Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On Hiring Practices

I'm not sure of the original intention of this photo, but it kind of hits the nail on the head.

I was going to write a post on the "Swine Flu" (about how much B.S. it is, and how it's a great excuse for racist media to blame "disease" on folks south of the border), but I'm in the midst of some other things and wanted to write on it before it left my mind.

**If you don't read this whole post in detail, please read the last couple sections prior to the endnotes**

I've been part of a few hiring committees of late. One is for the next Program Director of the non-profit educational organization I work for (I asked in on this one). Another is for a summer camp I work for (part of my job description for this one). The last is for my school (some involvement in hiring my own replacement).

And the first two have really hit me.

So let's do this in order.* The initial screening committee for the Program Director was myself and five white women. And I wasn't even asked to be involved in this process - I had to ask the higher-ups personally to be a part of it.

So I have to admit that every meeting weighed on my soul. It was so heavily culturally-biased, I felt like there was little I could do as the "token" minority with so little statistical pull.

And then there were the applicants. Almost zero candidates of color. Probably zero candidates outside of the middle or upper class. Part of it is that this is a non-profit job that doesn't have the money to pay people. So folks that represent our kids can't afford to waste a college education (and loans) on working this job. Not to mention that most of the staff looks like the hiring committee (except me, of course), so why would a person of color want to carry that burden, anyway?

So we're interviewing these folks, and I'm slipping into despair. How can we ever change these things when the odds are so stacked against that change? An interview with all these middle-class white ladies is only going to increase the chances of the success of another middle-class white female candidate. Because an interview is about confidence and comfort and communication. And if all the people around you have lived a totally different life experience than you - how can you feel confident that they'll give you a chance, or be comfortable in their midst, or communicate effectively?

The other committee members commenting on how awkward certain folks seemed, while I'm back in my seat, feeling outnumbered and equally-awkward.

So middle-class white ladies get hired and get more experience. They then apply more for the work. They are reflected in the staffing, so they are more drawn to working there . . . They get hired and get more experience. It's a deadly feedback-loop.

And I'm not saying people weren't qualified - they were (more or less). But it's so damn frustrating to try to figure out how somebody that doesn't fit that mold can break in without being so far above and beyond the rest. The amount of pressure and weight and frustration they would have to be willing to carry to even go through the process is unbelievable.

Because, being a person of color in an organization like this is an f-ing burden. We're the ones who always have to speak up and bring attention to the inherent biases in the systems. We're the ones who constantly have to try to educate people about experiences that they don't even care to think about. I had to ask onto a committee of all white women to try to make a small dent, and they hadn't even considered it until I asked (at least they agreed, though). Just being on the committee saps my strength and makes me want to quit on the whole ridiculous process.

But I'm not willing to give in. If I'm going to talk about it, I have too much pride not to then follow up. But it's so painful.

A little over a week ago, I met with the current executive director, associate director, and my program director (all white folks, of course) to talk about the cultural make-up of the staff.** And I wanted to cry.

I laid it all out: how hard it is to see so little representation; how uncomfortable it makes me, and then extrapolating that to how much harder that must be for the kids; acknowledging the difficulties to recruitment, etc. while demanding more.

But the problem is that it just ends up sounding like I'm asking for hires just because of race. Like I'm making the argument anti-affirmative action people always pretend we're making: that I want folks to hire less-qualified folks of color just because of their race.

And it's so hard to explain that - no - that's not what I'm asking. That it's about making it all fair. About doing the right things to attract the qualified folks of color to even apply in the first place, and then making the rest of the process actually level - like getting some color (the little we have in the first place) involved in the hiring process.

But nobody ever understands. It's a fruitless, unsatisfying endeavour. And it just makes me wonder if I really need to put myself through more of this crap.

But, of course, I do. And that brings me to my OTHER hiring committee. This one is me and two white women. And due to my busy schedule, I cannot be directly involved in the interview process. And that really worries me. Because now you've got the folks of color coming into an interview with no indication of representation in the organization. Folks that are confronting the same kind of mind-numbing sense of "other"-ness of the rest of their life as they interview for a job - without at least one browner person to help mitigate that.

And there's no real way around it. I'm trying to get myself some phone-time with these folks, but their impressions on the other two-thirds of the hiring committee will be happening separate from that. So they could very well flounder or not be able to connect in their person-to-person interviews, giving a negative taste (understandably) to my hiring counterparts. So even if I do connect with them on the phone and then make my appeal, it comes off as the token person of color trying to get another "unqualified" person of color hired as de facto "affirmative action."

Because the interview process is so inherently biased towards white folks, but the "white-as-norm" mentality makes the same white people doing the hiring unaware of it on any sort of intuitive level. And so they think the interview demonstrates "qualifications" to an objective degree. When, really, it's a test to see how well you can follow middle-class, white cultural norms.

Which, in some cases, is a necessary qualification for a job. But, in others - like working with and actually relating to kids of color and/or those in poverty - it's mostly irrelevant. And yet - it's probably the primary factor in most hires (past a certain level). Am I starting to get my point across?

It's one more hidden handicap for folks of color in this systemic game called white privilege. The hiring committee can say, "we interviewed a number of minority candidates, but they just didn't interview well," and then their hands (and consciences) are clean. When, really, it's not so different from interviewing some folks you don't know for a job, then saying they just didn't connect on the same level as that guy you went to high school with.

Nobody would hesitate to say that the latter situation is unfair and perhaps even unethical. And yet, nobody seems to say that the same thing happening with people of color interviewing with mostly-white staff or committees is anything but "equal."

Let me give you a stark example to finish off my point:

What if the middle-class white woman candidate had to interview with a room of five black males who grew up in the inner city? And she was competing with another black male who grew up in the inner city? The white woman doesn't get hired, and that's when the cries of "reverse-racism" would come flying - even if the woman had a horrible interview due to being uncomfortable, etc. while the black male connected and really seemed confident in his interview.

Now tell me that the odds aren't heavily stacked against the candidates of color in this business.

That's what I thought. And that's why my ability to hope is really taking a hit these days. Nothing's ever enough . . .

* I'm going to be purposely vague in a lot of this out of respect to the applicants and the organizations I work for.

** My focus was on racial background, but I talked about economics, as well.

*** And before anybody starts telling me I hate white women - in my line of work, it's heavily-weighted towards white females. It just is. And that was who was on my hiring committees. If it happened to be all white men, or only Latino females, or all anything else, all the same reasoning would apply.


JunePearl said...

Wow, keep your head up man.

I think this is my first comment on your blog, but I've been following it for awhile...I think I found it on Racialicious...

Anyhow, I work in disability services in the college setting. And every co-worker I have ever had (even from before when I worked in social services at the community level) has always been a white woman. But supervisors and bosses are usually white men. This is not lost on me at all.

Much like you, my co-workers are middle class white women. Even though I am a Black woman, I am amazed at how much whiteness permeates every facet of how the office is run.

It's hard to explain. But when I saw that you wanted to be a part of the hiring process a couple of post ago, it gave me a lot of pride. I don't think I could do that without wanting to get extremely frustrated. Keep your head up. Little steps may be small, but eventually you do get up the stairs.

Lxy said...

That's one more hidden handicap for folks of color in this systemic game called white privilege. The hiring committee can say, "we interviewed a number of minority candidates, but they just didn't interview well," and then their hands (and consciences) are clean.I have a feeling that this requirement to interview minority candidates is treated as a cynical charade by not a few companies and organizations.

For them, it is just a "politically correct" thing they have to do, but I wouldn't be surprised if they don't give a damn about giving an equal opportunity to people of color.

Usually, rhetorical lipservice about "promoting diversity" is just noise.

When pushes comes to shove, they will favor maintaining the White status quo.

And this will be even more true in an economic recession/depression like the one that America has created.

stutefish said...

This is why including some kind of APPLIED element to job interviews is so key when people are going to be working with kids. Sure, they can interview - but can they deal with the playground? Do they understand the classroom? I am massively, massively in favor of full-day shadows for interviewees, to see them in the environment they would really be working in. I hire fairly well solo, but I hire for office work, and it's a different thing; the duties aren't that far off the interview context. Education IS mostly white ladies (I'm one myself, as are most of my colleagues), but the kids "on the ground" are not, and that's why we're all here in the first place.