So You Want to Talk About Race (11 page)

BOOK: So You Want to Talk About Race
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But that morning, our director and manager had sat him down and said that they were not, in fact, able to give him the raise they had promised. They said that because he didn’t have a college degree, Terrence was not eligible for that pay level, and it had not been approved by senior management. He was offered an increase of $1 an hour instead
of the $5 an hour promised in the offer he’d just declined.

When Terrence told me how much he was currently making and what was offered, I was aghast. Even with the raise, it was less than I had made on my first day of work at the company, and even further behind what other team members made, all except for a Latinx mother of five, who we discovered was making even less than Terrence—barely over
minimum wage for the complex technical work we did.

I left that company shortly after. I could not work at a place that I didn’t trust, a place where employees of color felt exploited and unappreciated, and I was lucky to have options with other companies. On my last day, I sat with an HR manager for my exit interview. One of the first questions she asked me was, “Do you think you deserved your
promotions?” After I left that interview, a manager from a neighboring team came up to me and asked, plainly and without shame, “Are you leaving because of all of the times that I sexually harassed you?”

My next job was at a much more progressive company, but still, my identity as a black woman was always an issue. In five years, I only worked for one manager of color. When I was promoted out
of that team, the first thing my new white boss did was ask if my hair was real. While my work was respected, socially I struggled. The “bright” and “energetic” reputation that I had always had was soon augmented with “loud” and “opinionated.” One teammate came up to me and said, “I’m surprised how much I like you, I’d heard you were a really strong woman.”

I wasn’t the only black person who
had somehow been labeled overly aggressive at the office, as was hinted at the few times when I was alone with the handful of other black people in my division. The company started an annual employee satisfaction survey and every year senior management would gather us all together and go over the results. The surveys were a big deal, with reminders going out daily until there was as close to a 100
percent completion rate as possible. A few of the questions had to do with the company’s diversity efforts. Something like, do people of color feel like they have equal opportunity with their peers? The survey results read a pretty resounding “no.”

In our meeting to discuss the survey, all the other questions had been delved into with talk of how the company was working to either address lagging
performance, or further encourage strong performance. But not when this question showed up on the projector. The director presenting the results paused after reading the question and said, “I’m pretty sure that people just didn’t understand the question.” She then shrugged and added, “I’m sure that next year’s results would show that.” She continued on to the next slide.

I heard a black man next
to me grumble, “I sure understood the question.”

As I fought for promotions, I quickly found myself alone: the only black woman in my division. I was lonely and disheartened, but I kept working hard to try to make enough money to take care of my family.

I started writing to escape that loneliness, to reach a community outside of my office. And I was lucky to discover that the little girl who
had loved words was still inside me. I was a good writer. I was also lucky that I started writing at a time when society was starting to pay more attention to issues of race. Whereas, in the office, my thoughts on race and society in America would have made me a pariah, they were welcomed in the online publishing world. Social media had broken down traditional publishing barriers as readers clamored
for authentic voices on important social issues. Suddenly, publishers usually helmed by white men, used to publishing mostly white men, were scouring the Internet for voices of black people, brown people, women, and queer folk. But I quickly discovered that while the publishing opportunity had increased in recent years, the ability to make any money at it had decreased. And while bylines diversified,
the publishers did not. So while a writer of color may be asked to write 700 words about Beyoncé for a nominal commission, the staff writing and editing jobs—with their regular salaries and health benefits—stayed with white men.

As I juggled my day job in a hostile environment with the writing that I loved, I wondered if I’d ever be able to write full time. As I watched many female writers of
color leave the field after years of not being able to earn a living wage while receiving countless hateful comments by white people threatened by their words, I doubted that dream would ever come true.

You can imagine my shock when I was offered a part-time staff writing job at a new publisher. I had written some pieces for the founders of the publication for other magazines in the past, and
they valued my work and wanted my voice. They had enough funding for one year, and would give me enough salary to just barely cover my mortgage, plus health benefits. I jumped at the chance, and quit my day job. And ever since then I’ve been hustling every day, working for primarily white editors at various publishers whenever something “black” happens in the media that they want my take on, scrambling
to get enough freelance work to pay my bills every month. It has been tough, but I’ve made it work so far. I still don’t know where I’ll be a year from now, if I’ll be able to still call myself a writer. And still every day, I know that I’m one of the lucky ones.

I have found myself now, at thirty-six, with a writing career. For some, who know my history, I’m seen as someone who beat the odds
and fought against adversity and won. “You must be so proud,” they say.

And I am proud, but mostly, I’m angry. I’m angry, because when I look around, I’m still alone. I’m still the only black woman in the room. And when I look at what I’ve fought so
hard to accomplish next to those who will never know that struggle I wonder, “How many were left behind?” I think about my first-grade class and
wonder how many black and brown kids weren’t identified as “talented” because their parents were too busy trying to pay bills to pester the school the way my mom did. Surely there were more than two, me and the brown boy who sat next to me in the hall each day. I think about my brother and wonder how many black boys were similarly labeled as “trouble” and were unable to claw out of the dark abyss
that my brother had spent so many years in. I think about the boys and girls playing at recess who were dragged to the principal’s office because their dark skin made their play look like fight. I think about my friend who became disillusioned with a budding teaching career, when she worked at the alternative school and found that it was almost entirely populated with black and brown kids who had
been sent away from the general school population for minor infractions. From there would only be expulsions or juvenile detention.

I think about every black and brown person, every queer person, every disabled person, who could be in the room with me, but isn’t, and I’m not proud. I’m heartbroken. We should not have a society where the value of marginalized people is determined by how well they
can scale often impossible obstacles that others will never know. I have been exceptional, and I shouldn’t have to be exceptional to be just barely getting by. But we live in a society where if you are a person of color, a disabled person, a single mother, or an LGBT person you have to be exceptional. And if you are exceptional by the standards put forth by white supremacist patriarchy, and you
are lucky, you will most likely just barely get by. There’s nothing inspirational about that.

“A
FFIRMATIVE ACTION” IS A TERM THROWN AROUND
wildly in conversations about race—usually by those who are firmly on the “there is no racism/there is only reverse-racism/affirmative action is racist against white people” crowd. When not used as an argument, it’s used as an insult: “Oh yeah, you’re just
an affirmative action hire.” But for all the talk—for all those who tear it down and all those who try to defend it—not many people fully understand affirmative action.

I mean, we sort of get the concept. Affirmative action is supposed to combat bias in work and education by mandating a certain amount of hires and admissions from minority groups. It is supposed to force a more level playing field.
But it’s in our ignorance of the details that we lose the entire plot.

First introduced by President Kennedy and expanded by President Johnson in the ’60s, affirmative action sought to help reverse extreme racial gaps in federal employment and higher education. The intention was to get federal employers to proactively fight racial discrimination in their hiring practices and to increase the African
American undergraduate population above its then dismal 5 percent. Shortly after its introduction, affirmative action was expanded to all women.

Affirmative action took many forms throughout the US. At colleges and universities, it often took the form of increased recruitment efforts, extra consideration given to race and gender in the selection process, academic support programs, and increased
financial aid. In federal employment, it often
took similar forms—increased recruitment efforts, extra consideration given to race and gender, and diversity goals. There were no “quotas,” and any attempts at such were struck down by the Supreme Court. Employers and educators could set forth goals to increase diversity, provided there were enough qualified people of color or women to make such
goals reasonable. These were never huge percentages and were most often below a representational percentage. For example: when the Supreme Court upheld a 10 percent set-aside of contract funds for minority businesses in 1980, that percentage was far below representative of the 17 percent minority population at the time.
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Affirmative action’s goal was to force educators and federal employers to
get creative and proactive in their efforts to combat the effects that hundreds of years of racial and gender discrimination had had on the diversity of their workplaces and universities.

By the time Reagan rolled into office, affirmative action was on the decline as many conservatives declared it no longer necessary. Bit by bit, piece by piece, affirmative action has been chipped away at over
the last thirty years, leaving a program that can hardly be called affirmative.

But remnants of affirmative action, especially in our colleges and universities, are still the target of many who believe that affirmative action is unjust. And as affirmative action practices are rolled back in higher education institutions across the country, the enrollment and graduation rates of people of color
in many of those institutions are plummeting. Affirmative action is a crucial tool if we want to mitigate some of the effects of systemic racism and misogyny in our society. It should not be rolled back; in fact, I argue that it should be expanded to other groups that suffer from systemic oppression as well. Why? Because it works. No, it doesn’t work wonders, but affirmative action can do some good
for those who need it, and it can do some good for a society that wants to value equality and diversity.

Believe it or not, conversations around affirmative action can be easier than other conversations around race. Why? Because the majority of the costs and benefits of affirmative action are easily supported by data, and the arguments against it are easily countered. Let’s take a look at some
of the arguments against affirmative action, and some of the ways in which we can use those arguments to further understanding of why affirmative action is still very necessary.

Argument 1: We don’t need affirmative action because society isn’t as racist or sexist as it used to be.
While racism and sexism can be hard to quantify and compare (we can’t exactly call people up and say “how racist
are you today”), we can easily see the effects of systemic racism and sexism and oppression in our society today—particularly in our employment and education sectors. Studies have shown that if you have a “black-sounding” name, you are four times less likely to be called for a job interview. White women still make only 82 cents for every white man’s dollar, black women only earn 65 cents for every
white man’s dollar, and Hispanic women earn even less at 58 cents for every white man’s dollar. The wage gap between white and black men has not budged since Reagan’s cuts to affirmative action began in the ’80s, with black men making 73 cents for every white man’s dollar, and the wage gap between white and Hispanic men has actually grown since 1980, going from 71 cents down to 69 cents for every
dollar made by a white man.
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In education, students of color are disadvantaged their entire school career. Black and Hispanic students are far more likely to be suspended from school, starting as early as preschool. An average of 16 percent of black students and 7 percent of Hispanic students are suspended each year, compared to only 5 percent of white students. And while the rate of suspension
for white students has remained steady for over thirty years, the rate of suspension for black students has almost tripled.
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How does this happen? There are a lot of factors, but a Yale study shows that preschool teachers are more likely to look for problem behavior in black children, expect it in black children, and empathize less with children of a different race than their own.
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Another study
of secondary school teachers found that teachers were more likely to call parents of children of color to report problem behavior than they were to call parents of white children, and they were less likely to call parents of children of color to report positive accomplishments than they were to call white parents.
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When you add this bias to the fact that children of color are more susceptible
to food insecurity; are more likely to have to work after school; are less likely to have financial resources to supply regular Internet, study guides, and tutoring; and are more likely to attend underfunded schools—children of color get to their college applications at a stark disadvantage. And this shows in the numbers. Currently, black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in the vast majority
of colleges and universities, by 20 percent. A study by the University of Washington shows that enrollment of minority students drops 23 percent when schools enact an affirmative action ban.
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Only two colleges in the US with affirmative action bans have representational enrollment of black students, and only one has representational enrollment of Hispanic students.
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