Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend. Said friend is black. I am white. Ordinarily, these facts would be entirely irrelevant, but for the reasons which follow, they are on this occasion pertinent.
In passing, I mentioned that when I had first moved to the area of the country which I currently reside in, I had initially struggled to find work. In fact, I had struggled to even make it to interview stage, and despite the obvious shortcomings in my character and employment history outlined in my CV, the lack of interest seemed odd. That was until a friend of a friend, back at the time I was going through this struggle, pointed out to me that "Mate, they think you're black."
As the area where I live is backward on so many levels - it truly is a sh*thole, it has to be said - I actually gave, and still do give, some credence to this theory. My legal first name is, generally speaking, one which is given to Afro-Caribbean people far more than it is given to white people, in this country at least, and many people around here are d*cks. The idea that they are racist d*cks is not much of a leap. The idea that they are so idiotic, and arrogant in their idiocy, that they would racially discriminate - erroneously, in my case - seems, sadly, to follow.
So I relayed this experience to my friend in a somewhat patronising-cum-embarrassed-cum-apologetic way. I explained that I essentially live in the middle of nowhere - my friend lives, and always has lived, in London - an area where any hold the Left or the Labour Party had has evaporated over two or three general elections, and the power of the employer in the wake of an economic downturn has led to god complexes being rife in recruitment discussions. I expected my friend's mind to be blown, and her to express disgust towards my supposed plight and environment, but I got a different response.
"I know! I'm black! Did you ever consider including a photograph on your application?"
What followed was something which very nearly brought me to tears. My friend explained that she had the opposite problem to me. She has a name which most would assume belonged to a white person, so has not been aware of discrimination at initial application stage. However, she gave several examples of turning up for interviews and seeing faces drop. One particularly sickening example involved an application being sent, a telephone interview following and going very well, to the point where it was intimated that a following face-to-face meeting would be a mere formality. As you may have guessed, the final stage was not a formality, and consisted of the interviewer - who my friend had felt a great rapport with over the phone - requiring clarification several times that my friend was really the person named at the top of the CV. It came as absolutely no surprise to my friend that after exiting the interview venue she never again heard from this prospective employer.
And this is how staggering this state of affairs is. Preconceptions, misconceptions and prejudices are natural, we are told. Genuinely, many equality consultants in the corporate world will train managers by stating that their own opinions are not being judged, rather that the focus should be on ensuring that these opinions do not lead to tribunals and court cases, i.e., the even hand can be artificial, as long as it can be demonstrated to be an even hand. But here's the thing, in the case of the example my friend gave, the recruiter's preconception of black applicants had seemingly been superseded by their experience of assessing one. And yet they reverted to the preconception when faced with the ethnicity of the interviewee. Not only is this approach offensive, backward and galling, it is inefficient. Surely even a racist wants what's best for their business, don't they?
What struck me even more about my friend's take was the pragmatism. In her mind, this odious practice of my CV being discarded could be easily remedied by my inclusion of a photo (let's assume these recruiters are not fattist or uglyist). This shocked me; I would never even dream of such a thing, as I wouldn't want to work for a racist and the misconception relating to my name has the handy side-effect of rooting many out of my career path. But what my friend outlined about her own experiences made it plain that fighting's all well and good - and so the war should be waged - but it doesn't get you a job. If she had railed against every instance of clear discrimination against her then she wouldn't have had the time or energy to negotiate the jobs market and forge the very impressive and fruitful professional career she now enjoys.
Of course, we'll never know that we've been discriminated against. We can only perceive and speculate - a lack of progression is very difficult to prove as being evidence of a policy. However, my friend and I have both sat on interview panels and in recruitment meetings and heard the race of candidates being brought into discussions. My own specific experience involved a colleague being in favour of an Afro-Carribean applicant despite implying they wouldn't generally want someone of that ethnicity in the department. As appalled as I was, the appointment was made and, taking into consideration my own shaky employment status at the time, I elected to not report the offender.
So, it begs the question, by accepting the status quo, and circumventing it where possible, are we part of the problem or the solution? In my friend's case, her remarkable ascent despite facing prejudice results in her finding herself in a position of power, able to effect change (I have, here, rightly or wrongly, implied that recruiters are non-black - assuming the institutionalised racism has not spread to black people discounting black people based on the colour of their skin. This is changing. Too slowly, but changing all the same). For my part, I've found a sort of contentment through self-employment, offering my modest but varied services to clients - one of which who recently remarked that he indeed assumed I'd be black, based on initial contact - but should I have to conclude the employment market is closed off to me, due to my first name?
I talk about preconceptions because I assume there is a reasoning behind not wanting a black person to work with, for or under you. I can't really work out what form that reasoning would take - it seems somewhat irrational, and irrationality surely has even less validity in business than racial discrimination - but it must exist. Regardless, I'm reminded of something someone very close to me once told me, regarding race relations in the UK from their perspective as a resident foreign national: we may have better race legislation in this country than most others, but it masks a huge problem and creates a staggering hypocrisy. I'm only just realising the extent.
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