Fit as a Euphemism for Whiteness in Higher Education Hiring Practices

Introduction to the Issue

Hiring practices in higher education are long overdue for a critical evaluation and overhaul of current racist—even if it’s subtle or unintentional—policies and practices. Ashlee (2019) sheds light on the harmful practices systemically rooted in our hiring practices. More specifically, the author explores the pervasive notion that the term “fit” is used as a euphemism for white supremacy in higher education.

The author illustrates this urgency for change by telling their story on how they got offered a job at an Ivy League institution in the New England area. Ultimately, Ashlee (2019) identifies their combined race and gender (a white man) as being the sole reason for them being hired. Despite being underqualified for the position, and for coming from a vastly different background than the population in which they’d be working with, the author was hired for the role. The author uses a conversation with the director as grounds for making their claims. When asked whether it mattered that the author graduated from the prestigious institution when working and conversing with alumni, the director responded by saying, “…you look like a younger version of most of these guys…you’ll fit right in” (Ashlee, 2019, p. 196). Already frustrated with the flawed job search process in student affairs, this interaction left the author pondering the concept of fit in higher education hiring practices. Because the author had the same outward-facing identities as most of the alumni population, they were perceived as being a good fit for the role despite their lack of experience. This reasoning allows for fit to be used as a “thinly veiled preference for white candidates” (Ashlee, 2019, p. 198).

The author’s narrative highlights an even larger and more pervasive issue in higher education and student affairs. The unintentional and habitual use of the term fit as reason for hiring or rejecting someone’s candidacy for a position is not “a localized phenomenon of individual bias” (Ashlee, 2019, p. 198). Instead, it is one small-scale example of how our biases perpetuate systems of racial oppression. Continuing on this path, higher education environments will be lacking in the rich talents and unique skills offered by People of Color in a place of dignified scholarship.

The author makes clear that racism in higher education is not a new phenomenon. The resilience of white supremacy and the ways racism shows up both explicitly and invisibly in our practice has remained consistent over time. Leaving this practice uninterrupted and unchallenged allows for white isolation to continue at colleges and universities resulting in a culture where participants are accustomed to “white racial tastes, perceptions, feelings, and emotions” (Ashlee, 2019, p. 201). Allowing for a legacy of whiteness to continue to manifest promotes solidarity exclusively with white people and establishes a normalcy for racial segregation, hierarchy, oppression, and the patriarchy. The term to describe this is habitus of whiteness. More specifically, habitus of whiteness is defined as “the racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial tastes, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters” (Ashlee, 2019, p. 200). By continuing to silently adhere to these current ways of existing in higher education, we foster an environment the produces racist practices in our hiring practices.

Implications for Practice

After reading Ashlee’s (2019) work, I find it vitally important for me to critically examine what it means to refer to someone as a good fit for a position. The author’s deeper analysis reveals that fit is “coded language used to maintain the status quo of whiteness and weed out candidates with different racial and cultural perspectives” (Ashlee, 2019, p. 203). It is no surprise that organizations struggle to diversify their teams when the hiring practices are dripping in a cultural habitus of whiteness. In order to successfully hire, and adequately support, People of Color practitioners must actively challenge oppressive practices.

Ashlee (2019) details specific ways in which we can implement strategies that confront whiteness in higher education hiring practices:

  1. Become racially cognizant
    1. White people charged with leading out hiring efforts must develop practices that center race and racism
    2. Embrace the truth about when, where and how whiteness shows up in the job search process
    3. Develop and implement required, high-quality and sustainable implicit racial bias trainings
  2. Use Critical Race Theory (CRT)
    1. Familiarize ourselves with and adhere to the tenets of CRT 
  3. Use critical whiteness studies (CWS)
    1. Familiarize ourselves with and adhere to recommendations put forth as a result of conducting CWS
  4. Evaluate and eliminate racially coded language
    1. professionalism” – the term professionalism is ambiguous and undeniably a tool used to uplift white people in hiring practices. If a candidate does not display enough “professionalism”, that usually means they did not adhere to the vision and culture white people have created. We must challenge the mold and expand the definition of what it means to be “professional” in your workplace.
    2. qualified” – oftentimes this is used a reasoning for not hiring a more diverse team in higher education. There is an underlying assumption that People of Color decrease the quality of an applicant pool and therefore are discarded from the hiring process. This assumption is systemic and when used is simply forcing candidates to be in accordance with white expectations of professionalism.
    3. attitude” – oftentimes, candidates of Color are dismissed under the guise of “bad attitude”. This is rooted in white fragility and linguistically related to the “Angry Person of Color” trope.
    4. communication skills” – this should not be a leading criterion for hiring decisions as it promotes the use of a white-only standard of communication.
    5. enthusiasm” – using this as a criterion for hiring decisions only benefits white candidates who do not experience racial hostility and emotional exhaustion that People of Color face working at predominantly white institutions.
  5. Go beyond hiring practices
    1. Racially unjust practices transcend department or staffing practice. The author urges readers to look beyond hiring practices when working to actively interrogate the inherent white supremacy at our institutions.

References

Ashlee, K. C. (2019). “You’ll fit right in” Fit as a euphemism for whiteness in higher education hiring practices. In Reece, B. J., Tran V.T., DeVore, E. N., & Porcaro, G. (Eds.), Debunking the Myth of Job Fit in Higher Education and Student Affairs (p. 193-216). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

One Reply to “Fit as a Euphemism for Whiteness in Higher Education Hiring Practices”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Bre! This is a really interesting and important issue that applies to many disciplines. I hear people talk about “fit” all the time, especially when the department is considering grad student applications. But “fit” is really vague and I can see how it could be used as a euphemism for people’s biases and thus contribute to systemic barriers in hiring practices.

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