Diversity and Ethnic Minorities in University Faculty

This is just one of those things that I still don't completely understand from when I came to the US and into university life 10 years ago: tokenism / diversity in faculty representation. I know we've done the race-vs-class thing a million times on this blog, but I really want to find out what anyone thinks about this: what diversity do privileged minority faculty members bring to the academy?

Here's a bit of background from my own context:

My department, in one of the social science disciplines in a major US research university, has been heavily criticised by an external review for lack of diversity in its faculty. And the lack of diversity in some areas is indeed deeply troubling: out of 50 full-time faculty members, only 6 are women (including two half-time appointments).  This is when fully half of the graduate student body and a majority of undergraduate majors are women. The blatant imbalance among those with all the power in the department sends several signals and has several tangible effects, none of them good. Perhaps the worst of these are the prevalence of stark patriarchy in certain corners of the department, which hurts both male and female graduate students and creates a particularly negative environment for collegiality and support.

The criticisms included the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities as well, and this is where I start to get a bit confused. It is true that the department's overwhelmingly white, and that does not give off the most inclusive vibe. However, the ethnic diversity that does exist is of a very particular kind that is not in keeping with the diversity of life experience that surely is what we're really looking for.

For instance, four of the ethnically-underrepresented faculty are of South Asian descent. One grew up in Delhi and did his early post-graduate work there before coming to the US for a PhD. Another grew up in a feudal fiefdom -- as the child of the feudal lord -- in Pakistan, and then went to the US for her education. The two others are, as far as I can tell, American-born and -raised desis, with undergraduate and graduate degrees from research universities. None of these four come from less than middle-class backgrounds.

From my point of view, I just don't understand what 'diversity' these four bring to the department, other than skin colour and -- for two of them -- the experience of growing up in a different national context.

The most widely-cited and indeed compelling reason I can think of for ethnic diversity among faculty in the American academy is that minority faculty members might be more sensitive to / aware of the perspectives of students growing up in non-privileged contexts. And in America, race and class are correlated in a lot of contexts.

Would any of the four faculty members I mentioned above be particularly sensitive to, say, a second generation Bangladeshi student who came to this university via junior college and whose parents ran a 7-11? Would they have anything in common, apart from the colour of their skin?  Not to target South Asians either: would Black or Latino or Asian faculty coming from a background in the suburbs, private colleges and universities and graduate schools be more sensitive?

I have a couple of friends, in PhD programmes at my university, who are white but come from (broken) families in which neither parent went to college. And both grew up in rural areas, as opposed to middle-class suburbs. And I think that they would be a lot better at understanding / helping lower class students of any ethnicity than a member of 'the multicultural elite' like me for instance. However, hiring committees would put extra weight to my application because I'm not white, on the assumption that I would add diversity to the department. Why?

In teaching (at any level) in particular, shouldn't experience matter than profile?

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Comments

"And I think that they would

"And I think that they would be a lot better at understanding / helping lower class students of any ethnicity than a member of ‘the multicultural elite’ like me for instance."

I don't think that's necessarily true...I think you underestimate the level of racism most Americans are socialized to have. Why should it be either/or (poor whites vs. bourgie poc)?

On a purely anecdotal note, I've gotten more support from other professors of color (not sure of original class background) than desi profs (they just seem unapproachable). Maybe bourgie desis act extra bourgie :P I don't relate to other bourgie American desis because of the post-racial, "i'm too fabulous to be grounded in reality" attitude that many have. I'm sure it's not a desi-only attitude, but it is probably influenced by the model minority myth.

(please don't flame me! these are just purely personal observations that might not mean much in a broad sense)

To your last question, it's possible that the dept. is a product of how many poor and/or poc people join the field. But biases in hiring are also possible. I don't think people generally hire totally unqualified people just because they're brown...

I agree that it is hard to

I agree that it is hard to bond with desi professors.

I just don’t understand what

I just don’t understand what ‘diversity’ these four bring to the department, other than skin colour and — for two of them — the experience of growing up in a different national context.

Do I agree that other perspectives are important to and the construction of the multiculti elite is problematic, particularly in how class, intersectionality, and more severe race issues get underplayed? Totally. But you can't underestimate how important the above is. Americans - including many of us who are bicultural - are as a rule clueless about other places until our government bombs them. And the media discourse doesn't help. It's sort of like the way Ayesha Jalal has enormously helped South Asian Studies simply by virtue of being a sharp scholar from Pakistan.

On an aside, there's a book called "Remapping knowledge : the making of South Asian Studies in India, Europe and America, 19th-20th centuries" eds Jackie Assayag & Véronique Bénéi which might be of interest to others.

(please don’t flame me! these are just purely personal observations that might not mean much in a broad sense)

BQ, this is adorable. I feel like putting this at the end of every single comment I make and post I write to save my emotional self from some of the occasional onslaught.

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