• SETHICS 21.04.2014

    INTRODUCTION (as seen in PART 1):

    In the last few weeks, CBC’s BC-based public affairs radio broadcast, On the Coast, has interviewed two UBC graduate students who respectively argued that (1) male-“dominated” workplaces may be more likely to nourish higher levels of counterproductive risk than gender-balanced work sites, and (2) international students suffer significant racism at UBC. To my ear, the latter study was untroubled by the nuisance of scientific rigor or neutrality, while the former could benefit from some serious philosophical meta questions about the consequences of research that intends to differentiate the sexes with the hopes of influencing hiring policies. Just as troubling, however, was the inability or unwillingness of the interviewer, CBC’s Matthew Lazin-Ryder, to ask the intrepid sociologists difficult questions.

    Case 1 was dealt with in Part 1 as a member of my misandry collective, while Case 2 (which is parallel to, but not an example of, misandry) is here.


    In her interview with CBC’s Matthew Lazin-Ryder, sociologist Tanvi Sirari based her claim that international students suffer significant racial discrimination at UBC on “dozens” of interviews over six years with the allegedly maligned population. Sirari explained:

    “I was surprised that students that came from African and Carribean countries had encountered a lot of negative racism, which was often based on stereotypical ideas about their country, their culture, and so on. And it’s interesting that there is so much public opinion against racism, but when it’s disguised as cultural intolerance, or disagreeing with cultural differences, then it doesn’t seem so bad. So people almost feel free to do that. Perhaps it’s out of ignorance, but it’s also racism in a very subtle form, I would say.”

    Given the seriousness of this accusation against Canadian society, you might think that the interviewer would take on the role of asking for evidence from the sociologist. Nope. Instead, Lazin-Ryder took in Sirari’s presentation as though it were infallible even though she seemed to be working from a broad and controversial definition of racism that included cultural criticism (which may be a serious problem if it is done unfairly, but which an expert on society should know is definitionally different from racism). Moreover, she applied it inconsistently across cultures (that is, she allowed herself and her unassailable interview subjects to take shots at Canadian culture and subcultures, while defining any complaints against non-Canadian cultures as racism).

    The study, moreover, gave new meaning to the term “double blind” as (A) the researcher seemed blind to the possibility that human beings are not always infallible interpreters of their own experiences and could possibly perceive racism where it might not exist and/or lie about it for expected personal gain, and (B) the researcher seemed to be blindly looking to prove that significant racism exists at UBC (as evidenced by her open-ended definition of racism).

    The distinction between cultural criticism and racism is significant. As any second-year philosophy student knows, the notion of cultural relativism (that morally correct behaviour is defined by what one’s culture thinks is right) is ethically suspect and can lead, by a variety of arguments, to nihilism (the denial of morality altogether). The moral fact of the matter is that most cultures have gotten some ethical decisions wrong. Some societies, for instance, have a higher tendency towards imperialism, misogyny, racism, slavery, and so on. The cultural practices that beget those results are flawed and should be criticized. However, where someone criticizes a culture for practices that it, in reality, does not participate in or does not condone, then that accuser may be considered ignorant, and if they are motivated by malice or a racial double standard, it may be that they are in fact racist or xenophobic. Identifying such racism is tricky work, and requires a transparent psychological and ethical framework (and definition of terms) to distinguish racially versus socially motivated cultural criticism, and valid versus invalid perceptions of racism. Siari neither provides nor is asked for by her admiring interviewer any such schematic.

    As I argued in my post ATTACKING MEN, sometimes researchers and interpreters of research are motivated to find evidence of significant racism/sexism in their work (perhaps because it is in the interest of their career to do so). Evidence for this possibility can be found in Sirari’s observation that many of the international students want to “qualify” individual incidents of racism by, she says, pointing out that their overall experience is very positive. Sirari interprets that this “downplaying” of racism is a result of the our society’s stigmitization of those who claim racial discrimination; victims feel that “it is not right to talk about racial discrimination at all.” Siari could be right about that, but why is she so confident that she can broadly intuit what’s motivating these international students of diverse cultural backgrounds?

    Another possible (although equally unproven) explanation for why the students “qualify” individual experiences of racism might be because most people they meet (especially at UBC) are not at all racist. Unfortunately, it just takes one idiot to say something awful, which naturally will stay in someone’s memory; thus, when asked, they’ll point it out, but they may want to simultaneously note that that doesn’t necessarily mean that their overall experience has been flooded with these horrible experiences. Nevertheless, Sirari uses a double standard to analyze her subjects: where the students point out incidents that they perceive to be racist, she sees them as infallible definers of racism, but when they say that their experiences have been good overall, she pats them on the arm and tells them they’re wrong.

    P.S. In case you would like to examine my examination of Lazin-Ryder’s interview with Sirari, I have included the transcript of their conversation as the first comment on this post.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 9:06 AM

  • 5 Responses

    • SethBlog Says:

      The following is a transcript of the March 28/14 interview between CBC’s Matthew Lazin-Ryder and UBC grad student Tanvi Sirari under the banner: “UBC international students face discrimination: Interviews conducted with dozens of international students over the past six years show a pattern of discrimination. Researcher Tanvi Sirari describes her work.”

      ML: The University of British Columbia sells itself as a multicultural beacon of higher education. Students from around the world travel to study at the UBC campus, but when international students arrive, they don’t always feel as welcome as expected. Tanvi Sirari is a grad student in the Department of Sociology at UBC. She is also a first-year international student who came from India to study here. She has analyzed a number of interviews conducted with international students over the past six years, and Tanvi joins me now in our studio. Good afternoon, Tanvi.

      TS: Hi.

      ML: Why did you begin looking at this issue?

      TS: Yeah, I was interested in–after I came to UBC, I heard from everyone that it’s a multicultural university, that everybody is more accepted here, and it was interesting that everybody was speaking the same language, and then I got this opportunity to analyze these interviews with international students, and I realized it would be interesting to see whether the experience of students differs based on their race, ethnicity, and their country of origin. And then I found out that it does, that, yeah–

      ML: And what was your experience when you came here? Did you find it to be a welcoming place?

      TS: Well, I think it’s a very welcoming space, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot be made better.

      ML: And what were you surprised about, then, when you went over these interviews?

      TS: I was surprised that students that came from African and Carribean countries had encountered a lot of negative racism, which was often based on stereotypical ideas about their country, their culture, and so on. And it’s interesting that there is so much public opinion against racism, but when it’s disguised as cultural intolerance, or disagreeing with cultural differences, then it doesn’t seem so bad. So people almost feel free to do that. Perhaps it’s out of ignorance, but it’s also racism in a very subtle form, I would say.

      ML: And that was specific to African and Carribean cultures that–

      TS: No, I found that Asian international students studying in UBC also encountered discrimination. They had a lot of difficulties due to lacking English linguistic proficiency, you know, mixing up with domestic Canadian students, and so on. However, due to a large presence of Asian Canadians in Vancouver, and also in UBC, they felt that they would be more accepted here, [that] they would fit in more easily. However, it did not always be like that. Often, they encountered discrimination that showed there was resentment [of] their presence in Vancouver and in UBC. There were incidents where people pulled up in buses and they were told, “You’re not from here,” and so on, and there were incidents of racial slurs and so on. And I think the problem is mostly that, while at one level there is resentment and at another level there is difficulty in fitting into the larger Canadian context due to limited conversational proficiency in English. And I’m not saying that it’s a huge problem because these students are really bright and everything, but the university focuses a lot on academic English, but perhaps the focus should also be on providing students with linguistic skills which would help them to–

      ML: Conversational.

TS: Yup.

      ML: When you say that there is resentment, what do you mean by that?

      TS: Well, it’s hard for me to define, but I encountered students’ experiences where they were told that, “You don’t know how things are done here,” or “You don’t know the way here.” In fact, there were other students, white international students who also talked about how there is a lot of resentment against [the] Asian community in Vancouver sometimes, due to their huge demographic presence, which is surprising. It works in their favour at one level, but it also leads to–

      ML: And that was from white international students who came here and noticed the resentment against Asian cultures.

      TS: Yes. In fact, I would say that it’s a positive thing that they noticed something like that; some of them even talked about white privilege, and being conscious about it, so I think you have to give some credit to UBC in that sense, that people are at least talking about these issues, and using that language.

      ML: That’s very interesting to hear caucasians coming here and saying, “Geez, you guys are kind of hard on the Asian population.”

      TS: Yup.

      ML: So what do you do about it? What could UBC do to improve things?

      TS: I believe the university has taken a lot of positive initiatives regarding this. I would say the major problem is that the category “international students” is often seen as this monolithic identity, so the interventions are not very specialized. That would be one thing. The other thing is [that] domestic Canadian students need to be involved more in activities which are right now targeted to international students, and frankly I would say that because Canada is a multicultural space it is much better than many other countries and many other places, but it sort of overshadows any kind of broad conversation on racism. The other day I was reading an interview with Professor Gupta becoming the UBC president, and there was a lot of praise for him, and then there was a comment by a friend and he said, “Oh, and he has never complained about racial discrimination,” and I don’t know what motivated that comment, but I don’t see why it would be a problem if he had complained about racial discrimination. I feel that there is this sense of being negatively judged if you say that you have encountered it, and that I notice in my interviews also, like students are very reluctant to admit that they had faced discrimination. In fact, every time they would recount an incident like this, they would also qualify it by saying that, “You know overall my positive experiences far exceeded my negative ones,” or that “in other countries things are even worse.”

      ML: Why do you think they would do that?

      TS: Well, I believe that there is this sense that, this narrative of, you know, acceptance and multiculturalism, it is true, and I’m not denying, I’m not attacking it in some sense, but I believe it also makes people feel that it is not right to talk about racial discrimination at all, so–

      ML: The things that you describe about campus and people’s experiences, it also seems to me that that can be applied to general society, right? We do have cultural silos, [as] we call them throughout metro Vancouver, and kind of mixing social events between various ethnicities is not done, as much on campus as it is[n’t done] in the rest of society. Is UBC a microcosm?

      TS: Yeah, I would agree. I would say that a lot of students reported these incidents not only on campus, but also outside. There were black international students who talked about being racially profiled, that when they’re walking through posh localities in Vancouver they feel that their presence is resented; they encountered unwelcome stares and sometimes comments. They even talked about how when they tried to rent a residence, they were accepted over phone, but when the person met them, they told them it wasn’t available, and they believe – I mean, you will never know – but they believe that it was because of their racial identity, so I believe that this is of course a reflection on the larger society as well. I mean campus cannot be separated from society. It is the social context which leads to these issues and conversations.

      ML: Tanvi, thank you very much for telling us about your research.

      TS: Thank you. It was great being here.

      ML: Tanvi Sirari is a grad student in the Department of Sociology at UBC; also a first- year international student from India.

    • Natalie Says:

      Biased projects like Sirari’s call into question how meaningful some graduate work is, both in terms of its value as objective, scientific research (as she seems so blatantly one-sided in favouring one group over another) and its real-world applications (what is her definition of racism and how can we identify it in order to stop it? Her definition seems to include so many different elements that it would be difficult to narrow in on the actual problem and find concrete solutions after consulting her work). Graduate work should define and illuminate a problem, not make it more vague. I can only hope that the time constraints of the radio show, nervousness on her part, and/or lack of critical questions on the part of the interviewer (a common occurrence in popular media, it seems) over-simplified what her findings and opinions actually are and that there is indeed content and value in what she is doing.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, Natalie! I barely said it better myself. 😉 Ultimately, Sirari may be onto something, but if she doesn’t define her terms, it’s to hard know if she has identified a genuine problem, and if she has, what to about it. I did think Sirari sounded nervous, so it could be as you suspect that a combination of nerves and empty questions caused her to describe her work in less scientific language than it deserved.

    • Janice Fiamengo Says:

      Very interesting, Seth. Indeed, the idea that stereotypical assumptions about a culture translate into racism makes nearly any interaction potentially ‘racist.’ ‘Oh, I’ve heard there’s a lot of unrest in your country’ would count as racism. ‘You must find Canada very peaceful and secure in comparison to your country’ would also count. I can certainly understand that such comments might be irritating to a visiting student from Egypt, say–but are they racist? I love your point about how the researcher’s own negative comments about ‘whites’ and about Canada are not similarly defined as racist.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Janice. Yes, it’s amazing how open-ended a definition of racism the researcher seems to be working from. As you say, I’m sure there are annoying questions and comments that one receives about one’s culture whenever one is away from their first home, but that does not automatically make such inquiries racist (which is a particular type of vicious contempt, as opposed to what might just be cultural curiosity and/or ignorance). And, yes, it’s baffling to see how she seems to merrily avoid the problem that, by her racism definition, her allegedly maligned subjects would count as racist for assuming (stereotyping?) particular Canadians (especially those wretched “posh” ones) are racist; this blindness to intellectual consequences she achieves by simply not considering how her Grand Canyon-sized definition of racism could boomerang back to her and her subjects.

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