by Davina Vencatasamy
I have never got a job when I have been in competition with white people. Ever.
“What?” I hear you say. “That’s impossible!”. Well, maybe I did get that job at Thorntons when I was at university and I did get that job in the classical music department at Virgin Megastore when I went to do my masters. I’m not talking about starter jobs or jobs where there is fair representation of all cultures given, the more menial the job, the more likely the diversity quota is fulfilled. I’m talking about jobs that I really wanted; the ones that would further my career and the ones that I know I could do, but somehow I’ve never been able to express at the interview stage in the ‘right’ way to be successful. It’s a frustrating and debilitating process which runs the risk of allowing me to self-shame, self-blame and self-debase. Its only now that I am starting to understand how difficult it has been to see these patterns of power, the systems that keep me in check. I did get a job as part of a recruitment drive for the civil service as one of 20 or so new recruits. It soon became clear as to why they recruited en masse at regular intervals. The job was tick box heavy and only suited a certain type of person; those who were able to work within a system which told you how to think and defined black and white boundaries with clear precision. I found the whole process far too uncreative and stifling and I lasted about 9 months in that role. I found that it drained my soul. These are the lessons we learn in life about how we, as individuals, function and grow. My unwillingness to conform meant that I found myself job hunting again less than a year later. I never really looked at this system before with a racialised lens and even in retrospect, I don’t think that at entry level there was an issue. After all, the level of representation at the lower levels of employment are more likely to be equitable and balanced. There discrimination was that they were only looking for graduates. I was the only brown person though in my group of 20.
The jobs that I have wanted, the ones that would further my chosen career or give me opportunities to work within a team, learn and gain knowledge in an environment with likeminded people, those jobs have been out of reach. In every single position I have been successful in getting through the interview process, there were no other candidates at time of application. I must have subconsciously connected the dots without actually naming it though as in order to avoid the inevitable disappointment of going for interviews and being unsuccessful, I took my career into my own hands by being self-employed from an early stage in my career. Perhaps I unconsciously understood that in order to make headway, I would need to create my own work, my own career path. Being self-employed however has its drawbacks. Discounting my time as a student on placement, I have never been able to feed off the richness of working within a team of peers and other professionals. I have always been the lone voice, advocating for my client and fighting against the broken social systems in place. It has taken its toll and I’m getting close to burnout. Not only that, it deskills me for when I scrape up the confidence to apply for a role within a team again as perhaps they feel I do not have enough ‘relevant experience’. It’s a problem that usually occurs when as a teenager, you look for your first employment and that conundrum of not getting the job because you don’t have enough experience and requires someone to take a chance on you. Its fine when you are 16, not so fine when you are 15 years into your chosen professional career.
My most recent knockback has left me frustrated and saddened. Not merely because I have once again, been passed over, disallowing me to prove how much my experience and passion for being a therapist can add to a team, but this time, I went in with eyes wide open, thinking that others shared my view that things need to change and the issues of diversity needed to be addressed. I belong to a profession whose recent Diversity report stated that we are almost 90% white, middle class.
I went in thinking that my colour, for once, could hold me in good stead in this changing dialogue around equality and enable me to make changes in a position of power. I was hoping to make a contribution, in whichever small way, to change the way our profession views people of colour and its diversity story. I went in thinking that I didn’t have to work twice, maybe three times as hard as my counterparts to get that job. I went in wanting to use the small aspect of power that this position would have given me to effect change. I went in thinking I was equal and came away, once again, disappointed. But this time, my defences were down and I have not only felt the rejection as a professional going for a role but as a person of colour, unable to make the systemic changes that need to happen to ensure that there is representation at higher echelons of the education system so this doesn’t happen to others.
I understand that I will find out in due course what I did wrong but I’m keen this time to let them know what they did wrong too. Maybe without that conversation, there can be no understanding of the difficulties we face in getting to positions of power and how far an individual has to go or how hard they have to work in order to get there. At the interview I was read out an equality and diversity statement. This was clearly a requirement and had no actual meaning or feeling to it. It just stated how the institution were aware of, and had, equality, diversity and inclusion policies blah blah blah. What they didn’t then do, was ask me or acknowledge whether I was comfortable being interviewed by 3 white women from the same background. They had asked before interview stage whether I had any additional needs with regards to disability, but I’m not disabled, I’m brown. My needs are different to my white counterparts and I know this. I need to be able to engage in a conversation to show my best light. When I went into the interview, I was struck by how rigid the questions and style of questioning was. I understood that this was in order to appear equitable but it doesn’t take into account that as a person of colour, my experiences and journey which led me here hasn’t been the same. I haven’t been offered the same opportunities or the same support to further my career as my white counterparts. The systems which keep people of colour down are the same which are beneficial to white people so why would there be a reason to change? Rigid box systems are well and good to assess individuals if everyone enters the arena with the same level of privilege. That is not the case when I’m the only person of colour in the entire department. I don’t feel the same, I am not the same.
I understand that upon reading this, the comment may be that it would be unfair for white people to be disadvantaged just because they are white (I’d say the same thing about me being brown by the way). Until there is fair representation of our diverse population and people of colour have a seat at the table, I’d say that a meritocracy system is a false truth and does not exist. Take a look around you and see who’s at the top. Is it really true that the best people are all (predominantly) white? Or is there another truth, one that is too difficult to face? I may have scored the same or close to my competition in this interview but no account as to the richness that my ethnicity could bring to the institution was added into the mix, for the fear of being ‘discriminatory’. The fact that my experiences as a person of colour could ensure that the clients accessing the service may have more of a representation or a voice in a white dominated culture added nothing to the decision making.
There was no (and never has been a) tick box for me.