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Race and the Freelance Writer

race and the freelance writerRecently, I published a piece on race titled Why This Man’s Daughter is Scared to Visit America. In passing, I happened to mention that I’d come across examples of discrimination in my writing career. Anne asked about those and this piece is the result.

I don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over the hand I’ve been dealt; I just get on with playing it. That doesn’t mean I don’t notice when inequalities happen. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the motivation of the perpetrator, but the result is usually crystal clear.

Does it Add Up?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t make it easy for people to read me, especially in face to face encounters. I’m an introvert and tend to approach situations by sitting quietly, observing, listening and taking in what’s happening. You’ll only hear my voice if I think there’s a need.

That counted against me when I attended a job fair a couple months after returning to England as an adult. During the day, participants did tests to determine their best skills and attributes so the organizers could suggest suitable job avenues. There were also presentations, though they didn’t teach me much. At the end, there was a one-to-one with a trainer to evaluate your results.

During my session, I discovered that for my trainer, black + quiet = stupid. So he was amazed by my off-the-charts scores in English and high scores in other categories. It was a lesson for me in how institutional racism affects people’s perception of events. I knew that from then on, I’d have to be more vocal to make an impact, introvert or not.

Head to Head

It’s not often you get the chance to find out for sure whether ethnicity plays a role in getting a job. But in one case a colleague and I applied for the same writing job at a publication based, I believe, in Oxfordshire. We were a similar age and had been doing the same job for a Financial Times subsidiary. But I also had a BA and a couple more years’ experience in the industry than my friend.

We traveled to the interview together and compared notes when it was over. I thought it had gone well; she wasn’t so sure. She thought I’d definitely get the job. I hoped she was right, but there was one reason I was doubtful. It’s because the interview panel did a collective double-take as I walked into the room. After all, it’s impossible to tell from my name what my ethnicity is. Any black person will tell you that there are moments when the racism radar starts pinging; for me, it started pinging then. So it was disappointing but not totally surprising when my colleague was offered the job a few weeks later.

Should I Show My Face or Not?

I won’t turn this into a litany of woes, but there have been other incidents. Now that I’m writing mostly online, I don’t always know for sure whether race plays a part in the decision to hire me or not or the amount they want to pay me. (Let’s face it; people could also discriminate because I’m a woman).

Sometimes I have my suspicions and sometimes I have it confirmed. For example, in comparing notes with a colleague over a particular writing job, I know I was offered about 20 percent less per article than she was. (I was able to renegotiate, though).

When I first went freelance, after polling my colleagues of color who had had negative experiences, I decided not to include a photograph on my website, just in case people made a snap judgment about hiring me before I got a chance to show my credentials. Later, I reversed the decision, figuring if people would take one look at my face and decide not to hire me, I was better off without them anyway.

What I Believe

What annoys me is that writers of color have to think about this at all. I believe in equality of opportunity and in having the right to compete on a level playing field. I believe that people’s work should be judged on its own merits and the color of your skin should not be a consideration in hiring you for a particular job. (Even being the wrong gender can be a problem.)

In the 21st-century, that’s just wrong.

I don’t know how to change it, but I’m doing my part by talking about it.

Have you ever faced issues of discrimination as a writer? How did you handle it?

Sharon Hurley Hall is a professional freelance writer and blogger. Her career has spanned more than 20 years, including stints as a journalist, academic writer, university lecturer and ghost writer. Connect with Sharon on her website.

{ 42 comments… add one }
  • It’s amazing how many of us have had to deal with the “photo” question. I went through that back in ’02, but decided to go with the picture after talking to my dad, who offered the same reason you did. Over the years I’ve had lots of traffic to my sites but few contacts, and with my pattern of success it’s always made me wonder if I’d done better without the image… but of course I must leave it there, especially after all these years; I’m all over the place! 🙂

    I’ve also dealt with the quick double-take issue. I’ve let it go, but in every instance it happened I didn’t get the gig, even with my qualifications. I’m not close to shocked anymore, just disappointed, but it is what it is.

    • Seems like the photo/no photo thing is a common debate, Mitch. 🙂

      Same here with the double-take thing. As you say, it is what it is. If I fulminated every time something like that happened, I’d be in a constant state of turmoil. Doesn’t stop the disappointment, though.

  • Vernessa Taylor

    Sadly, racism and all the other “isms” are still alive and impacting our lives.

    Sharon, your piece here brings two things to mind immediately. One is the issue you touched upon about showing YOUR photo on YOUR site. For the same reasons, when I first started my business blog, I didn’t use my photo … not wanting my ethnicity to cause potential clients to discount me before they got to know me. Then, like you, I decided to use a photo — a black and white photo, at that — and let the chips fall where they may.

    The second thing is how I’ve stayed away from writing about anything that involved race — even when I’ve wanted to offer commentary or produce thought-provoking content that I really wanted to share. (In my offline world, I’ve always been vocal about racism, diversity, and privilege.)

    Anne, thanks for meeting this head on. We’ll continue to hope we see equality played out in our lifetimes.

    • Ah Vernessa… head on is the only way I know how to do it – at this time in my life anyway. I’ve found over time that it isn’t truth that hurts so much as getting to the truth and letting go of the ideas that kept me from it in the first place. Yes, equality soon would be lovely.

    • Vernessa, like you, I’ve stayed away from tackling this issue online for a while, but I’ve decided that has to stop. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Sharon,

    I had to laugh out loud at the part about having an ethnic name. My friends kid me all the time, “There’s no WAY you could be anything other than black with a name like that.”

    Strangely I don’t actually like my name (not b/c it’s ethnic; it’s just not “pretty” like “Sharon” or “Anne”), but what I do love about it is that it’s unique. I’ve never met another “Yuwanda.” And anyone who knows me know my surname fits me to a tee! 🙂

    FYI, I covered this subject in a post o my blog a few years ago. Very pertinent considering the “global writing economy” we live in now.

    Thanks Anne for asking Sharon to pen this post.

    And thanks Sharon for being so open and honest.
    Yuwanda Black recently posted..The Freelance Writer’s Thanksgiving Prayer: What are You Thankful for as a Freelance Writer?My Profile

    • ah, but Anne is very English and it that sense ethnic… sort of… lol… I’m so white!

      Yes, I was very glad Sharon wrote this! Wish there was no need, but until that day.

  • A few days ago my husband asked me what white privilege was (I’m white and he’s Indian). I asked him to think of all the people he knew who had certain types of businesses, and whether they would hire me or my best friend (who has two degrees and is also Indian). I have no degree and very little experience apart from banking. The more he thought about it, the more I saw realization dawn on his face that it did not have anything to do with money, class, beliefs, etc. but purely perception. He knows she is the better person for the job and understands that the privilege of preference is unjustified. Now, for the rest of the world to catch on.
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    • Sharon Hurley Hall

      Great illustration, Sandy. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Sandy, and thank your husband too.

  • Rose

    Thanks Sharon for penning what so many people of color have to experience throughout our lifetimes and day to day living, yes sadly still in 2016. As a woman in IT, now writing part time, I too have an encyclopedia of discrimination faced in the workplace. Early in my computer career, in sales I requested a role change from “inside sales” .ie retail sales to “outside sales”, face to face visiting business persons. Management let me know I “didn’t fit the profile.” I knew exactly what that meant -because I was not blue eyed, blond haired like the other outside reps. Furthermore, even though I was the leading sales person in my office it was of no consideration.

    Even if you disagree with his politics, I am sure President Obama, First Lady Michelle and family have had to stomach an eternity of institutional racism on Capital Hill. His abilities and intelligence has been questioned since he became POTUS, just because of what he looks like, again ignoring the fact of his high achievements in law school and political career.

    I hope one day before I leave this earth(I’m in my late 50s), we will see that people will come to the conclusion that regardless of hue, we are all of one race, human, and would “do unto others as others would do unto you.”

    • Sharon Hurley Hall

      “An encyclopedia of discrimination” – that’s a good way to put it, Rose. The “face doesn’t fit” response often couches racism. I agree with you about Obama, and I also noticed it at the Olympics when assessing variations in coverage of athletes depending on ethnicity.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Rose… truly. And I hope for the same thing.

  • Just one question for now, folks –and this is a genuine Q, not a rhetorical one:

    Why is it that, when I’m referring to myself or when other people are referring to me, being labeled as a “white woman” is okay, while referring to someone as a “black woman” is not okay and I have to use the term “woman of color”?

    After all, white is white, and we all know that Caucasians have “pale” or “rosy” skin. In this sense, I’m as much “white” as other people are “black.”

    And, btw, I know that people in the U.S. have a different historical background that makes some topics “hot” for them –but I was born, raised, and am currently living in the East Med, so this word (“black”) does not bear the same connotations for me.

    When I speak, therefore, I’m speaking from my own ethnic / cultural perspective, not from the standpoint of someone who grew within a society boiling hot with such issues. However, I’m labeled under the generic term “white / Caucasian” –and people tend to forget that even Caucasians cover a very wide spectrum of backgrounds, thus attempting to shame me for using a term that is controversial in *their* culture.

    (And, please, oh pretty please, don’t tell me about “writing to my readers”: why aren’t readers “reading into their writers” for a change?)

    • Sharon Hurley Hall

      Growing up in the Caribbean from the 70s onward, Helene, there was nothing wrong with using the term “black” – in fact, it was preferable to using many of the other terms dating from slave/colonial times.

      As I understand it, “people of color” is more inclusive, referring to other ethnicities not necessarily of African origin.

      I won’t go into the cultural studies view of labels about ethnicity, except to say that they are often constructs coming out of a particular world view. 🙂

    • Hi Helene, you know, I don’t think I have an answer because I seem to be able to refer to white women and black women. When/where have you been told differently? I’m in San Diego…

  • Thanks for this piece, Sharon & Anne. Unfortunately this perception in the life of people of color is a reality occurring in every aspect of their living. I can recall many such instances, but one in particular where another woman and I arrived at the optometrist appt to fill out forms at the same time. The receptionist call my name while looking at the other woman. I suppose she couldn’t perceive of this black woman being a professional nurse.
    My latest post at my blog is titled, How You Use Your Platform Matters…
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    • Sharon Hurley Hall

      It’s a fact of life, isn’t it, Clara? Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Lori

    Sharon, thank you for sharing your story. It’s eye-opening, and it’s a lesson in how bias enters into hiring decisions.

    Ironically, I was just editing an article that dealt with bias in hiring decisions and how often, when managers hire based on their biases, things don’t work out.

    No doubt any job you take on you can handle. I just wish the biases didn’t exist to make it about the talent, not the ethnicity.

    • Sharon Hurley Hall

      Sounds like a fascinating article, Lori. I wish they didn’t exist, too. However, I am determined not to let those biases affect my perception of my own worth.

      • oooh, good for you, Sharon… glad you see your worth… we certainly do.

    • How about a link to that article, Lori… possible?

  • I am not an established writer as yourself. However, I wrote for the Jamaican Gleaner for a few months and have blogged for two years.

    I understand you completely though I have never experienced anyone being shocked on seeing me as my name; Christian and surname is ethnic! People know what they are going to get on agreeing to interview me.

    As you rightly said, despite knowing there are additional hurdles because you happen to be a black writer, you have not allowed it to deter you.
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    • Sharon Hurley Hall

      Thanks, Phoenicia. I think you just have to keep going.

  • Thank you so much for writing this, Sharon. Like Allena, it is hard to know where to begin. I found it interesting about your reason for not adding an image of yourself (initially). I applaud you for recognizing anyone so shallow (which is probably the kindest description) to ignore your immense talent based on the color of your skin does not deserve your time.

    Another bias I somewhat worried about was age. But, it’s difficult to deny it and share that you had 30-plus-years in a corporate career. Somehow, they didn’t believe I started at age 5. 😉

    This goes way beyond labeling (which I abhor – like Millennial this-and-that). I find it frightening, especially now in our unstable U.S.

    Thank you again for the courage to share your story, Sharon. I pray you and I will see a world where we gasp to think this was a part of our history.
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    • Amen, Cathy…

    • Sharon Hurley Hall

      Let’s not even start on the age things, Cathy. I sometimes hesitate to tell people how long I’ve been writing. Granted, I started early, but I’m closing on 30 years now. ?

      We all have biases, but it’s important to recognize when those are driving undesirable behavior and nip that behavior in the bud.

      Like you, I hope that one day this will be history – instead of very much with us.

  • CA Davidson

    Your article reminded me of a couple of experiences I had when I was copy desk chief/associate editor for a local weekly suburban newspaper(s). While not overtly/intentionally discriminatory, I did find them kind of funny. One time, the arts/entertainment editor of our alternative, sister publication asked me to review a film about black women. Since I was the only person of color in the editorial department at the time, surely I must be most qualified for the assignment. I just smiled and gratefully accepted the opportunity to write something different.
    Another time, one of the other editors, who was editing a police report, asked me whether there’s a gun called a Ruger (or was it a typo?). Like, if I’m colored, I gotta know about guns? Being half Japanese, I was tempted to tell him the gun is actually a Lugar, only made in Japan.
    After so many years on this planet, it takes a lot to offend me. I know in my heart, without a doubt, that the folks at the paper meant no harm. Ugliness is what offends me, and I know it when I see/feel it.

    • Sharon Hurley Hall

      Yeah, I’ve had that whole “lone representative of the black race” thing, too. 🙂 Sometimes it’s funny; other times it’s painful, but I try to look at people’s intentions before making a judgment.

    • When I was first introduced to my white privilege I truly was shocked and it still can surface. The question, what is it like to be white? which I had never considered, has helped me see it over and over again.

      Sharon’s subhead, ‘Should I show my picture or not’ rocked me once again – my only concerns about my picture has been “Do I look good enough?” and “Do I look too old.”

  • Sherron

    Excellent piece Sharon

    • Sharon Hurley Hall

      Thanks, Sherron.

    • I totally agree… I was awed when I first read it. And proud to post it here.

  • Thank you so much for writing this article. I’m a Black Female and, at 60, I’m working on my copywriting chops to fulfill a dream while building my “working retirement”. Writing offers so many options that I just cannot resist. Your article has reassured me….not that I’ll be wealthy but that there are others who see the same things and face similar realities. Thank you so very much for this article!

    • So glad you found it helpful, Valerie. And rest assured, in spite of some of the obstacles, you can make a writing career work.

    • Valerie… I’m in the middle of a working retirement… if you want to do a post for me about that or any other topic, get in touch.

  • Such a great article touching on an important topic. As a hispanic, I’ve also been discriminated against in many nine to five jobs. I experienced it twice in my writing career, which took me by surprise. But, it happened. It’s sad to know that racism is still so prevalent, even in a career where your experience and knowledge matters most, not the color of your skin or your last name. Thanks so much for posting this!

    • Yes, it’s very sad, Nida. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • And of course as a white woman I have no idea how often that played into me landing one writing job or another… suspect I’d be embarrassed if I did find out, or even outraged. As a white, I suspect I need to be more outraged than embarrassed.

  • Love this article, Sharon! You’ve brought so much up in this article that I don’t even know where to begin. I make an assumption that it’s difficult for you to point out others’ privileges; please know that there are some who are listening and processing. That’s the most I can say without turning this into “the good white lady” crap that my 40ish years of life has instilled in me. I’m listening, I’m listening, I’m listening.

    • And that’s great to know, Allena. If people pay attention to this stuff and call it out, maybe one day things will improve. 🙂

    • Allena, if you ever want to write about that feeling here you’d be most welcome… glad you’re listening… and am not at all surprised.

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