“You would be a great addition to the team,” says the interviewer as you wrap up your interview for a job you’ve been pining for since you graduated. With a large smile on your face and a skip in your step, you leave the conference room, completely oblivious to the general office environment around you until, you hear a little whisper, “she’s the new ‘diversity’ hire.”
What does it mean to be a part of a company’s affirmative action plan? Affirmative action refers to a set of policies and practices within a government or organisation seeking to increase the representation of particular groups based on their gender, race, sexuality, creed or nationality in areas in which they are underrepresented such as education and employment. Ideally, this sounds glorious, when you consider lack of inclusivity and explicit discrimination of minorities groups in history. In today’s world, support for affirmative action has sought to achieve goals such as bridging inequalities in employment and pay, increasing access to education, promoting diversity, and redressing apparent past wrongs, harms, or hindrances.
But here’s the catch… is there genuine sincerity in “affirmative action”, and how does this leave POC feeling about entering the working world? A couple weeks back, my close friend and digital creator, @thebrowngirlrecommends, posed a question to her followers after listening to ‘the receipts podcast’: “Would you, as a POC, accept a job that you got purely for the colour of your skin i.e. to increase ‘diversity’ in the company?” I was immediately taken aback by this question. My response at the time was that, I did not actually have an answer nor any opinion, for that matter. This is when I took it upon myself to find out how students and soon to be graduates, felt about the, rather metaphysical question,
and topic in general.
The first group of people I addressed, was the University of Leeds ArcSoc (@uolArcSoc on Instagram and Twitter) – as a member of a rather diverse committee of level 3 architecture students, I thought they would be the perfect people to gather opinions from.
Our committee consists of five POC out of six members, and from these five, three are female. The responses and discussion to the posed question varied largely. ArcSoc president and Malaysian local, Vinesh Ravindran’s first response was that “The job would feel a bit cheapened, if I got it purely because of my skin colour, as I’d like to think I got it based on my engineering skills. However, if it helps to get my foot in the door, I wouldn’t particularly mind.” Let’s unpack, what Vinesh has said, is that it’s almost ‘insulting’ knowing that you got a job based purely on your racial demarcation instead of your actual potential as an applicant– however, he mentions that “if it helps to get my foot in the door, I wouldn’t mind,” this is the reality of every graduate or anyone looking for a job. The “desperation” (for lack of better words) often leads us to do, and agree to things we wouldn’t normally agree to – and in this case, maybe a loss of pride? I’m playing devils advocate here, it’s up to you to make the final consensus about the ‘big question’.
ArcSoc industry secretary, DJ, and all round ‘wonder woman’, Tanya Sanadze, posed a further question, “Are they doing it because they are actively trying to make positive changes in the industry?” Her question goes back to affirmative action, and addresses the grey area of how would you know if you were given a job based on an organisations affirmative action plan? After a little discussion, Tanya added, that “Would accepting the role have the added pressure of feeling like you need to prove your worth and that you deserve to be there?” in agreement, Vinesh responded, “This is a big one, what if I’m the sole representative of melanin at the company, would I need to prove them right for hiring me? And, if I am a bad employee, will they use me as a reason not to hire other POCs?” These points play on the decades of internalized mental degradation of POC and minority groups of people, and the constant need to prove your worth for not being, an able white male?
Being a South African, female POC, I’ve spent many years grappling with discrimination and how it is addressed. However, there is always the differing opinion. In South Africa, because of apartheid a quota system was put in place post democracy. This is called BEE – black economic empowerment and attempts to advance economic transformation and enhance the economic participation of Black people (African, Mixed-Raced, and Indian people who are South African citizens) in the South African economy. The problem with BEE is that in its efforts to increase employment of POC in business and in general (university acceptances included), the focus falls on meeting quotas rather than considering skills, which in turn means that someone who is a POC is more likely to get a job purely to fill the quota, which begs the question again, is affirmative action completely sincere and genuine?
This is why there are a large group of people who have an aversion to affirmative action – hiring someone for the sake of it. But, in theory, if we look at it, affirmative action wouldn’t even be necessary if we rectified the racist structures in society.
To “answer” the question – in my opinion – it’s bittersweet really. You would have to compromise your sense of self at the end of the day to secure your wellbeing. If I were to accept said job, do I contribute towards glorifying a performative strategy? Will I be respected and dignified within the workplace or will my value only be recognized when it pertains solely towards the embodiment of the token? We also look at it from the perspective that people would go out of their way to make it known that you have no place in the company other than for fill that specific role or quota. This comes with the stigma of ” you didn’t work hard to get here like the rest of us,” supervenes. The unfortunate reality is that it leaves the ultimatum of negotiating our morals verses our well-being. This in itself is an unfair ask, and basic violation of human dignity.
I leave it up to you, to formulate your own response to the question. There is no right or wrong response, it’s purely based on personal preference, these are just some points to consider whether you’re a person of colour or not.
Header image credit: The SSL Store