Debra Soh writes about the science of sex, politics, and culture, and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University
The concept of “diversity” has such a lovely ring to it, conjuring up romantic notions of being forward-thinking and living harmoniously in society. But what if diversity is being used as a way to justify discrimination?
On April 4, documents obtained by a group suing Harvard University demonstrated that the university’s admissions process has been discriminating against Asian applicants for decades.
As discussed in a complaint filed by 64 Asian-American organizations in 2015, affirmative action requires the SAT scores of Asian applicants to be hundreds of points higher than applicants from other ethnic backgrounds. It has reached a point where mixed-raced Asian applicants will choose to hide their Asian heritage when they apply to Ivy League schools.
The case echoes discrimination documented by former YouTube recruiter, Arne Wilberg, in a recent lawsuit against its parent company, Google. In the suit, Mr. Wilberg alleges that Google implemented diversity quotas that favoured female, Hispanic or black applicants, and discriminated against white and Asian men. Mr. Wilberg contends he was fired for challenging these illegal practices.
Both lawsuits speak to a larger trend of how it’s become acceptable to promote racial discrimination in the name of equality. The justification behind this approach stems from the theory of intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, an American civil-rights advocate, almost 30 years ago. At its crux is the belief that women and minorities experience systemic injustice, and that those who are not members of minorities are considered to have privilege.
This ideology has since permeated the mainstream, and the area of education more specifically, through exercises such as the “white privilege checklist.” (In a video, Buzzfeed conducted a similarly themed “privilege walk”). Questions such as “I can turn on the television … and see people of my race widely represented,” and “I can choose … bandages in ‘flesh’ colour and have them more or less match my skin,” allow respondents to determine the amount of societal privilege they own.
Because Asian-Americans don’t fit into the narrative of being oppressed by virtue of one’s skin colour (particularly in the realms of education and income), maintaining the status quo following from this line of reasoning requires additional mental gymnastics.
Instead of acknowledging that “white privilege” doesn’t exist, those supporting diversity initiatives will use terms such as “underrepresented minorities” to exclude Asians from the equation, thereby preserving the idea that racial minorities require intervention in order to be successful.
These policies don’t come without a cost, casting aspersions as to whether a person was granted admission based on competence. They don’t help to improve underlying tensions around race, nor do they encourage resilience or the belief that an individual can overcome difficult life obstacles.
If academic institutions were truly interested in helping underrepresented groups, they would want to understand what is driving gaps in academic achievement, beyond the false notion that all differences in society are due to oppression.
If universities are concerned with fighting intolerance, the last thing they should want to do is offer preferential treatment to students based on qualities unrelated to merit. In fact, a 2011 study in Psychological Science showed how prejudice-reduction policies can actually produce greater bias in individuals, particularly if they feel they are being pressed into changing their attitudes. These strategies produced worse outcomes than if no interventions had been implemented at all.
What is racist is placing such an emphasis on immutable characteristics a person had no say in obtaining. As an Asian woman, the way I look has no bearing on the way I think, and to assume otherwise is close-minded and patronizing.
Those championing diversity mandates claim to be operating from an honourable position, but they are quick to knock down a racial group the minute it no longer furthers their charitable goals. The point of affirmative action is no longer about helping marginalized individuals, but to socially engineer an outcome that wins points for appearing fair-minded and equitable.