A few weeks ago, I experienced a series of racial incidents that I think collectively were the worst I have ever faced during my time at Notre Dame.
The first occurred two days before the full-time career fair at an event that showcased several firms of a particular industry. I went up to a representative of the company and introduced myself. It turns out he was a director of the company. He said a phrase in Chinese that translates to, “you are from Shanghai?” As he was a middle-aged white male, I found it interesting that he spoke Chinese, so I asked him how he knew Chinese. After he explained that he had worked in China before, I proceeded to explain to him that my parents were from Shanghai but I was born in America. At first he seemed caught off guard by this, but quickly understood. Then he told me, “but that’s probably for the better”. Confused, I asked what he meant by this, and he told me about how he thought America’s education system was better, in part because China’s system created “robots.”
The second incident happened two days later at the full-time career fair, and with the same company. I walked up to recruiters’ table and said that I had a question about the position that they were offering. The position had to do with the federal government. (I am trying not give too much away, but it was a position where I would need security clearance). I do not remember the exact wording of what the lady said, but in essence she told me, “Oh! I’m sorry, even if we provide support for your work visa, you won’t be able to work in that position.” Her comment showed that she also thought that I was an international student. Shocked by what I heard, I clarified to her that I was born in America, and then promptly left the fair.
Being a minority student in the business world has always presented its challenges. Recruiting is a game of first impressions—those who give great ones can be really successful. A week before an interview or a career fair, I always question whether I should cut my hair or not. Longer hair looks less professional, while shorter hair means I look more stereotypically “Asian”. Then after I put on my suit and tie, I wonder if I should wear my glasses. Wearing glasses reinforces the “Asian” stereotype again, while not wearing glasses means having shady vision. These seemingly simple issues are not unique to Asians; the issue of black hairstyles and the corporate world is decades old. In addition to that, a friend of mine who is black told me that she sometimes wears glasses instead of contacts to give a “smarter look” to combat black stereotypes.
I don’t ask myself these questions out of made up delusions. It is truly a wonder how often people confuse minorities with one another. I’ve seen it in all forms. Peers and colleagues say things like “you Asians look the same,” and professors are unable to distinguish me from other Asian students. In addition, the students who have made these mistakes are sometimes the same people who get hired by these top companies, so I have no choice but to be cautious of my every move. I don’t have room to fail.
When I experienced the incidents I described, I was surprised and hurt, but not shocked. It not only reaffirmed how I felt about recruiting events, but also took it a step further. The director who said that it was better that I was American only told me that after he realized I wasn’t an immigrant. If I hadn’t told him that I was American, would he have continued to perceive me as a robot?—thus interpreting my actions as either supporting or contradicting that stereotype? How does he treat Chinese students who are immigrants? This experience showed me how possible it was that I could receive differential treatment from recruiters. With this coming from a director at a company and their head recruiter—two people who could easily determine my future career opportunities—this experience hurt and disappointed me deeply.
I continue to wonder what these firms mean when they say they emphasize diversity and inclusion. I can’t help but cringe when I look at company websites, and I see that nearly all the managing partners and directors are white males. When I go to the career fair, I see tokened diversity at these companies, surrounded by white male managers and mostly female HR recruiters. I have yet to be interviewed by a person of color, despite going through already two years of business interviews.
If diversity was truly an emphasis, then how could something like this happen: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/02/jose-joe-job-discrimination_n_5753880.html?
Furthermore, regarding firms that do appear sincere about their commitment to diversity and inclusion, I wonder if in some instances they might be intimidated by too much diversity. When I interview with firms, there are times when I can’t help but feel that being an Africana Studies major and being in mostly cultural clubs and organizations is too much diversity for employers. In a recent discussion with a friend who is Asian, he talked about how he puts less emphasis on his activity in Asian American Association on campus when meeting perspective employers, because he fears that companies will either be unimpressed or consider him a separatist for being an officer of only Asian clubs. This is despite the fact that his experience likely matches or exceeds those who choose to become leaders of predominately white clubs. How do they expect to attract minority students if they cannot accept the minority experience at predominately white institutions?
At networking events, you are supposed to show employers that you would be great to work with by letting them get to know you personally, and vice versa. How will company representatives react when they ask me if I have football tickets, and I say I didn’t buy them this year? Will they understand that I didn’t buy tickets because I’ve felt so marginalized by the mainstream Notre Dame culture that I’ve tried to remove myself from it? Or will my perceived lack of interest in school sports reinforce their idea of me as a stereotypical glasses-wearing Asian nerd—and thus not what they are looking for?
Maybe I was the one who made the mistakes at the career fair. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn my glasses, that way I would’ve looked that much more American, or maybe I should have carried my passport around with me. These experiences make me feel so hopeless, because I’ve realized that I will be going from Notre Dame to a workplace that is not much better in diversity and race relations. Except in the workplace there will be no time for me to write blog pieces when there are business transactions to deal with.