April 16, 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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Affirmative action and me!

by Mommy Niri

When I landed my 1st job it was away from home. To help build the picture it is not the norm to move out of home,… ever, unless you marry and sometimes not even then. Most of everyone I knew went to college at home and continued to work without moving out of home. So now that you can visualize that you could see that the move was a pretty big deal. Living in Durban and now having to move to Johannesburg (Jo’burg – South Africa) was an exciting one for me and a sleepless one for my mom. Getting a taste of room mates and their influences was all a culture shock to me. One of my room mates was a lawyer in training, preparing for her bar exams. We were discussing Affirmative action and it’s place in South African employment.

I was (naively) insistent that since we just had our 1st democratic elections that everything should be equal and we should be treated the same. I even (strongly) argued that affirmative action was tantamount to reverse racism. Being soaked in the (real) social and political my friend Kamini, made me understand that the current situation meant that people in power were one benefitted from a prejudiced system, having them only have power meant others would have to wait a long time, and maybe never, just to get on an even keel.

I listened as she told me that affirmative action is only meant to balance the scales to (hopefully) rectify the mess of the past. Somehow she made sense. A person who did not get a job in the past would not have access to certain education or experience which would ultimately put him at a disadvantage for a next position, thus the circle of bias would continue.

A year later, I got promoted to another position within the company but back in Durban – my hometown (yay! rent free to live with family), and I was told (repeatedly) by a (very bitter) co-worker that we were only products of Affirmative Action (weird since we had experience and a degree and she had neither to hold her position). I (re)visited that topic again when I heard of the “reservation” system in India, which is similar to affirmative action, with people of a lower caste getting addressed. I feel as passionate to that topic as I felt about it based on color. There is a place for it and if you enjoyed the fruits of a racist regime (A regime based on caste is racism in my book) it is time to share with all.

We all need our day in the sun!

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If you don’t mean to be racist, are you still racist?

by Mommy Niri

I hear it pretty often when I hear a statement I construe as being racist that it was not meant like that. People mention that if it was not meant to be taken in a certain way then it should not. Well it is like if I accidentally kicked your leg, as much you can understand the behavior was not intentional,  the pain is just as real as if I meant it. By not putting the responsibility on the speaker we strip the accountability  as well. By ignoring it we allow that behavior to be continue while we resent it within.

While I was working in the early part of my software engineering career there was a woman(in South Africa), who obviously resented the surge of people of color in the company, made bitter comments often that we were all there due to affirmative action. Never mind that we all had degrees and she had none and no engineering experience.

At the other end sometime the words are not racist on their own but the connotations they are used in certainly are. For example (in South Africa) it was pretty common for someone to call an Indian a “coolie” as a form of insult. It was considered the most degrading  insult to ever be given. Ironically I later found out that “coolie” just meant porter in India. So although being called “porter” or bag carrier is not insulting it was not meant as such.

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