April 17, 2014

Ignorance is not bliss, it’s just ignorant

by Michele Dortch

After six years as a small business owner, I recently decided to take my career in a new direction by returning to the traditional workforce. I’m in the middle of an active job search now, which has its challenges. The job market it tight. Plus, I’m looking for a job in another state. And apparently, I must fend off the ignorance of people who hold such gross misconceptions of what it means to be a woman of color (and mother) returning to work.

I live in a predominately white suburban neighborhood in Phoenix that a friend visiting once described as, “Anywhere USA.” The area is fairly generic and lacks the cultural sophistication of the place I call home, Southern California. But the neighborhood is nice and the people are generally friendly, albeit occasionally unaware of their ignorance around race and diversity.

For instance, I adore my neighbor, a kind 50-something white woman and public school teacher. Although we don’t talk often, I always enjoy the time we spend standing in the driveway catching up on one another’s lives. Here’s a glimpse of our conversation yesterday:

Neighbor: How’s school? [I'm a part-time adjunct professor.]

Me: Eh, it’s okay. But we’re trying to move back to San Diego, so I’m actually looking for full-time work out there now.

Neighbor: Hm-m-m-m. How’s the job market out there?

Me: It’s tight. But it’s tight everywhere. I’m optimistic though. I have marketable skills.

Neighbor: Oh. It’s so diverse in San Diego, isn’t it?

Me: [pause] Uh, yea. It’s far more diverse there than it is here.

Neighbor: Well, it just seems to me it would be harder for you to find a job there because of that.

Me: [totally confused] Why do you…? [pause] Oh, is it because of affirmative action, you think…?”

Neighbor: [so genuinely concerned and oblivious to the insult about to spill from her mouth] Well sure. I mean it just seems like it would be easier for you to find a job here where there is less competition from other people…of…color. Right? I mean affirmative action is in your favor here where there are fewer of you. Out there it probably doesn’t even work.

Me: [flabbergasted] Uh…

My son interrupted our conversation and I was grateful because I really didn’t have the energy to explain to why she just completely insulted me, or how she grossly misinterpreted the use of affirmative action. Plus, I needed a minute to compose my thoughts because I tend to fly off the handle in situations like this and I didn’t want to offer her more reasons to misjudge an entire race due to my individual actions.

I also wanted to make sure that in my time away from the traditional workforce that Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and Affirmative Action (AA) standards hadn’t changed so dramatically that maybe she was right. Last I checked, my neighbor was also in a protected class since she’s a woman over 40. But that must have slipped past her radar since EEO/AA laws are commonly attributed to people of color.

So I double-checked my facts and my understanding is accurate:

  • EEO means that employers must provide equal access to available jobs, training and promotional opportunities. They must also provide similar benefits to everyone and apply policies consistently to all applicants and staff. The bottom line, EEO forbids any bias in employment actions and seeks to eliminate discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, physical or mental disability, medical condition, ancestry, martial status, or age. EEO does NOT mean I get preferential treatment because I’m a woman of color.
  • Affirmative action refers to policies and programs designed to correct obvious practices of illegal discrimination, which are typically (not always) directed toward women and people of color. Only in extreme cases will the courts assign quotas to some employers who have a continued practice of illegal discrimination. Otherwise, employers may not use quotas because it is considered a form of reverse discrimination. In other words, Affirmative Action does NOT offer me preferential treatment unless I intentionally pursue an employer who has historically discriminated against women of color (and why in the world would I do that?!).

I’m excited to return to work and I can’t wait to meet the employer who will benefit from my skills and abilities. My hope is that as I go through the job search process that people will see me for my intelligence, my talent, and ability to work alongside them to do great things, rather than the external markers that place me in a “protected class” according to the laws.

And, this may come as a shock to some, but being mom of hue doesn’t make me less intelligent or qualified for work. If anything I’m MORE than you need since I’ve had prove my worth (over and over) because I’m a woman, I’m a mother and I’m of color. But that’s a whole other blog post.

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  • http://www.blessedsoandso.blogspot.com Jamie

    Good luck with the job search!!

    • http://www.integratedmother.com Michele Dortch

      Thanks Jamie – I appreciate it! :)

  • http://www.comfortingplace.blogspot.com Barbara

    An interesting experience. The evidence of a sheltered life is explicit once that life isn’t so sheltered anymore. I know it sucks to be put in the position of being the representative of the race, responsible for schooling folks on what it really means to be black, but sometimes its necessary to gain the respect that you deserve. Sometimes, its the general ignorance that can be more frustrating than blatant racism. We all like to hide behind the “I didn’t know any better” ideology, but once you are informed, you can then begin to make more informed decisions. Perhaps this is what needs to happen with your neighbor. You say that you “adore” your neighbor, but her words sting you. If you are going to continue to converse with her, maybe you should consider sitting her down over a cup of coffee and schooling her on how to have a more proper interaction with you.
    .-= Barbara´s last blog ..A Night with Jamie Foxx =-.

    • http://www.integratedmother.com Michele Dortch

      I agree Barbara. Sitting down with my neighbor to discuss this needs to happen and it will. But knowing my personality, in the heat of the moment, it’s better for me to pause and pick up the conversation when I know I have my thoughts together. It’s been a while since I was in the traditional workforce so I also wanted to be sure I had my facts down before I schooled her. Plus, because I do enjoy her, I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt – maybe my understanding (or the EEO/AA laws) had somehow changed in my absence.

  • http://beautyinrareform.blogspot.com/ Traci

    Hi Michele,

    Your skill set is phenomenal! I’m surprised you want to go back to the “traditional workforce”, versus building out that empire that YOU are. I am in awe of your many talents.

    Unfortunately, in this market, I think a pick & choose option is open to all, and is being utilized, by most. Because of the market and the many people out of work, there will be employers who take this opportunity to get WHO they want in a vacant seat – and that person is not going to primarily be the one with the skills, know-how, professionalism, etc.

    In my opinion, this is the perfect time for companies to wean out the ‘dead weight’, bring in qualified, hard-working people who take the job seriously, and shape a company to success. I just don’t see it happening though.

    I wish you all the luck in the world with your return to it all…San Diego, and the job market.

    .-= Traci´s last blog .."Am I Religious…or Am I Spiritual" =-.

    • http://www.integratedmother.com Michele Dortch

      Thanks Traci! Let’s hope an employer sees what you see. :)

      It’s definitely a tricky market, where there are more unemployed people than open positions. I’m finding the most challenging part of the entire process is being seen amidst a herd of non-qualified people who were laid off and vying for ANY open job. I’m being very selective about the positions I’m pursuing because I have that luxury and I want prospective employers to see how uniquely qualified I am to fill the role. Also working my network to get personally introduced to those key employers, like any savvy business woman would do!

      Here’s to me successfully landing a great job by Christmas!

  • Lorri

    Wow Michele. I don’t know if I could ever deal with a person like that again. It’s frightening. My husband and I have been contemplating moving to the area, but stories like this scare me.
    Good luck with the job search.

    • http://www.integratedmother.com Michele Dortch

      Thanks Lorri. Phoenix is generally a nice place to live, except the oppressive summer heat (ech!) and lack of diversity we’ve experienced in our neighborhood. We unknowingly choose this area because our move here was rather quick and unexpected; we blew in one weekend, picked a place near my husband’s new employer and moved. Had we planned it better, we probably would have ended up in Chandler or Tempe – areas closer to the ASU and more culturally rich in terms of people and things to do.

  • http://www.myworkbutterfly.com Bradi Nathan

    Hi Michele,
    They say you can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends…. I might reconsider the neighbor.
    I wanted to let you know that I have created a social networking site to help moms in their return to the workforce. Truly, I have made it my mission simply because I saw too many women in a similar situation to that of yours. Now, after surveying over 750 moms, I know that moms are 1. overwhelmed with where to start their job search 2. have limited resources/funds for childcare 3. feel extreme guilt in leaving their kids.

    Have a look and let me know how, unlike your neighbor, I can help in any way.

    • http://www.integratedmother.com Michele Dortch

      Thanks for sharing your social network Brandi. Although I’m not experiencing the issues you mentioned in particular, it would be nice to share the “return to work” experience with others in a similar situation. I’ll stop be sure to stop by! :)