A white, cis-gender heterosexual man as Associate Dean, EDI in LFS?
My name is Will Valley, I am an Associate Professor of Teaching in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS) at UBC. I use he/him pronouns. I am a 4th-generation Canadian settler of Irish and Scottish heritage. I was born and raised on traditional, ancestral and unceded Syilx Territory and I currently live, work, play, and sleep on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. I am the Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in LFS. I know it is counter-intuitive to have a white, cis-gender, heterosexual man in a position of power and visibility associated with EDI. A conversation with a colleague, Dr. Vanessa Andreotti, who is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC and Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequality and Global Change, drew my attention to the need to articulate publicly my rationale for applying for and accepting this position. Dr. Andreotti kindly agreed to interview me for that purpose.
Vanessa: Why did you decide to take this job?
First, I think EDI work is everyone’s work, not just the work of those who experience the on-going harms of systemic oppression. When most people think about the problem of lack of equity, diversity and inclusion in our universities, the most obvious solution is to increase the representation of systemically and historically marginalized groups in existing institutions, programs, etc. However, the reality is not so straightforward. Although access is indeed one of the barriers for achieving EDI, the problem is much deeper, it is cultural – it has intellectual, affective, and relational dimensions. It has to do with structures of authority, autonomy, and arbitration, and groups that feel entitled to exercise those. When previously excluded people enter institutional spaces, there is a huge burden placed on them to represent, celebrate, and appreciate a cosmetic change that does not really change anything. This is extremely frustrating. It generally means institutions might be able to recruit more “diverse” people (who they then expect will do “diversity work” for the institution), but they won’t be able to retain them or create a collegial work environment. This has huge costs for the health, wellbeing, and professional advancement of systemically marginalized people trying to do this work.
Meanwhile, those who hold on to the culture of the status-quo (especially whiteness) often expect to have their position and “benevolent” superiority confirmed with “inclusion” and diverse representation. In this case, people who represent diversity are instrumentalized for window dressing EDI: to perform the desired optics while business goes on as usual. When they challenge this instrumentalization, they are met with defensiveness, resistance, and dismissal. Sarah Ahmed’s (2012) book “On being included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life” describes how the “will to diversify” becomes a “wall for diversity”. And, how the tendency for those who point out a problem, then become seen as the problem.
Because existing strategies of EDI are limited in their ability to bring about institutional and social change, I wanted to try something different. I wanted to put my body and privilege on the line, to talk to other people like me (who might not be able to genuinely hear non-white positionalities), to support people to see these harmful patterns, and to challenge us to do better. I wanted to show that it is possible and desirable for folks like me to try and surrender our learned arrogance and perceived entitlements, and to show up differently for those at whose expense the “normality” of whiteness, colonialism, and cis-hetero patriarchy is upheld. For IBPOC individuals, there are greater risks and harms associated with pointing out the problem than for white men like me. This doesn’t mean that I experience or have a deep understanding of the problems that IBPOC staff, faculty, and students encounter on a daily basis at UBC; but I am able to point to the fundamental harms that are (re)produced in our institution. I can be in meetings with other white men and point to these problems, and the consequences are different for me.
Were there IBPOC people in your faculty who wanted the job and could not have it because you took their place? Do you have support of IBPOC people in your department? What benefits do you get for taking this job?
I can’t speak for everyone in my faculty, but as far as I know, I was the only faculty member who raised their hand for consideration for the position. We are a relatively small unit on campus which means most faculty members already contribute a significant amount of time and energy to service-related activities and committee work; very few individuals are capable of taking on more. Although common in most UBC faculties, LFS did not have a committee or working group dedicated to EDI issues, and in the summer of 2020, I asked our Dean, Professor Rickey Yada, if it would be appropriate for me to form and lead a new working group, as I had been integrating anti-oppression frameworks and decolonial perspectives into my teaching and scholarship for a number of years. From nearly 12-months of committee work, the need to formally create an associate dean position dedicated to EDI emerged, and in July, 2021, I was the faculty member who was in a position to step into that role.
This may sound surprising, but I think it is indicative of two things. One is the fact that people have a sense that this work is difficult; this is especially the case for racialized and Indigenous people who do this work, who are often subject to significant pushback and resentment from their white colleagues when they engage in this work. That doesn’t mean I don’t receive pushback; but, as a white cisgender man, often this pushback is significantly less aggressive, and for me it is not being layered on top of a lifetime of experiencing the traumas of racism, sexism, and colonialism. Second is the fact that EDI work is not necessarily work that enhances one’s academic standing and “CV”. It is vitally important work, but it is not always valued, especially in comparison to things like externally-funded research and publishing peer-reviewed articles. This is not to say that I don’t benefit from the job; it certainly enhances my “profile” in the faculty and the university, and while I hope to use that to push important initiatives in this work, that doesn’t mean I don’t benefit personally. As for support from IBPOC in my faculty – I wouldn’t presume to speak on behalf of anyone. It’s a problem when people position themselves as self-appointed “allies”. But I am fortunate to work with some amazing IBPOC collaborators across the faculty, such as Dr. Eduardo Jovel, Dana-Lyn Mackenzie, our Senior Manager of EDI and Indigeneity, and Stephanie Lim, the LFS Community Relations Coordinator. Similar to other associate dean positions in our faculty, I receive a 3-credit teaching release and an annual stipend as compensation for the increase in administrative workload.
What have you been doing?
Since stepping into the formal role in July 2021, I have been chair of the LFS EDI committee. We created an action plan for 2021-2022 with six priority areas (Metrics, Protocols, Policies, and Communication; EDI Competency Development; EDI Support for Research and Laboratories; Curriculum and Classroom Environment; Outreach, Hiring, and Recruitment; Co- and Extracurricular Events). Our LFS EDI website will soon provide access to our committee’s meeting minutes and initiatives so those interested can have access to our work. We hope this provides a level of transparency and accountability. I have also been working closely with other Associate Deans, EDI in STEM faculties at UBC and staff involved with the UBC Office of Equity and Inclusion. There is a very open and collaborative network where we share lessons learned, co-host workshops and speakers, and submit joint funding applications. Lastly, I try to keep the “EDI theme” present and top-of-mind in our internal LFS communications and meetings, which has been creating opportunities to share resources, invite guest speakers, and update LFS stakeholders on initiatives that might otherwise be overlooked.
What have you learned so far?
I approach these things as educational experiments, meaning that at the outset I didn’t necessarily know what would happen – even as I also knew that the stakes are high when it comes to equity work. My hypothesis was that from my positionality I would be able to challenge things more directly (e.g., drawing critical attention to patterns of window-dressing transformations) and, by virtue of my privilege, I would receive much less flack and encounter much less resistance than my IBPOC colleagues do when they engage in this work. What I have managed to observe so far is that in this position, although I am indeed more protected, I still encounter a lot of push-back from white people. I still have much to learn in terms of getting the message to land. However, it is clear to me that the issue is definitely not only intellectual – or even conscious. There are affective patterns of white desire that we are neither aware of nor willing or able to let go of. These desires make us libidinally attached to the promise that we are entitled to unrestricted and unaccountable autonomy, epistemic and moral authority, and the universal arbitration of justice and common sense. This summarizes what whiteness is all about. The “rearrangement of desires” that will be necessary if we want to interrupt these patterns and engage in other ways of knowing, being, and relating will require the appropriate message, the appropriate messenger, the appropriate medium, and the appropriate moment to become possible.
I am not saying I am the appropriate messenger here. And we will need many different, complementary efforts to do this work. But I believe that the work of rearranging desires is necessary preparatory work in order for us to have a chance at addressing the roots of the many overlapping problems we face as a society and a planet. Although this is a collective process, there is much work that white people like me should do with other white people. This burden should not be placed on the backs of those who already carry the largest part of the load. Part of my job is to – hopefully – make IBPOC peoples’ lives easier now and in the future by supporting white people to be able to show up to equity work, and even to their work at the university in general, with more honesty, humility, and hyper-self-reflexivity.
What kinds of complexities and paradoxes are you facing?
I think that the most glaring paradox is that what could be a useful and optimal learning space for white people like me is, at best, a triggering and, at worst, a harmful learning space for IBPOC peoples, and probably vice-versa. White people will need to look at their least flattering thoughts and actions in order to earnestly face the ways that we systemically benefit from racism and colonialism. We will need to look critically at things that are pleasurable and that we are rewarded for, and interrupt our satisfaction with those things. In order to do that, these things will first need to be articulated and acknowledged. This is not easy, nor comfortable – it is actually quite painful (and possibly retraumatizing for IBPOC people to hear). My intention is not to self-victimise here or to elicit sympathy, but to emphasize that facilitating this necessary but painful work is not something that I would like to put on my IBPOC colleagues.
I have been challenged on a few occasions, publicly and privately, by members of the LFS community about being a white, cis-gender, heterosexual man doing EDI work. And I get it. The optics are horrible. However, if we bring nuance and complexity to this conversation, then this challenge is super helpful in showing the point I hope to make. To some, I look like someone who wants to take the place of diversity, to recentre my whiteness and cis-maleness, to use the position for self-promotion. If I am read from that position, then anything I say will be (legitimately) received with suspicion as it will sound like I am mansplaining and virtue-signalling. It looks terrible. But, in order to do the work that is necessary, I also need to be vulnerable to these charges because the charges themselves can raise questions and move conversations in ways that can be generative (even if at my own expense).
What have you under- or over-estimated?
I think I overestimated the thickness of my skin. When I took up this work, I knew I would be prone to receiving critiques from all sides, which hurts and impacts mental health in terrible ways, but it is also part of the job, as IBPOC people have known for a long time. They have been paying the price for a long time. White people need to learn to do some of the heavy lifting too.
I have under-estimated the complexities of expectations placed on the title “Associate Dean, EDI”. On the one hand, part of the problem is that there is an inequity in labour distribution, where EDI work is perceived to be a reserved space for systemically marginalized peoples’ employment (in this case, I can be perceived to be stealing this opportunity from a marginalized person). On the other hand, systemically marginalized peoples often get pigeon-holed into these jobs, which prevents them from having the same level of choice or professional autonomy that their colleagues enjoy. They have to always do the same frustrating jobs: 1) performing (or resisting the demand to perform) the kind of (window dressing/business-as-usual) diversity the institution expects, and 2) carrying the burden of emotional and intellectual labour for non-IBPOC peoples’ (un)learning.
I wish we were already at a space where our relationships were repaired, and were based on trust, respect, consent, reciprocity and accountability, where we could have more complex, nuanced and honest conversations, where we could touch difficult and painful questions without relationships falling apart. But we are not there yet. I am interested in figuring out what we might do in order to get there. I also know that there will inevitably be mistakes and mis-steps along the way, and that this is also an important part of our learning, while at the same time I know that these mistakes and mis-steps often come at the expense of marginalized peoples (yet again). I am accountable for not only being taught by those mistakes but also for redressing harm done in these instances. I find the “gifts of failure” exercise of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective useful for this.
How are you accountable to those at whose expense your job was created?
First I should say that as a white settler who has lived and worked in what is currently known as British Columbia for my whole life, I have an enormous, intergenerational debt to the Indigenous peoples of this place. So, it’s not just in my current professional role, but also in my daily life that I feel this debt, and try my best to honour it. But certainly, when it comes to my specific role as Associate Dean, EDI, all of my work should be oriented by deep accountability. First and foremost, this is accountability to all those who have been and continue to be systemically marginalized in and by able-bodied, white, male, cis-gender dominated institutional spaces. This absolutely needs to be the priority in EDI work.
A part of my accountability to marginalized people is working with those in dominant groups on these issues, so that marginalized people don’t have to. However, as part of this work I am also accountable to those in dominant groups themselves. These are people who are increasingly being asked to examine and interrupt their own positions of domination – and who are capable of doing a lot of harm if colonial patterns continue to go uninterrupted. Accountability to these dominant groups does not necessarily mean doing what they want me to do, of course, because often what we want and what is needed are not the same things. Based on what I have been taught thus far through my work in this area (and through the pedagogical and emotional labour of many people, especially IBPOC people) is that those of us in dominant positions need to unlearn and interrupt harmful patterns of knowing, being, and relating, and to learn how to know, be, and relate differently. If we don’t do this type of work, we end up becoming work for the “diverse” people who have been “included” in these spaces. In my role, I try to support people to do this work in more generative, generous, and sustainable ways, at both individual and institutional levels.
EDI work requires engagements with and service to both systemically marginalized and dominant groups, but these engagements and service will look very different for these different groups. Part of my job is enabling and supporting these different processes, sometimes directly and in very visible ways, and other times ‘behind the scenes’, supporting, amplifying, and holding space for those who are already doing this work in their contexts. Figuring out when and where I need to be doing what is a constant practice of discernment that I don’t always get right, even as I try to do it in consultation with my IBPOC colleagues. Part of my accountability, therefore, is also to be open to (and grateful for) critical feedback and teachings from these colleagues, and not let my ego get in the way of hearing it.
How long do you want to do this for?
I don’t know. The answer is as long as I remain useful for shifting the institutional culture. But ultimately my goal is to work myself out of the need for this job.
How will you know it is time to go?
When I see a more robust understanding of the complexities of EDI in LFS, a deeper commitment to dis-investing from the perceived entitlements of whiteness, and a more substantial commitment to EDI and to the recruitment and retention of IBPOC and other diverse peoples. I know that my job will be done when the culture of the faculty becomes healthier for IBPOC people. I will also advocate for the faculty to hire more diverse people and then perhaps an IBPOC person will be interested in this position as well. I hope that, when that happens, their job will be less burdensome. However, if there are other people in my faculty who want to have a go or work in partnership, I am also happy to talk. If an IBPOC person in my faculty tells me that they want to lead this work, I will gladly step down and contribute in other ways.