Diversity Rhetoric Obscures Structural Inequities

Image source. Students at UC Davis being pepper-sprayed at a 2011 campus protest.

After we published our post last week, an article by Cathryn Bailey came across our laptops that echoed some of our arguments about how the work that faculty do and the positions we hold at colleges tends to make us less able and willing to see ourselves as workers. Bailey takes this structural critique and argues that “It has perhaps never before been more obvious that the fissures that underlie the academic labor crisis are connected to broader concerns about diversity, inclusion, and social justice.”

Bailey makes a strong case for why the academic labor crisis and universities’ inability to make progress on social justice stem from the same structures that focus on individual efforts and rewards rather than on institutional change.

We highlight here some of the passages we found particularly insightful.

“It is perhaps when the class politics underlying academic employment are most naked that institutional propaganda about individual behavior, often couched in terms of civility, is most prevalent. Employment pressure, for example, makes faculty members ever more reluctant to speak openly about supposedly controversial matters or issues that test the bounds of ‘civility.’”

“Rhetoric swings predictably between the ‘we’ and the singular ‘you,’ which helps disguise the systemic nature of the problems. ‘Our’ campus community is set forth as a beacon of tolerance and multiculturalism. A communal ‘we’ takes credit for the mythic image of the university viewbook as an inviting Benetton ad. Yet when faculty members or students raise complaints—even those that point to long-standing patterns of discrimination or abuse—they are likely to be framed and handled merely in the very particular terms of individual rights and victimization.” 

“At other times, administrators who sing the praises of diversity goals, initiatives, and strategic objectives frame structural inequities as being only about particular individuals. A quite specific complaint by a faculty member of color—for example, that his diversity-focused sabbatical proposal has been unfairly dismissed—may be met with feel-good assurances from a dean or vice provost echoing the institutional diversity statement. Such polite responses effectively close down discussion. What response is available when the dean warmly replies that ‘the University of X values everyone’? Institutional accountability becomes clouded over in a puff of rhetorical rainbow smoke that disguises the constraints faced by actual individuals, especially those from marginalized groups, who are struggling to thrive. In its attempt to sidestep blame, avoid controversy, and appease aggrieved constituents, the administration’s ‘civil’ and ‘reasonable’ conduct upholds the status quo’s inequities.”

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