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Rochelle Wijesingha

How diversity efforts burden those who try to help

Rochelle Wijesingha, a PhD candidate studying racial and ethnic relations in higher education, was featured in an article in "Nature," published June 24, 2020.

Jun 25, 2020

The following excerpt contributed by Rochelle Wijesingha was featured in the Nature article "How diversity efforts burden those who try to help" by Virginia Gewin.

White allies need to acknowledge their privilege

Rochelle Wijesingha, PhD candidate studying racial and ethnic relations in higher education at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.

In 2013, I collected data to look at perceptions of disparities in tenure and promotion between faculty members. A colleague and I found that faculty members of colour outperform white faculty members, yet they do not get tenure or promotions at the same rate4. Our findings offer evidence of discrimination in the academic system. I hope that future studies will quantify cultural taxation by documenting how many courses a minority-ethnic academic taught, how many students they mentored and how many committees they were members of. Although some might feel obliged to sit on diversity committees and mentor more students, that can lower their productivity and hinder their career progression.

In my experience, diversity and inclusion work is not rewarded, but I am personally motivated to do it in ways that white faculty members might not be. I’m in sociology, studying social justice, equity and diversity. For me to not practise what I preach is inauthentic. I make time for it because I don’t want students to be discouraged by not seeing or being mentored by a faculty member who is from an under-represented group. At the same time, I preach that it is OK to say no to the cultural tax.

In my academic roles, I have helped undergraduates who are members of under-represented groups with applications to graduate courses, and held workshops to help students work on personal statements and inform them about opportunities. I understand why people don’t want to do this work, because time is so precious and the work is unrewarded.

We need to collect more data. We also need to create a dialogue around cultural taxation, and need white allies to acknowledge their privilege, and that the cultural tax exists (as well as the ‘identity tax’, the broader term for the ‘tax’ paid by people of any marginalized identity who experience the same kinds of demand). And we need that service to be recognized in tenure and promotion guidelines.

To read the full article, please visit the Nature website.