Recently, 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.