Bridgewater State University Sued Over Asking Applicant to Address Her “White Privilege”

Bridgewater State University is the subject of a novel lawsuit after it asked Donna Johnston, a white applicant for one of three open positions in the School of Social Work, to, according to the Boston Globe, “defend her whiteness” in a job interview. The university said that she “missed the target” in answering how she could overcome her “white privilege.”

According to The Boston Globe article, Johnston was one of ten applicants and felt that she was highly qualified for the one-year assistant professorship after teaching at Southern New Hampshire University and Virginia Commonwealth University. She is a licensed social worker from Plainfield, Connecticut with extensive clinical experience.

She said that she was shocked in the interview when a professor asked her to defend  “your white privilege.” Johnston says that she was told that “Black students may not be able to relate to you because of your white privilege.” Johnston reportedly acknowledged her white privilege but failed to adequately answer how she would address it.

The university is quoted as acknowledging the question but insisting that it was meant 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.” It added that her answer “missed the target.”

It is not clear what that target is. Johnson’s lawyer is quoted as saying “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.”

Yet, there are challenges in the lawsuit. First, two white applicants were hired. Second, the university is citing the lack of classroom experience as one of the non-racial factors leading to Johnson’s rejection.

It is clear, however, that Johnson’s race was interjected into the interview process. The school is likely to argue that such questions arise with social workers and that they wanted to see how Johnston would respond.

Boston-based lawyer Rebecca Pontikes told the paper that the remarks did not sound “profoundly racist” since they could be interpreted “two ways.” However, the test is likely not to be whether something is profoundly or simply racist. The question is whether an applicant can be subject to added scrutiny because of her race.

I certainly agree that this will be a tough case in light of the fact that two of the three successful applicants were white. There is also a credible claim that the interview process was meant to test an applicant in her response to expected questions in the classroom.

However, it could raise equally tough countervailing questions for a court on whether minority applicants could be asked to defend or respond to their race in such interviews.  The court could conclude that a black applicant could legitimately be challenged on how she would respond to race-based comments or criticisms.  Yet, that would run counter to prior cases where the interjection of race in interviews was viewed as creating a hostile or discriminatory environment for applicants.

The EEOC lays out limited purposes for asking about race in applicants and confines them to tracking non-discriminatory diversity goals:

Can an employer ask about an applicant’s race on an application form?

Employers may legitimately need information about their employees or applicants race for affirmative action purposes and/or to track applicant flow. One way to obtain racial information and simultaneously guard against discriminatory selection is for employers to use separate forms or otherwise keep the information about an applicant’s race separate from the application. In that way, the employer can capture the information it needs but ensure that it is not used in the selection decision.

Unless the information is for such a legitimate purpose, pre-employment questions about race can suggest that race will be used as a basis for making selection decisions. If the information is used in the selection decision and members of particular racial groups are excluded from employment, the inquiries can constitute evidence of discrimination.

However, the EEOC also says that such questions should be avoided in job interviews:

We recommend that you avoid asking applicants about personal characteristics that are protected by law, such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin or age. These types of questions may discourage some individuals from applying, may be viewed suspiciously by some applicants, and may be considered evidence of intent to discriminate by the EEOC. If you do not have this information when you decide who to hire, it may be easier for you to defend your business against a hiring discrimination complaint.

Facebook was recently sued by black applicants who objected to being told about the desire to find applicants who are a “cultural fit” with the company.

Recently, a white executive was awarded $10 million after he successfully argued that he was fired because Novant Health wanted to achieve diversity goals.

81 thoughts on “Bridgewater State University Sued Over Asking Applicant to Address Her “White Privilege””

  1. “Facebook was recently sued by black applicants who objected to being told about the desire to find applicants who are a “cultural fit” with the company”
    Ha! I recall getting rejected form a couple of jobs on the same premise. In this case, it was because I was too old for a team that was primarily in their late 20’s/early 30’s when I was in my mid-50″s and had far more experience. This probably would have harshed their mellow.

  2. She should have answered “There is nothing to overcome. Anyone who wants my help has to overcome THEIR OWN backgrounds and perceptions!”.


    Affirmative Action To Politicize (i.e. communize) Nature

    The cold hard truth is disparaged for political (i.e. communist) purposes.

    Dr. Watson (discovered DNA Helix with Francis Crick) was correct on all accounts: (1) Intelligence tests do reveal large differences between European and sub-Saharan African nations, (2) the evidence does link these differences to universally valued outcomes, both within and between nations, and (3) there is data to suggest these differences are influenced by genetic factors.

    NIH National Library of Medicine

    doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2008.03.041. Epub 2008 Apr 28.
    James Watson tells the inconvenient truth: faces the consequences
    Jason Malloy

    PMID: 18440722 DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2008.03.041


    Recent comments by the eminent biologist James Watson concerning intelligence test data from sub-Saharan Africa resulted in professional sanctions as well as numerous public condemnations from the media and the scientific community. They justified these sanctions to the public through an abuse of trust, by suggesting that intelligence testing is a meaningless and discredited science, that there is no data to support Dr. Watson’s comments, that genetic causes of group differences in intelligence are falsified logically and empirically, and that such differences are already accounted for by known environment factors. None of these arguments are correct, much less beyond legitimate scientific debate. Dr. Watson was correct on all accounts: (1) Intelligence tests do reveal large differences between European and sub-Saharan African nations, (2) the evidence does link these differences to universally valued outcomes, both within and between nations, and (3) there is data to suggest these differences are influenced by genetic factors. The media and the larger scientific community punished Dr. Watson for violating a social and political taboo, but fashioned their case to the public in terms of scientific ethics. This necessitated lying to the public about numerous scientific issues to make Watson appear negligent in his statements; a gross abuse of valuable and fragile public trust in scientific authority. Lies and a threatening, coercive atmosphere to free inquiry and exchange are damaging to science as an institution and to scientists as individuals, while voicing unfashionable hypotheses is not damaging to science. The ability to openly voice and argue ideas in good faith that are strange and frightening to some is, in fact, integral to science. Those that have participated in undermining this openness and fairness have therefore damaged science, even while claiming to protect it with the same behavior.

    1. I would just note that studies in cognitive development suggest any American from the first part of the 20th century, for example, would generally do less well on aptitude tests than any American living today – for a variety of reasons.

  4. Kindergartners will “engage in respectful dialogue with classmates to define diversity comparing and contrasting visible and invisible similarities and differences,” according to the new standards.

    Kindergartners will also learn to “develop an understanding of one’s own identity groups including, but not limited to, race, gender, family, ethnicity, culture, religion, and ability,” as well as “make connections identifying similarities and differences including race, ethnicity, culture, disability, and gender between self and others,” according to the new standards.

    The standards also require kindergartners to “identify examples of unfairness or injustice towards individuals or groups and the ‘change-makers,’ who worked to make the world better,” as well as “identify possible solutions to injustices that demonstrate fairness and empathy.”

    Well sure, you can’t expect Kindergartners to have any meaningful and respectful dialogue about diversity until you filled their brains with the “visible and invisible similarities and differences.” You can’t have those Kindergartner’s escaping into summer vacation and then into 1st grade, unaware that the friends they knew before they began their school career are now suspect. Now when that ice cream truck rolls down the street, these kindergartners will be critically-examining the choices made.

    1. “Kindergartners will . . .”

      Grooming young children to be tribalists. There is not a rung in hell low enough for such monsters.

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