Erica Pinsky



 available as a PODCAST

If I Were a White Man

There is no doubt that Vancouverites have a lot to celebrate. Tourism brochures describe our city as clean and safe, a paradise of mountains and oceans, a highly multi-cultural nirvana with many interesting and diverse neighbourhoods.

Of course, being as we are on the "Left Coast", we are always a bit ahead of the pack. At the close of the 2006 winter Olympics, our mayor, Sam Sullivan, was the first quadriplegic in history to accept an Olympic flag. And this month, we have two more firsts to celebrate. Jim Chu, the new chief of police for the City of Vancouver is the first Chinese-Canadian to become the head of a police force in Canada. Meanwhile, in West Vancouver, Kash (Kashmir) Heed, has just become the first Indo-Canadian to be appointed to the same position in that district.

As a human rights practitioner, these appointments are a cause for celebration. They demonstrate that our system is working. Human rights laws in Canada are intended to ensure that the every citizen in Canada has equality of opportunity, the ability to participate fully in Canadian society without discrimination. Our system is designed to ensure that employers focus on qualifications, rather than on personal characteristics like sex or race, when awarding jobs.

A Vancouver Sun article announcing Jim Chu’s appointment referred to the fact that City Council had been looking for a candidate that would satisfy its "desire for diversity." 1 Uh Oh. There it is. That diversity word. We all know what that means. When employers say they want to satisfy a desire for diversity it means that the one who can check the box will get the job. Which box? The box that gets checked if one is a member of a "traditionally disadvantaged" group, which really means anyone other than a white male.

In Canada our human rights framework is set up in large part to address a historical power imbalance. Our interpretive lens is the traditional North American win/lose paradigm. The winners are the group who traditionally enjoyed an advantage with respect to access to opportunity and privilege. We all know who that group is: white men. Historically, in almost every profession, every job that bestowed power, prestige and privilege was exclusively filled by white men.

However, where there are winners, there must be losers. If white men are the winners (referred to as "the traditionally advantaged group" in human rights speak), the losers must be those individuals belonging to a "traditionally disadvantaged group." In Canada, we have, in fact, identified four of these groups: women, members of visible minorities, disabled persons and aboriginals.

Looking through the win/lose lens, the intention is to turn those losers into winners. However, that is not supposed to happen by giving them any advantage relative to the traditionally advantaged group. Human rights laws are simply supposed to level the playing field and make sure everyone has fair access to a piece of the power and privilege pie.

What I have noticed, however, is that whenever anyone non-white or female is awarded a coveted position, the subtext is always that they got it because they can check that box. Regardless of their qualifications and/or abilities, there is always that underlying suggestion that they really got it because of their personal characteristics like race or gender.

When the CBC broke the story about Jim Chu’s appointment, they included a quote from Rick Lam, of the Chinatown Revitalization Committee. Mr. Lam described Jim Chu’s appointment to chief of police as " very positive for the community, not just because he's Chinese. I mean, I think he got the job on his abilities,…" I have to say I did a double take when I read that quote. "I think he got the job on his abilities?" It was a clear articulation of that sub-text, plainly visible for all to see in black and white. The suggestion, or implication, was that it was a distinct possibility that Mr. Chu could have gotten the job because he is Chinese. Because he is Chinese, he can check that box, the diversity box, the member of a disadvantaged group box. The box that white guys can never check.

What really bothers me is that you never hear these types of comments when we uphold the status quo. When a white man gets the job, the sub-text is that he got the job because of his qualifications, and because he deserved it. It’s as if in these cases, personal characteristics like race and sex are not a factor. This is patently untrue.

Realistically, we don’t hear those comments because it has always been a given that the white guy is going to get the job. As Yasmin Jiwani recently wrote in a Vancouver Sun Issues & Ideas article, "Anglo culture is dominant and taken for granted."3 When Jim Chu and Kash Heed started in the Vancouver Police department in 1979 they were each the third member of their particular ethnic group on the force. We are only just getting to the point where we have individuals like Jim Chu and Kash Heed who can apply for the positions of power and privilege in the police force. We now have talented, dedicated, well-educated, accomplished, experienced and qualified individuals that also happen to be members of a "traditionally disadvantaged group". And yet, simply because they are not white, the sub-text which consistently arises when they are the successful incumbent is that they don’t really deserve the job, and they weren’t really the best candidate. They really only got it because they can check that box.

This is a fundamentally disrespectful and discriminatory sub-text. Taken to the extreme, one can really appreciate the inherent contradiction and falsehood it is based upon. Only white men get jobs based upon qualifications while everyone else gets the job because they can check that box. Only white men are qualified and everyone else isn’t. Ethnicity and gender are a factor in hiring except when it comes to white men. It all sounds pretty ridiculous to me. The reality is that ethnicity and gender have historically always influenced hiring decisions and it is important that we understand and acknowledge that fact.

In April 2007, when both Jim Chu and Kash Heed were vying for the top job at the City of Vancouver, Rattan Mall, editor of the Indo-Canadian voice, wrote "It's not, 'Choose him just because he's a brown guy.' What we're saying is if you have the caliber, you should not be denied the position because you don't happen to be a white person."4 Mr. Mall neatly summarized the intention of our human rights framework. It is about ensuring everyone gets equality of opportunity and equality of outcome without the disadvantage that discrimination has historically created. It is important to realize that not being denied the position because you are not a white person does not necessarily translate into you get the position because you are not a white person. The sub-text is too simplistic and is untrue.

What is true, however, is that in today’s multi-cultural and diverse society, being able to check that box is becoming a business advantage in workplaces across North America. And that fact can be downright scary when you perceive someone else’s advantage to be your disadvantage. I believe that part of the problem is our win/lose paradigm. While white men may be identified in human rights law as the traditionally advantaged group, there are lots of white men these days who are feeling like they are now on the losing end of the equation. Because they can’t check that box, they are now feeling disadvantaged relative to those that can. They are feeling like the losers, and let’s face it, no one wants to be the loser.

This win/lose perspective encourages fear, mistrust and prejudice. Rather than fostering acceptance and inclusion, it is creating a new verse in the us and them song. "They" want what we’ve got, and they are getting it because they can check that box. Just what we need; another reason to focus on our differences and encourage those differences to foster resentment and hatred.

If we wish to create the respectful and inclusive society envisaged by our legislative framework, it is crucial to acknowledge and address the fear and uncertainty that the inability to check that box has created. We need to talk about what it really means when an organization states, as they did at the City of Vancouver, that they have a "desire for diversity."

According to Ron Owens, vice president of diversity and inclusion for TMP Worldwide, "Diversity is not about color—that’s one thing that we’ve got to get through to everybody. It’s not affirmative action either, and it’s not about quotas,… Diversity and inclusion is the lifeblood of organizations today. Diversity drives innovation, … and revenue."5 "Diversity is not about how you look, or where you come from, What it is about—and what should matter to organizations—is how managers and employees think and how their opinions impact their ability to get along with, influence and work with those around them."6

In his book Diversity at Work: The Business Case for Equity, Trevor Wilson describes the essential elements of a diversity strategy for business. He explains that a diversity strategy is not simply based on the numerical representation of an internal work force reflecting the external available work force. He writes that a diversity strategy must be linked to a business objective, not only to the social and moral purpose of correcting past injustices. It cannot result in preferential treatment for some groups. It must be inclusive of all employees, and it must protect the merit principle to avoid tokenism and reverse discrimination. 7

Ellis Pines, Mr. Owen’s colleague at TMP Worldwide, added this comment: "In the future, the minority will be the majority. Throw out everything you know, because the world is going to be different."5

In the City of Vancouver, the future, as Ellis Pines describes it, is already upon us. In today’s multi-cultural and global marketplace, embracing diversity translates into business opportunities that will ensure all employees will be members of an advantaged group. It’s time we realize that we all benefit when we adjust our perspective and shift from a win/lose human rights paradigm to a win/win paradigm. Let’s start to focus on the "i" in diversity – the individual and who he or she is, as opposed to the group that an individual identifies with and whether or not he or she can check that box. When individuals are respected and appreciated for who they truly are, when all of us have the opportunity to bring the best of ourselves, our personal characteristics and our qualifications, to our workplaces, both employees and employers are the winners. The ‘check that box’ sub-text keeps us on the road to discrimination and prejudice, and we must be headed in the opposite direction if we are to survive and prosper in today’s global business environment.


 1. Vancouver Meet Your New Police Chief, Doug Ward and Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun. Thursday, June 21, 2007

 2. Deputy to Become New Vancouver Police Chief, CBC news online, June 21, 2007

 3. ’Culture Depends on Whose Defining It’ Yasmin Jiwani, Vancouver Sun, August 8, 2007

 4. Indo-Canadian editor promotes Kash Heed. Carlito Pablo, The Georgia Straight, April 12, 2007

 5. How To Inject Diversity into Your Company’s DNA, By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, SHRM on line, April 16, 2007

 6. Opportunities in Diversity Training, Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM on line, June 2006

 7. Diversity At Work: The Business Case for Equity, Trevor Wilson, Wiley Publishing, 1998

"In her book, Erica provides a wake-up call for employers by detailing why respect, as a core value, is so imperative. She then provides a persuasive argument why organizations should embark on the road map to respect. Particularly compelling are her personal workplace anecdotes as well as the case studies featuring some of the largest companies in Canada, who are getting respect right."

Melanie Sklarz
Diversity and Respect Coordinator
Edge Learning of Ohio RespectfulWorkplace.com