Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Stephen Piotrkowski: Was it Discrimination or the Best Decision?

Brace yourself, folks, this is a bit of a read. My apologies. I caught a discussion on Facebook among some friends the other day about a news story out of Northwestern University. FOX reported that a male student, Stephen Piotrkowski, was denied a position at Northwestern University's Associate VP of Diversity and Inclusion because her is a white, heterosexual male .  My friend started the discussion using this quote from the Daily Northwestern: “This university is not ready, in any capacity, for a heterosexual white male to be in charge in any way of diversity and inclusion...I don’t know if any university is.”

I wasn't there for the actual discussion, but one of the participants and I discussed it later. She was firmly on the side of Northwestern University. Most of the other participants thought that that what had happened was discrimination.

Which, of course, according to the strictest definition of the word, it is. I admit to being torn about this at first.

But I've given it a lot of thought since.

Stephen Piotrkowski: A Question of Being Able To Understand Who He'd Be Representing

I took a course in Social Psychology back in university. It was a very interesting course. We spent a lot of time on race and racism, in Canada particularly. One of the exam questions ran along the lines "What would you do improve race relations in Canada?" and my answer ran along the lines of "Abolish affirmative-action-type programs and hiring quotas in employment." I went on to explain that these programs just caused resentment when it looked as if people, were benefiting from them based on ethnicity, and that the real solution was to level the playing field so that everyone who wanted it had equal access to the opportunities to become the best qualified candidate for a job, regardless of ethnicity. As if that's so simple, right? I was 20, white, and terribly naive.

My friends arguing on behalf of the man who'd been denied the job (all people who I know from prior discussions have given issues like these some considerable thought) argued that as a white, heterosexual male with no personal experience of being a member of an oppressed group (that he'd admit, at least), he was not a member of a "protected group" on that campus, and therefore had no means of appealing a discriminatory decision.

The friend arguing on behalf of Northwestern University said white, heterosexual males don't need to be a protected class, since they already run everything. A university professor, she cited her academic and personal experience with university campus diversity committees and how they operate, and talked about the need to have them composed of people who have lived the experiences of the people that they represent.

Jessica Steitz, one of the student Senators who questioned Stephen Piotrkowski, sounds like she would agree. According to the                Daily Northwestern, she asked him: “When you’re forced to work with all these multicultural groups that are, for the most part, not made up of white males, do you think you have the perspective that is not their perspective, to bring to them?”

I get this viewpoint, too. I actually had this sort of argument when I was in community college, living in residence with several other women. One of my roommates had lived in Canada for about four years. She was black (which made her stand out on our small campus), and she was a Muslim. She was trying to tell me that, as I was white, there was no way I could understand the experience of discrimination.

"There's no way I can understand your experience of discrimination," I said. "But, as a disabled person, I've experienced discrimination...and I wouldn't expect you to understand my experience, either."

But she didn't agree that it was possible for a white person to experience discrimination, period, and we weren't friends for long.

Still Talking About Diversity Committees, Which I Realize Isn't The Specific Issue for Stephen Piotrkowski, But Bear With Me

Assuming that my roommate and I could have sat in the same room together long enough to be on a diversity committee together (it soon became difficult for us to do so even as roommates, which made for an interesting year) I believe that both of our experiences would have been valuable. There's no greater expert on the experience of being a disabled person or a recent immigrant and their needs in a given committee than the person who's living that life. I'm seeing members of the autism committee make this argument more and more recently, and I think it's a valuable one.

I think that people who have experienced discrimination, while they may not necessarily fully understand each others' individual experiences, can empathize with each other and comment on the experience, among themselves and to others, in general terms. I think that there's a universality to the discrimination experience in terms of how it makes us feel that increases the power of diversity committees exponentially. No matter the nature of your discrimination experience, you're linked to others who have experienced discrimination, just by having experienced it.

And I don't think that there's any reason to make a blanket statement that white, heterosexual men don't belong on diversity committees.  In the case in question, no statements on disability were made, implying to me (given the nature of the story) that nothing came up relating to them. But a white, heterosexual man could have any number of invisible disabilities that had caused people to discriminate against him in the past.  It's not impossible that Stephen Piotrkowski didn't have some experience with being discriminated against. Even if he didn't, I don't believe that we can absolutely say that a person with experience with groups that have experienced discrimination, and a good appreciation for the issues involved, even with no personal experience of it, can't still be a great member of a diversity committee (provided that the experiences of the other members give the committee the diversity that it requires).

But, from what we know of the situation,  Stephen Piotrkowski does not have a personal experience of being the "other" in this society, and he wasn't just applying to be a member of  a diversity committee.  Stephen Piotrkowski was applying to *the* face for inclusion and diversity on Northwestern's campus. While I know (because I know them!) that there are very socially aware, empathetic-to-the-max men out there who have likely never experienced discrimination personally but who would still be amazing at this job, they honestly probably wouldn't want it - they'd realize that, as sketchy as this sounds to the idealistic 20-year-old in me who still pokes her head out from time to time and stomps her feet and says "But that's *not* how it should work!", making a white, heterosexual male the Associate VP of Diversity and Inclusion at a university in this day and age sends a negative image to the people that he's supposed to serve.  They're going to assume that he can't relate to them. It's not right, but there it is.

Stephen Piotrkowski: What's the Solution?

And it makes me sad for the white, heterosexual males that I know that could do this Associate VP job really well, because it's not their fault that they're being punished for being men in a patriarchal, racist society whose values they don't share.

I suppose that the friend who said he was sad for me because he knew that disabled people experienced employment discrimination and that he was sorry that I had to experience it felt kind of the same way.

Sometimes life isn't fair. At the very least,  Stephen Piotrkowski now knows how it feels to be "othered" - I'm sorry that he had to experience that, but I hope that he can take something from this admittedly unfair and unfortunate situation and use it. If he's really serious about furthering the cause of diversity, it'll actually serve him to better understand just what it is he's fighting for, as he join the countless others working a way to level the playing field for everyone.


  1. Discrimination is such an elusive concept. There are certainly classes of primates throughout history who were held in scorn: based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, religion again, disability, and so many descriptors. I believe, and I may be alone, that whenever you limit by race, by orientation, by capacity or by any other category, you discriminate. I'm old...that's a category; I'm white, and probably a few other categories, especially Polish, like the above man. Our education, experience, level of compassion and humanity, skill set, etc. are what should determine our ability to do a task. Period! Not our membership in a particular category of primates.I am also not a fan of affirmative action...just simple equal opportunity for all members of the population. We have a huge commonality....categories divide us. Made me think, Sarah!

  2. This issue is one that I'm constantly mulling over, Phil. Every time I hear a story like this, I have to sort it all out again. My gut reaction is the same as yours: to limit by any category is discrimination. But I feel like we're going to have to have an overhaul in how we view just about *everything* before we get to the point where the playing field can ever be truly level for everyone...before everyone will even *want* it to be level...and I just don't know what the answer is.

    As always, thank you for your comment. :)