Wandering into Vanier College for my first class in urban black America two months ago, my heart skipped a beat. There at the table ready to lead a discussion on the origins of slavery was a cheerful and obviously scholarly professor whose skin just happened to be white. Taking my seat, I felt a surge of annoyance, followed by pangs of contrition. "Is there something wrong with me?' I asked myself. "Why should the race of my black studies teacher matter? Am I a racist -- and is anybody else here feeling what I'm feeling?'
In trying to answer these questions over the next several weeks, I come upon a reality seldom talked about on the windswept York campus: a deep-seated cynicism that an institution considered a pioneer in race relations lags so far behind in the hiring of staff reflective of its demographic mix. One could even say a grim, quiet anger is percolating. Is the ideal of diversity just a public relations exercise or is the suburban campus really planning to change the colour of its teaching?
According to figures, between 1998 and 2001 there has been only a 2.2 per cent increase in the number of professors of colour. The latest survey concluded that of respondents, 10.6 per cent -- 117 actual people -- were of colour out of a total faculty of 1,248 tenured and probationary staff. When you break this down, it turns out that these are the major groups: 16 reported being of African descent, while 44 identified as Southeast Asian/East Asian, 31 South Asian/Indo-Pakistani and 10 western Asian/Arab/North African.
Just as disappointing, the administration does not provide figures distinguishing who among these 117 are probationary or have tenure. (It takes five to seven years at York to become tenured.) Out of 40 administrators, only two are of colour.
But try to interview folks around campus on this and one quickly learns the meaning of a hot-button issue. Everyone I speak to in an official position crafts their replies very carefully.
Carl James, an associate professor at the faculty of education and a black man, says of other black faculty's reluctance to speak to me for this story, "Everything is political, especially at York University. People are very sensitive about race issues here. Perhaps some black professors are cautious that the media may misinterpret their answers. Black faculty have to think about the long-term implications of speaking in relation to this article. But once this article is published, the issue isn't just going to go away."
James is directing an ongoing study of students' experiences in the classroom of issues ranging from racism and sexism to rapport with faculty. From the information he's already received, he says students are dissatisfied with their academic options. "Black students have talked to me about their need for more courses oriented toward the black experience. They want more courses that deal with their particular concerns and issues,' he says.
But shouldn't these courses be taught by blacks?
Associate dean Heather Campbell finds the issue "very complicated. I suggest it's better to have black studies courses, even if they're taught by white professors or other professors of colour, made available to students who want to take them than not to have them at all,' she says. "So much depends on individual professors and their particular strengths and weaknesses that it's impossible to make a comprehensive judgment."
She admits change should be moving at a faster pace but says the university advertises as widely as possible to make sure black candidates present themselves. "I serve on the affirmative action committee that monitors the process of all hirings, and my experience has been that affirmative action is taken very seriously indeed at York.'
All the officials I spoke to were quick to reaffirm York's diversity commitment. Special assistant to the president Gill Teiman tells me, "There have been changes, but they are taking place very slowly, and faculty of colour still don't have the visibility they should. Since the change has only been among new hires, it's not easily seen.'
The hope, she says, is that if York maintains its present hiring trends (it increased faculty by 5.4 per cent from 1998 to 2001), in a few years there will be much more diversity.
But are all these incremental changes really going to amount to a qualitative shift? "The white community is not looking at this issue from our point of view,' says Kerry Ann Baker, a first-year math and economics major. "White kids don't have to look for someone to identify with when they see white professors every day.'
Says Omisoore Dryden, an adviser at the campus race and ethnic relations centre, "I believe it is imperative that students have leaders who look like them in all areas of the university. Having mentors to encourage one into graduate school and Ph.D. studies is key for many students of African descent.'
Campbell makes it clear that she understands what's at stake. "I think the more black professors and professors of colour we have the better, to reflect the student population and provide role models students can fully relate to. Certainly, it was important to me as an undergrad that some of my professors were women, a related experience, though not exactly the same."
The question is, how are Campbell and others in positions of authority going to get those numbers up before the black campus community stops being so reticent about the problem?
Black anthropology prof Dan Yon urges caution in the discussion around mentoring. Role models, he says, should not be about a person's race, but their principles and values. "I certainly would not want to fall into the racist trap of assuming that black students need more mentoring than other students." Still, he, too, advocates "building a diverse faculty like the increasingly diverse student population at York.'
"We must make our voices heard,' says Teferi Adem, another adviser at the centre, who reminds me how rocky race relations have been at York. In 1992, racist white security officers harassed black students, singling them out from white students by asking them for identification. Adem got his current job because there was such an uproar.
"Black faculty have a social and moral responsibility to take a larger role. We need to be more organized. Why is there no black faculty group or organization? In America, just about all the top colleges and universities have black faculty organizations."