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Faculty applicant sues Bridgewater State, saying she was asked to defend her ‘whiteness’

Donna Johnston, a therapist in Plainfield, Conn., said she is seeking justice for herself and to spotlight her encounter for others who experience reverse racism.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Donna Johnston said she could hardly believe her ears: Did an interviewer just ask Johnston about her “whiteness”?

Johnston, a licensed social worker from Plainfield, Conn., said she was floored by the question while interviewing to teach social work at Bridgewater State University last summer, when she was also asked to contemplate “your white privilege.” Then in a follow-up, Johnston said she was told that “Black students may not be able to relate to you because of your white privilege.”

Johnston, who didn’t get the job, filed a race and employment discrimination lawsuit against the university last month, claiming she was subject to a racist interview. She asserts her qualifications are superior to the three women who were hired for faculty posts in the School of Social Work, and alleges her “whiteness” cost her a job.


According to the university, race played no factor in the hiring decision.

Johnston lacked expertise and live classroom experience and failed to present herself as student focused, according to a 29-page position statement filed Feb. 1 by the university with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Before filing the lawsuit, Johnston had filed a complaint with MCAD. It was withdrawn before there was a finding to pursue the lawsuit.

“Any possibility of discriminatory motive is contradicted by the fact that the university ultimately hired two Caucasians,” the college said in the statement. A third hire was a Black woman.

A spokeswoman for the school said via e-mail that “Bridgewater State University does not comment on personnel or pending legal matters.”

Johnston had applied for an assistant professorship, a temporary, one-year position, in the School of Social Work. She was one of 10 applicants. She expected questions during her June 30 interview about her clinical practice, field work, and teaching experience at Southern New Hampshire University and Virginia Commonwealth University, not her “whiteness,” she said Monday via Zoom.


“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,” Johnston’s lawyer Scott Lathrop said.

Johnston said she wants justice for herself and to spotlight her encounter for others who experience reverse racism but don’t recognize or address it.

“How I was treated during the interview was wrong,” Johnston said. “I’m probably not the only one who has endured something like this. Maybe they haven’t spoken up. So, if nothing else, maybe I will give people the courage and the strength to come forward.”

The three-page lawsuit, filed Feb. 24 in Plymouth Superior Court, demands a jury trial and $50,000 in damages.

The white privilege question, posed by an associate professor in Bridgewater State’s School of Social Work, 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,” according to the university’s position statement on the MCAD claim.

Johnston’s answer “missed the target,” the statement said.

Instead of reflecting on how she would use her own social identity and teaching methods to build rapport with students, Johnston said she was aware of her white privilege, the statement said.

The associate professor left the university on Dec. 31, 2021, according to filings with the state commission.

Although reverse discrimination lawsuits date back to the early 1990s, they remain somewhat rare. Lathrop said this is the first of his decades-long career.


Initially, it was white police officers who brought reverse discrimination lawsuits, claiming they were passed over for promotions in favor of officers of color in jurisdictions that had implemented affirmative action initiatives. Officers in Maryland, Michigan, and Chicago prevailed.

Last fall, a white executive at North Carolina-based Novant Health won a $10 million jury verdict in a federal reverse discrimination lawsuit. He alleged that he had been squeezed out of his job without warning or explanation amid a push to diversify top leadership positions.

Employment lawyers not associated with Johnston’s case offered their perspectives on her suit.

Boston-based Rebecca Pontikes said the remarks attributed to the interview don’t sound “profoundly racist” and that they could be interpreted “two ways.”

“I think she has a long haul to go to prove that this was discrimination,” Pontikes said. “The question is about how she will handle the students … not that she couldn’t do it at all.”

The fact that other white people were hired makes it a more challenging case for Johnston to prove, she said.

David Belfort, a Cambridge employment lawyer, agreed that the hiring of the two white women could be a mitigating factor for the university, but said it’s best to keep race out of the interview process. There were a number of other ways the interviewer could have asked Johnston about how she connects to minority populations, he said.

“To ask about somebody’s whiteness, that implies that the color of their skin is the consideration, or the problem,” Belfort said. “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.”


Johnston said she expected more from the fellow social worker who interviewed her. “We are supposed to respect the inherent dignity and worth of every individual we come across, and she did not show that to me on that day.”

Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.