Ethics Quiz: The Race-Based Job Interview Question

I think I know where I come out on this, but I may be wrong. Let’s see what you think…

Donna Johnston, a licensed social worker, said she was interviewing to teach sociology at Bridgewater State University in Connecticut last summer when she was asked by her interviewer to contemplate and defend her “white privilege” and told that “black students may not be able to relate” to her because of it. She took the questioning to mean that she had to defend being white, and alleges in a law suit that her “whiteness” cost her the job.

Johnston’s lawyer says that “If somebody had said to a black applicant, ‘let’s talk about your blackness, or how does your blackness affect something,’ there’d be outrage.” Yes, I think that’s a fair assumption. But the school claims, in its defense, that their questioning was appropriate as a way to give Johnston an “opportunity to show … how she would use her experience and teaching skills to overcome a common obstacle as a social worker and teacher.”

The university insists that race played no factor in the hiring decision. It also argues that since two out of the three vacant positions were eventually filled by white applicants, Johnston couldn’t possibly prove discrimination based on race in her case.

Hmmm. If race played no part in the hiring decision, why was there a race-based question in the interview?

David Belfort, a Cambridge employment lawyer interviewed about the case by the Boston Globe, conceded that the hiring of two other white women could be a mitigating factor for the university, but also cautioned,

“To ask about somebody’s whiteness, that implies that the color of their skin is the consideration, or the problem. Privilege in general might be a legitimate consideration, but white privilege? Why bring white into it? The white part is what makes it potentially illegal.”

Another employment law specialist, though, told the paper that the remarks attributed to the interviewer weren’t “profoundly racist.”

Whew! As long as they were just run-of-the-mill racist, that’s OK then!

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Never mind legal—is asking a job applicant about potential problems posed by that applicant’s race fair and responsible”?

20 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Race-Based Job Interview Question

  1. It the opposite of fair and responsible. I can’t imagine why any institution would consider such an idiotic question. I would not want to work for an institution that would think such a question is reasonable. If that’s how they behave in the interview, I can’t imagine what working there would be like.

    • Bingo. I walked out of two interviews last time I was between jobs for exactly that reason, saying, “Based on those questions, I don’t see any future in this relationship. Good bye.”

    • I agree. Unfortunately, these radical leftist ideologies have permeated virtually all universities and most big businesses. The list of places that don’t have hostile work environments is getting shorter and shorter.

  2. Okay, I gotta note here that we have no idea how the question was actually posed. All we have is the interpretation of the question as posed by the plaintiff.

    She could have misconstrued.

    So it seems to me (non-lawyer) that at minimum, lacking an actual audiotape of the interview, the suit will be really hard to win.

    And if she heard correctly, even lacking the tape, this place is no place that a reasonable person would want to work.

    • I think it’s telling that the defense from the university wasn’t that they hadn’t asked a question about white privilege… While the exact wording or context might be missing, I can’t think of an appropriate way to bring up someone’s white privilege in a job interview.

  3. Tragic. Yes in current times, a dumb and insensitive question. But this was I guess (hope!) asked honestly to test her skills in rational debate, not about her ‘‘race’. Don’t you want teachers who can deal with this sort of issue competently in the classroom? Or are they expected to walk out all angry and outraged?

    • Andrew, using your logic minority applicants to schools could be asked how their black lived experience will help them navigate the social dynamics of a predominantly white student body because the white students might not be able to relate to them.

      The interviewee does not need to storm out of the interview, but I do want to professors who are astute enough to know when the administration will be a bunch of weenies who will not back up the instructional staff when some activist gets (its) panties in a bunch because (its) lived experience was challenged by the rigors of study.

  4. The interview questions at issue here (if accurately recounted), or questions anywhere near those topics, are way outside of what my training and experience tell me are proper or defensible. In these woke times, who knows what the institution will be able to get away with?

  5. All sorts of alarms should sound when issues that are inevitably discussed at the pub are banned from the classroom. And in my view such alarms should go off at full volume with flashing lights when they can’t even be discussed at a recruitment interview for a university level sociology lecturer!

  6. This is why people need the vocabulary of concepts from my Foundational Toolbox for Life. The interviewer is clearly concerned about how versatile Johnston’s empathy-related mindsets are. That is, would she be able to connect with students of different backgrounds from hers, or would she alienate them by relying on a social context and social cues that they might not share? That would be a perfectly acceptable and culturally neutral question, I’d think.

    The relevant empathy-related mindsets the school is seeking for cross-cultural engagement are background, translation, communication, rapport, and reputation. These should all be enriched with observation mindset. Strictly speaking, most of these mindsets fall under the umbrellas of education and presentation, so the real question is if Johnston’s calibration for these mindsets is versatile enough to cover different backgrounds.

    On the other hand, if the interviewer thinks that students from a different ethnic group would somehow fail to engage with the teacher just because the teacher is white… Well, at some point the students need to learn that white people are people, too, and if they don’t have any other white teachers then hiring a token white teacher with good empathy skills might help with that, and expose them to a bit of cultural diversity as well. Diversity in hiring can work both ways, after all.

    …And now I reread the post and realize that this interview was for a university position, not an elementary school.

    If the university is worried that their adult black students can’t engage with a white professor… I very much hope that’s the soft bigotry of low expectations, or something is horribly wrong.

  7. As stated, it’s indefensible. They could justify something generic, along the lines of “Describe what methods or adjustments you might employ if you felt you were having difficulties adequately communicating your lessons to some students because of their having significantly different backgrounds and experiences from your own.”

  8. [Note: I tried posting this several times yesterday. The first time, the post seemed to be accepted, but it did not show up on the web site. The 2nd and 3rd times, I got a message saying it appeared to be a duplicate post. Not sure what was going on there.]
    I can imagine interview scenarios where a question about white privilege would be appropriate, and imagination is required here since we don’t have the actual questions nor the context.
    Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that the interview got around to noting the ethnic and racial diversity of the students, and that, hypothetically, the interviewer posited this: “A student questions a statement made by you, the teacher, and claims that you really can’t understand due to your white privilege. How would you address your white privilege in replying to the student?”
    Some no doubt would say raising white privilege is in and of itself ethically wrong. (I don’t like the use of the term ‘privilege’ when it’s really ‘advantage’ that is the issue.) But, white privilege does exist, among other advantages and disadvantages. It’s an important concept in sociology. One who wishes to teach that subject had better be prepared to discuss it.
    Given the racialization of our society, more prevalent in higher education, it seems, asking a prospective teacher about dealing with problems related to her race is not only ethical but necessary. It would be unethical to ignore the issue.

    • The entire concept of white privilege is racist on its face. Making assumptions about a person’s theoretical life circumstances based on the color of their skin is racist. If someone assumes a black person is poor, dumb and disadvantaged simply because they are black, that is racism. If someone assumes a white personal is smart, wealthy and advantaged simply because they are white, that is racism.

      The color of a person’s skin is a meaningless physical characteristic that controls absolutely nothing in terms of connections, wealth, intelligence, or advantage. Stereotypes are not science. White privilege is a racist stereotype that has somehow been used as the premise of entire fields of study. That doesn’t make it valid, and it doesn’t remove the racism.

      Teaching racism does not and cannot ethically justify asking racist questions in a job interview.

      • “The color of a person’s skin is a meaningless physical characteristic that controls absolutely nothing in terms of connections, wealth, intelligence, or advantage.”
        That sounds more like a wish; it’s not fact.
        When my granddaughter was told by a classmate that they couldn’t play together because my granddaughter was a black, that certainly was meaningful.

        • I didn’t say racism didn’t exist, I said the concept of white privilege was racist. You cannot get rid of racism by shoving new racist concepts down people’s throats.

          Eliminating racism from our society is a worthy goal. It cannot be accomplished by forcing people to adopt new racist ideologies.

        • So instead of making assumptions about people and treating them differently based on their appearance, we need to treat people differently based on their appearance because we make the assumption that other people have treated them differently based on their appearance?

          That reasoning makes sense to me, from an empathy perspective. Humans are bad at defining their goals, though, so the way they ask people to implement the above concept is a lot more complicated and semantic than it needs to be, and that turns a lot of people off.

          So here’s the is-ought problem: We can look at someone and predict with some accuracy that they have experienced bigotry at some point. What do we do about that when we interact with them? How would we build that into our institutions, or do we even need to use ethnicity as a proxy in the first place?

          Can we define it as “give economically disadvantaged people more opportunities”, and make it ethnicity-agnostic? Do we want to deliberately help certain cultures and ethnic groups get more members in higher socioeconomic classes so they have more of a public voice, the connections to opportunity that they currently lack? Will increased representation in entertainment and media promote cross-cultural literacy? Do we want to dispel the reputations that have been inflicted upon people who look, talk, and dress in certain ways?

          I’d be interested in projects framed constructively like that. Most of the talk I hear sounds more focused on “undoing” or “fixing”, as if there was a healthy status quo to go back to in the first place. There are no existing patterns for a healthy human society. That’s why I’m supplying the vocabulary that enables people to envision some.

          How does that sound?

  9. As an aside, I wonder if it is ethical to use a web site that freely posts articles from publications that are behind a pay wall. I tried to access the Boston Globe story on this issue directly and immediately faced the pay wall. Yet, (at the link) has the article and images freely available.
    Perhaps someone more versed in the law can address the copyright issue; I’ll stick to the ethics question.
    I’ve heard the concept that anything which shows up on the internet is free for all to use. Don’t think that is ethical.

  10. Was the race-based question ethical? Absolutely not. Was it reasonable? It obviously was in the interviewer’s eyes. Just like Bull Connor and George Wallace opposition to the civil rights movement was reasonable in their eyes.

    If the interviewer cared how a candidate could relate to a diverse student body, the interviewer could have asked the question that way. I imagine that the student body is composed of international students, and a mix of domestic students of differing ethnic, race, and socio-economic backgrounds. Educators should be able to effectively interact with a diverse collection of cultures.

    Sadly, my belief, based on personal experience and observation (Columbia and Syracuse University Alum), is that most colleges and universities strive to be an Ecco chamber for progressive ideals. They have no interest in critical thinking, principled discussion of ideas, or examination of alternate viewpoints. Their focus is indoctrination, not education. To support this assertion, I relate one of my personal experiences.

    Several years ago, I routinely volunteered at the Syracuse University School of Business. For multiple years I mentored grad and undergrad students. Performed mock interviews and participated in panel discussions. During a supply chain panel discussion, I was asked how “Green Technology” factored into a company’s sourcing decisions. I responded that based on my experience it was not a factor at all. I added a caveat that it could be a factor with some consumer products companies as an advertising or marketing product differentiation tool. The university professor took exception to my answer. I was fine with that. I did not push my personal experience perspective. I did not engage in who was right or wrong.

    Interestingly I was no longer invited to participate in any activities with the school. Objectively, my shunning by the university could just be a coincidence. However, my conclusion is that departure from orthodoxy or relating personal experiences that don’t support progressive ideals are not tolerated at SU.

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