What Do We Really Mean When We Say We Are Hiring For Identity

The danger that hiring for identity poses to minorities.

May 7, 2019

After professor-provocateur Camille Paglia made some especially offensive comments, student activists at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia demanded that she be dismissed (or put on the academic equivalent of ‘administrative duty’) and replaced by a queer person of color.

I see lots of suggestions along those lines these days. It seems to be a staple of student activist demands to campus administrations.

Certainly, some version of this makes good sense. In a diverse democracy, having campus administrations and faculties dominated by people from any particular race, religion, ethnicity, gender or geography is a problem.  

But what solution are we hoping for when a demand for a specific identity hire is issued?

After all, the problem that student activists have with Camille Paglia is not with her identity, it’s with her views.

What if the university acquiesced to the students’ demands and hired a queer person of color, and that person turned out to be Jason D. Hill - a tenured professor of philosophy at DePaul who is black, gay, an immigrant, a scholar of cosmopolitanism and someone who is in hot water for a whole series of statements that appear to be aiming for the same standard of offensiveness (and notoriety) that Paglia occasionally achieves.

Demanding that someone of a certain identity be hired when what you really want is someone of a particular ideology is a little like breaking your foot and telling the surgeon your arm hurts and requires an operation. It is both the wrong description of the problem and a potentially disastrous solution.

Why do I find such proposals disastrous? Because they put minorities in an ‘identity/ideology box’ where having certain physical characteristics means that the audience (your political party, your administration, your students) feels like it can expect (sometimes even demand) particular ideological views. Refusing to stay in your box opens you up to banishment and other forms of punishment.

Why would anyone agree to those terms?   Would you take a job that, on the surface, hired you for your identity, but where you were pretty sure that what people really wanted was for you to be a jukebox of a particular ideology? All they needed to do was put a quarter in and they could get you to play the ideological song they wanted to hear.

I remember reading something by Judith Butler when I was an undergraduate. If memory serves, she had agreed to speak at a lesbian feminist rally and opened her remarks by saying that she was fine appearing as a lesbian feminist as long as she was free to define what that meant for herself, and change her definition depending on the time, place, situation and stage of her life.

It’s taken me twenty-five years to see the deep wisdom in that statement.




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