated.