backlash · faster feminism · race

"Merit," Casual Racism, Gender Balance, and Snow Days

I guess the administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign takes as dim a view of the dangers of wind chill as does the University of Waterloo. Students there complained much as students did here, only a significant number of UIUC students organized themselves into racist, sexist Twitter campaign under the hashtag “#fuckphyllis,” Phyllis M. Wise being the Chancellor who made the decision in question. Scott Jaschik reports on this in Inside Higher Ed; you can look up the hashtag yourself if you want but I’m not going to link it. Buzzfeed has screencapped some, and put together an overview.

I’m appalled but not surprised that the perhaps legitimate beef about the closure rapidly turned to to gender- and race-based expressions of hate. I’d like to compartmentalize that feeling and direct it at “American schools,” nice and far away from me, but I can’t. Because Waterloo has its own casual racism problem, it’s own casual sexism problem.

Did you know that a common nickname for my instutition among students is “Waterwoo”? I’ve had teenagers as well as adults reply with a laugh when I tell them where I work: “Oh! You’re at Waterwoo?” Har har. It’s got an entry in the Urban Dictionary. There is hashtag activity on Instagram, and on Twitter. This has mostly flown under the radar, but we could easily have a UIUC social media blowup on our hands, and in any case, shouldn’t we call this out as the structural issue it is, rather than wait for a crisis to tut-tut about, where we can satisfy ourselves by disciplining the more egregious outliers?

We should probably talk about “Waterwoo.”

There’s some complicated intersectionality at play: gender imbalance, racial sorting, privileging of some fields of study over others. Waterloo is considered to be a STEM powerhouse: mostly, math, computer science, engineering. These fields draw a lot of really smart kids, kids who work very hard all through high school. This includes many Canadian-born and international “Asian” kids whose parents place a premium on academic achievement, and particularly in these fields. The entrance grades are very high: “Asian students” are more likely to earn these kinds of grades. These fields, too, are more likely to draw male students, which also leads to the well-known fact that Waterloo is among the very few Canadian universities where male undergraduates outnumber female undergraduates

You can see all these elements bubbling around the edges of a controversial piece by Macleans a few years ago. Originally titled “Too Asian?” but renamed “The enrolment controversy” after heavy social media panicking, this piece describes white, Canadian-born high school students picking their universities on  grounds both explicitly and implicitly about race: lower entry requirements, better parties, which some come out and say means fewer hard-studying Asian students. Waterloo features prominently in the Macleans “Too Asian” article–indeed, we have a dour and studious reputation among our own students, who both mock the more fun-loving (and white) university 500m down the road from us, and try to attend their parties. They made a video. Then the engineers made a video. Our public relations department also made a video, responding to prominent PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, an engineer who chose Queens over Waterloo, because it had more women. For him to date, presumably, rather than to provide a more diverse and concomitantly richer set of study partners. The Macleans article references American conversations about high grades and the “model minority”–see also this article from Inside Higher Ed about how white subjects in one research study tie themselves into knots to maintain their own privilege in merit-based admission.

This usually simmers below the surface: the videos get respectable numbers of views but don’t go viral; the hashtags stay in use but never trend; the magazine retreats from actually having the conversation it started; coded language reframes issues of race around “study habits” or “party schools.”

How can we talk about this, taking everything into account? I’m not sure.

I wrote a piece about the no-win situation for women in engineering. That piece addressed gender and field of study, but not race. We have more serious issues of threatened violence against women as well, that Shannon Dea wrote about here. And in the fall I also wrote about the constant stream of men whose reasearch was featured on the university home page. I did again make explicit that they were all in the engineering, comp-sci and math fields. I didn’t note that they were mostly of Asian or South-east Asian descent. The preponderance of STEM research is what struck me as salient, while the race issue totally did not. But of course, it’s all linked in one messy intersectional soup: the neighbourhood where I live is overwhelmingly white, while campus is much more racially, ethnically, and culturally divers in ways I appreciate, but which are probably owing to our STEM dominance as much as our proximity to major immigrant diasporas in Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton paricularly. What the (white) students complain about are inflated entry averages and a too-studious atmosphere and “accented” teachers they link to race. I am concerned about the humanities being devalued, and about the gender imbalances. It’s hard, ultimately, to tease all these issues apart.

I wanted to mark these issues, here and now, on the hook of an American controvery, before something blows up here. Maybe we can have a conversation oriented to structural, simmering resentments, exclusions, and stereotypes in a more programmatic and wide-ranging way. Before something goes viral, before something terrible happens.

One thought on “"Merit," Casual Racism, Gender Balance, and Snow Days

  1. Wow, that “Waterwoo” nickname/hashtag… awful.

    I read that Macleans article too… yikes. If someone is choosing their university based on parties, you have to wonder if they are ready for university in the first place. I think some of it has to do with that some 18-year-olds just aren’t ready. It’s great to consider schools based on extracurriculars, but I think the main purpose is to fulfill some education-related goal no matter what the program is.

    I went to a very white university and did very white programs. I loved my English program, but I often felt uncomfortable when we discussed race and I was the only PoC in the room. It was very isolating and I often wonder what it would have been like if I had gone to a different school. The few other PoC at my school were in comp science or business and speaking with friends at other schools, it seems like it’s like this at most universities. From my community standpoint, there is just more value placed on these programs. If you go to university, this is what you study. If there are people who look like you, then it’s considered “safe”. But if you don’t know any friends or family who have studied something like English or History, then there’s this fear of the unknown. It hurts my heart, as I would love to see more diversity in the humanities. And honestly, if I had to do it again, I would probably choose a school with more PoC so I could have some sort of community to grasp onto. And perhaps this why so many Asian students feel comfortable at Waterloo.

    Great post! Really got me thinking.


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