Anthony Stewart is a tenured professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Dedicated, brilliant and, he admits, a little neurotic, he is a typical academic in nearly every way. But walking the halls of Dalhousie’s ever-bright and sterile Arts Building, Stewart does not look like his colleagues. Six feet six inches tall and black, he looks — to many students, professors, and strangers, and even once to a member of the Nova Scotia Judiciary — like a basketball player. “If I had a dollar for every time this has been said to me,” Stewart has written, “I might not need a job at all.”
Named for the backhanded judgment that dogs him, Stewart’s recent book, You Must be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University, opens a conversation about how the Canadian university looks, what this means, and why the situation must change. Its text sets out to debunk the idea that some unflappable gold standard of merit guides the doling out of jobs. Stewart points to such directives as regional representation and spousal appointments as examples of how preferential hiring is already a matter of course in Canadian institutions, both academic and otherwise. As long as race is not involved, he argues, hiring qualified candidates for reasons beyond the ones printed on their CV is considered a legitimate, even necessary, practice.
Although essentially an argument for affirmative action, Stewart’s book is hardly what you’d expect. The author whisks personal anecdote and rational analysis into prose that is lucid, sophisticated, and, most surprisingly, funny. It reads as a bit of a romp — albeit a critical one — through a world that will be familiar, sometimes painfully so, to anyone who has spent even a B.A.’s worth of time in a Canadian university.
Does Canada feel differently about race relations compared to the United States? Do Canadians think we’re exempt from the problem?
Yes. And we’re wrong. Americans have a very long and very public history with respect to issues of race, so it’s been easy for us to scapegoat them and say, “They don’t have it figured out, but thankfully, look at us, we do.” These are still ongoing issues that have not been resolved in this country. As I say to everybody who will listen to me on this subject: I have a job that most people would love to have. I’m paid to read, write and think. I’m on the inside. My criticisms, specifically of the academy but more generally of the professional classes in Canada, come from somebody who is a paid-up, card-carrying member of those professional classes. So if the issues look the way they do to me, you have to imagine how they look to an eighteen-year-old kid from, say, Little Burgundy.
I see my privilege as something I have because somebody else doesn’t have it. I’m no smarter than my parents are. By fate, circumstance, good fortune, and my own hard work — and probably in that order, it’s worth saying — I’ve been put in a position to have a job that either of my parents could have done, but they weren’t in a position to take up for a variety of reasons. Even from my own family, I’m very aware that my privilege does come at a cost. And so does other people’s privilege.
You write in the book about “colour-blindness,” which we’ve typically construed as being a very liberal and progressive quality, but you argue that it requires an extremely privileged position to support.
You have to have power in order to make a gesture towards divesting yourself of it. In a lot of ways, academics are outside of the world that we write, think and talk about. We don’t run for office; we’re not competing with other business people. We are outside a lot of things, and yet we pretend that we’re part of them.
That isn’t the case for many of your undergraduate students. After their time in university, they’re going to re-enter society, as it were. And many of them are going to be in positions of power.
That’s why we owe them our best. I hope this is my contribution as a teacher, and certainly I hope it’s the contribution that You Must Be a Basketball Player makes. The next time one of my former students or one of my readers hears someone say that we’re trying to live in a colour-blind society, I hope they’ll laugh in that person’s face. Because the notion of colour-blindness is one-sided. Even if everybody I know successfully sees the world in colour-blind terms, that does not guarantee that really lousy things aren’t going to happen to me over the course of my day because of other people who have not signed on to this bargain. The point isn’t to work towards a society that only re-inscribes the privilege that was supposed to be interrogated in the first place. The point is to get better at dealing with our differences.
In a pragmatic way, what’s the first step? What should Canadian universities be doing differently?
Universities should be hiring qualified people who are going to bring to their departments, to their faculties, things that those faculties don’t already have, people who are going to provide ethno-cultural representation that either doesn’t exist or is under-represented. And that’s not hard. I’ve been keeping track, unofficially, at my own university. Just within my faculty there have been five people of colour that I know of who have not been hired [in years past]. These are completely qualified people who our faculty for one reason or another didn’t see fit to hire. If [our society] isn’t willing to talk about that, it’s going to keep happening.
When you get a flat tire, you don’t just keep driving along pretending it’s not there until it magically fixes itself. But on some level that’s what we’re doing now with this issue. We need to get past the sense of being implicated in some way. We need to start doing with issues of integration what we do with the rest of our work — we need to bring the same level of intelligence, creativity and discipline to this issue that we would to any other. The fact that the academy lags behind other professional environments in terms of diversity should be a source of constant and daily embarrassment.
I wonder if this is one version of a problem that academia routinely encounters, where theory and practice inevitably conflict. Is there a way to theorize as an occupation and still keep a foot grounded in the outside world?
The short answer is yes, it can be done. The long answer is that I think that some people see theorizing as a substitute for real commitment. Aesthetic and intellectual radicalism have never been a guarantee of political progressiveness, as anybody who’s ever thought about Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, F.T. Marinetti — and the list goes on and on — knows. The one doesn’t really prove the other. It’s important we recognize that; it’s important that we be a little more honest about who we are. [American philosopher] Richard Rorty once wrote that we have all the theory we need. Another middle or upper-middle class academic theorizing about poverty does nothing to stem the wave of poverty in the United States, was his example. I don’t know how you can argue against that position.
What’s the end goal, then?
I don’t see some sort of terminal point where these are no longer problems. People will always be different from one another in any number of ways. If you take the issue down to its absolute base and everybody is ethnoculturally the same — a picture that you can’t really paint, but let’s say for argument’s sake that you can — there would still be men and women, for instance. We would still need some sort of way to constructively, actively and, one hopes, progressively deal with our differences so that one group doesn’t oppress the other.
We accept as a given that we are always going to be different from one another, but from there we do not accept that the only way we can live with our differences is to pretend they don’t exist. That’s something we don’t do in any other aspect of our lives. We make discriminations in everything we do. We discriminate between red wine and white wine — different sorts of red wine, different sorts of white wine, even. We will always have figure-ground relationships. The reason you can see a black dot on a white background is because of their contrast. To finish that metaphor, the white background is the default, and the black dot is the exception which allows you to see both. Well, I’m here to tell you, when we start [discussing] the perceptual default in Canada, the answer is not going to be a 44-year-old first son of Jamaican immigrants. I know that I’m going to have different things asked of me than you are. More is going to be asked of me in terms of making sense of the differences in the world.
Because you’re not only being asked to represent yourself, but also everyone who looks like you?
Everyone who even remotely looks like me. In addition to that, I am also more responsible for understanding you than you are for understanding me. Goodness knows I’m not the first person to say that; James Baldwin and others already have. It is the people who are the exceptions to the rule who have to deal with these issues. What I want is for everybody — irrespective of their own ethno-cultural lineage — to take it upon themselves as a project, as what they do as human beings, to become a little more engaged with our differences.
I volunteer as a costumed interpreter at a living history* museum. The 1865 Prince of Wales woodstove in the kitchen was roaring so it became the center of attention:
Ohhh. What is that big thing?
Why is it so big? Seven burners!
What did they burn?
These are but a sampling of the most common questions asked by adult Canadians. I repeatedly explained that wood was indeed what was burned in a woodstove and that it was the only source of heat, hot water and cooked food so it needed to be big. The technologies of the past are, I have discovered, as elusive and confusing to people as emerging present day ones can be. (more…)
VANCOUVER—Congress is over for another year. Plans are now well underway for Carleton in 2009, an exhausting thought. By all measures, this year’s event on the UBC campus was a success, even if the weather was lousy. Having visited learned societies for over a week I have a pretty good sense of the satisfaction levels of congress participants and I believe most were pretty happy with the level of the papers they heard and the service they received. You can’t beat that.
Still, I am always amazed to overhear academics grumbling: the campus is too far from downtown; the taxi lines are too long; food services are limited on the weekend, and so on. Human nature, the very thing these thousands of scholars spend a lifetime studying, will have its way, and even one of the most privileged groups in society will find reasons to complain. It’s not that everything is perfect. It’s that educated people somehow forget to connect their experience to the sheer facts of running an event of this size. The UBC caterer, who has to feed these thousand or so of scholarly souls, was responsible for well over 150 deliveries a day for eight days, scattered all over the vast campus and all designed for different needs. That’s not even counting the daily receptions with hot food, wines, chafing dishes, and other disasters waiting to happen. That everyone got fed their veggie wraps, salads, cookies, and juices on time, between bites of Keynes or Nietzsche, is pretty amazing in itself. But even big-brained scholars can occlude the network of labourers that hums along beside them, efficiently working to serve their higher-paid masters.
Speaking of complaining, there’s a lot of talk about the need to invest in science and technology these days, to build, you know, the knowledge economy. Everyone’s favourite Canadian philanthropist is Michael Lazaridis, who during Congress week donated $50 million to the Waterloo-based Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, topping up the $100 million he has already contributed. In this country, that’s big news, trumping reports of even the most dazzling scholarly papers. Lazaridis’s gift was rightly applauded by Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente last weekend, but in praising Lazaridis’s vision of an internationally competitive, innovative Canada, she typically tossed off a supercilious remark about education trends. “Too many of our kids (and I’m saying these things, because Mr. Lazaridis is far too polite),” she wrote, “drift into liberal arts and gender studies instead of engineering and math.”
Give me a break, Wente. Lazaridis is the last person who would agree with you. RIM employs hundreds of arts graduates, and Lazaridis is on record as saying that Canada needs highly educated personnel to take this country forward, not just techno geeks. Imagine a world without the liberal arts. What would scientists read to their children?
The annual Congress of Canadian learned societies brings together thousands of people who are using their heads to talk, take up, challenge, explore the very ideas Lazaridis is promoting. This country, like all others, needs to educate fully rounded citizens, those who can understand what is human and social about us as well as those who can build the CN Tower out of Lego. Stop complaining, Wente. Come visit us at Carleton next year. We’ll show you vision.