How it feels to be Other

I had an experience yesterday, and I wanted to talk it through a bit, as it is illustrative of how it feels to be a female / transracial* in the society where I live. (*I use this word to denote US: “of colour” or UK: “ethnic minority”) – and how this feels as a result of being transracially adopted.

Last night, at work, I attended a “working dinner” for two of the leadership teams. Now, for background, I’ll explain: I am a senior manager at a large corporate. To my friends, I’m successful. I work in the City. (London is so arrogant it’s a city known as The City! Although the City bit is just the main financial district, I guess like Wall Street.) But within my company I’m one of hundreds on the first rung of seniority. I’m really not very senior at all.

The purpose of the meeting was to provide representatives of all of our sub-teams and to foster understanding so that we can work better together. I was deputising for another senior manager who leads our sub-team, as he was on holiday. I had a presentation prepared that talked through what our team does, the kind of clients we serve, and so on.

I got to the room. The other attendees were already there. I looked around the table and I saw 10 white guys and a female (South Asian). It soon became apparent that she was junior, there to take notes and had been helping one of the men to prepare for the meeting.

As I looked around the table, I heard the white guys speaking and I observed how they acted. They were all confident and articulate. They all interrupted each other and vied to speak.

And I thought: This is how it feels to be an outsider. I have a presentation prepared; I have a lot to say. I can contribute to this conversation, but I have to butt my way in if I want to do so. I sat in silence for over an hour.

I didn’t interrupt and I watched. It was like a cockfight. (It often is at our company – there is a lot of posturing involved; it’s all part of the company persona. We know best and it’s our job to tell clients that.) For example, one of the guys arrived later than I did, and instantly felt comfortable making jokes (“banter” as we call it in the UK) about specific individuals in the room. It was quite inappropriate as many had not met before (it was the first meeting of two larger teams) and it was deliberately “in joke” and exclusive. It’s the kind of behaviour that a lot of white males exhibit all the time in the corporate world.

Finally, towards the end, they realised that my team had not been represented yet so they invited me to speak. And I spoke. I didn’t even get to show my presentation as they were running out of time, but I was able to speak articulately (I hope!) about what we do, and I also suggested how we could action what we’d been discussing. A number of the guys were nodding and agreeing with me, and they actually ended up going with the plan I proposed. (They’re really good at talking about stuff but not so good at crystallising things into actions. For that you need someone who’s listened to the whole conversation, ie me.)

But – I could easily not have spoken up. I could have remained meek and mild and not done anything more than what I was asked to do (a brief synopsis of our team). I didn’t… but many Others do. It’s hard to feel like you have to butt in to be able to be heard. It’s a double whammy when you are female and not white. Certain ethnic minorities especially are seen as more subservient, and are also seen as more pushy when we do try to take ownership – I get told I’m “too direct” all the time. My parents weren’t very good at teaching me to bow down! (Incidentally I find it interesting how certain races have crystallised around certain roles. East Asians work a lot in audit and actuarial. South Asians work a lot in Tech, especially Indians. And almost all the black women I know work in administrative roles.)

And I think there you have the essence of white privilege. Those guys in that room did not sit there waiting to be asked to speak. They didn’t look around for a seat at the table. They already had seats at the table and they assumed that they had the right to speak.

They don’t have to wait for a gap in the conversation because they are the conversation.

They don’t need to be an agenda point because they are the agenda.

And that, my friends, is what it feels like to be female and a “model minority”. I know my face doesn’t fit. I know that those white guys I haven’t met before were pleasantly surprised that I speak English with a flawless English accent. I know they all stopped to listen because “OMG she knows some stuff… What a novelty!” And I know that I have to measure my contributions and ration them, lest I step too far from knowing my place and wandering into a white male space. (Nobody likes a pushy ethnic female. I feel ashamed of my own pushiness. If you’re a white guy, ask yourself if you are constantly questioning how you are perceived and checking your behaviour. I do. I have to.)

I look around for people like me and there are next to none above me. In our entire firm we have female partners I wouldn’t run out of toes for counting, and I can name all the ethnic minority female partners. At my level, the most junior level on the senior ladder, I’m the only female “of colour” in my team. My team has 400 people in! I look upwards and there is ONE female partner of my ethnicity. And she’s considered a bit scary because she doesn’t take any s***. (How many men have to define themselves like that? Answer: none. It’s quite okay for white men not to take any s***; it’s a given.)

You might ask why I chose to work in this world. A white male world. A white male world where they pat themselves on the back for “promoting diversity” and don’t see anything wrong with the idea that they’re advocating “tolerance”, as if skin colour or gender or sexual orientation is something to be tolerated. They’re super proud of themselves that they’ve set a target of 30% females for 2030 (wow, that’s just so… tolerant of you!) – and none for ethnic diversity because there probably isn’t a problem… And I think, ethnic women need to work even harder to be a part of that tiny female minority.

The answer to the question of why I chose to work in a white space is that it was accidental. I was good at school and I looked for a career I could build off my academic achievements… and I kind of modelled myself on my [adoptive, white] dad. It’s been a painful learning process over time that my much less academically able [white, bio] brother never has to kick doors down because they’re always open to him. (He’s better interpersonally, of course, which is a skill in business. And he is a lovely, nice man, which is something to be valued in anyone. But of course he’s a product of his experience, a life where he’s never experienced anything other than belonging and where people are nice to him by default.)

So… What was the purpose of this vignette? I guess I wanted to illustrate the thought processes and feelings behind what, on the surface, was a very everyday event in the corporate world – to look at it from a social anthropological point of view, if you will. I bet if you asked those guys, they wouldn’t even have noticed anything out of the ordinary. (They might remember an ethnic girl saying something but believe me, I’ve been mistaken for other [females of my ethnicity] more times than I can count – they literally cannot tell us apart.) They are used to being in their spaces and at their tables.  They don’t ever feel that hammering heart before you’re going to speak. They don’t see all the thoughts and fear whirling around before you say something that comes out confidently (with a slight tremor; damn you, voice!). They never have that sense of being an Other in a space, unless they’re on holiday somewhere, and even then, they are superior, the tourists, the colonialists.

And we the transracially adopted grew up in this. This is our lives. I can “make it” and I can push for it, but at the end of the day I’m always going to be the Ethnic Female. I’m “special” because I got this far, because I’m not the norm. I don’t take any of it for granted, but sometimes I get tired of pushing. (For example: In my end of year review, I actually got feedback that they were amazed I hadn’t left yet – as far as they’d go towards an acknowledgement that I’d been treated badly, for whatever reason, completely unconnected to race and gender, cough cough.)

This is how it feels. I am not the default. We are not the default.

And for adopting parents, know this: In the world outside of your love, special doesn’t always mean better.

 

 

Notes:

There are some differences in terminology between the UK (where I live) and US. Here are some I’ve become aware of through the forums, although they may not be correct for every state / area. I am discussing adoption on largely American forums so end up slipping between the two. Also note that some terms are considered mildly offensive in the other country, eg ethnic minority in the US or people of colo(u)r in the UK!

UK   /   USA

Ethnic (minority)   /   People of color

Black   / African American

Asian   /   South Asian/Indian

Chinese   /   Asian    (note: “Oriental” is considered offensive in both although still sometimes used)

 

 

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15 comments

  1. Courtney

    What a fantastic post… I mean, so spot on.

    White privilege is something my parents “don’t believe in.”. It’s laughable. My sister and I have tried to explain it by comparing it to male privilege (“a man can go for a run on a wooded trail in the early morning and not think about his safety, and a woman has to dress herself to be memorable to other runners, survey the face of every man who runs by, and turn around to see who it is she hears coming up behind her) and they still deny it exists. We think they believe this because they are white and they don’t want to admit their own privileges (they have more privileges than just being white and have since they were born, just like I have, but they can’t see it). Whatever the reason, it appalls me.

    I know what you’re talking about with the men at work because I’m a woman, but I don’t have the double whammy of not being white. I worked at a place that was run by white men and they touted being accepting of everyone, unless, of course, you had a visible tattoo or facial hair (truly). It was a big boys club despite being 75% female (travel) – when I left, not a SINGLE man held the low paying, almost forced labor position that 40 women held. Disgusting. I was one of the highest paid women in the company… Because I was in IT and could manage projects better than any man they’d ever met.

    I really appreciate your comment at the end to adopting parents. It is so true.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Nara

      Thank you! I wasn’t trying to stir anything up here, but I was thinking that there really is something that people who are white don’t / can’t understand. I was sitting there looking around and they were just so at ease with themselves, and I was not, even though I was the same grade as many of them (so not junior to them). And for the longest time I’ve never been sure about whether it’s about being female or being non white, or both. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m evaluated as a female first (as that’s the biggest effect of inequality in our workplace) and then the whole ethnic thing doesn’t really help either. I’ve also noticed that there seem to be a disproportionate number of ethnic females in junior jobs – but maybe that’s because I notice them more. For example not just admin staff but cleaning staff seem to be disproportionately non-white. In an office that’s mainly white that really stands out!

      I’m sorry about your experience at your old company. That sucks! But glad you were one of the highest paid women! (I think career wise we might have some crossover, haha!)

      Hope you’re okay. I commented this on your blog but I’m sending you hugs! X

      Like

      • Courtney

        Thank you for your comment on my blog. What I couldn’t put there is the biggest issue surrounding us right now, because my friend who it’s about reads my blog, and I don’t want to frighten her. She has her 5th type of cancer (lung, then back, then liver, then breast, then brain, and now more aggressive brain cancer) and can’t do chemo anymore because it will kill her. She’s doing a last ditch effort treatment like Sam, and Sams death on Saturday made me truly realize, and accept, that she’s probably going to die. She knows it, but I’ve been letting hope blind me. I’m taking her for treatment in Portland on the 12th and sams death is haunting me, and I’m worried I won’t be strong enough for her. And I’m terrified of the conversations that may happen over the course of 4 days together.

        Story to dump on you. Thanks for listening. 😊

        Like

      • Nara

        Oh you poor thing. It is so scary when someone else is suffering and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I naturally want to try and fix things, and with cancer I can’t do anything about it. 😦 I always feel like I say the wrong thing. I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. She has really been in the wars. I don’t know what to say other than I’m sending you hugs (and to her too, if she wanted any from a stranger across the ocean). Xx

        Liked by 1 person

  2. thegreatpuddingclubhunt

    Interesting perspectives! I can relate to your observations, and yet I am a white, young (young in comparison to my colleagues!) and female. I work in an international office so although white, old (45+), males are predominant, there are many different cultures and nationalities. Last week I had to ask an American, whit, old, man (civilian) to leave my workshop because he was interfering with the productivity of the group. He was over speaking and putting down ideas from a male Italian (military). I don’t put up with that kind of behaviour in my teams! Where I work I haven’t experienced or observed ‘bias’ against ethnicity or skin colour, rather bias against different cultures. But my org is very unique in that way!!! My white, old, male, Italian colleague is just one example of many.

    Sometimes I just get tired with having to constantly ‘prove myself’ and think how life would be easier if I could run my own business and avoid all this!!!

    For 10 years I have worked as a young female in this male dominated military world and I have to push hard to demonstrate I am highly capable, I do not know how much extra I would have to push if my skin was a different colour, but I am sure it would be harder.

    Just think that you will be (or already unknowingly are) that role model you seek in senior leadership.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nara

      Wow, I bet it’s even harder in the military. I can’t imagine what that would be like. Interestingly we had an ex military young (white) guy in an assessment centre the other week. He was going for a very junior role but he was just so entitled… Talked over every one else including guys who were going for more senior roles (we have a mixed assessment day where interviewees have to complete different tasks). All the assessors were really shocked at his attitude. And I said, I bet he went to public school. Checked his CV and he did. That’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with that but what I mean is that he radiated a sense of entitlement that was out of kilter with his job seniority. And I don’t think that generally minorities (Inc females) ever get to that level of ingrained entitlement.

      I totally agree with the running your own business thing and not dealing with all the politics! But I think I’d be too scared to take all the risk on myself!

      Thanks for the role model comment… you are too kind. I don’t know if I’m a good role model but I feel like at least junior women can look up and see that someone made it this far who isn’t a white man. Even if it’s not very far! I haven’t given up yet!

      Like

  3. My Perfect Breakdown

    Great post. (As always).
    By the sounds of it, I’ve never worked in a corporation as large as you do and I also do not understand your perspective of being an ethnic minority.
    But yet, I have experienced being a female in a very male dominated field. I had to learn to be vocal and participate in anything and everything to be seen and heard. It’s exhausting.
    The other thing I’ve really experienced is agism. I have experienced being very young for my professional roles – I had two university degrees by the age of 25 and almost instantly worked myself into decent positions. And now at 32 am running an shockingly successful small business (I am constantly surprised at how much work I’ve generated in such a short period of time). And yet, I am just now starting to not be called “kid” – I hate being referred to as a kid professionally, drives me crazy!
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m always amazed at how every minority has to work to fit in with the dominant one. It’s a crying shame and it drives me crazy when those in the dominant group (i.e. white men) don’t even realize it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nara

      Yes, I think females definitely understand what it’s like not to be privileged (in the white privilege sense). I think women definitely face a lot of issues in the workplace, if not more than ethnic minorities… although it’s not a competition! 🙂 I think that’s why women are often natural allies for ethnic minorities and vice versa. (Extra points if you’re both like me! Haha)

      Agism is bad too! I’ve heard comments about too young and too old at work as well. It is tricky if you’re female because you go from “too young and junior” to “baby making age, don’t employ” to “old and matronly, too old to understand”. There isn’t a good age to be female in a corporate world! 🙂

      I do really think that white men never think about it. And I don’t blame them. If I were one, I’d just enjoy it! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. stealingnectar

    THIS. YES. Even though my skin is light (although I do have some Italian in me that makes people always ask if I just returned from a beach vacation), I have dealt with agism and especially discrimination against my gender. I live in an area very behind the rest of the U.S. in terms of treatment of anyone who isn’t a white, “God fearing” (in quotations because many times they are the opposite of what I would call Godlike) male. It has made my work difficult, and – very suspiciously – seemed to have gotten me let go from a company since I didn’t fit their idea of how I should act and think. Frankly, if I hadn’t pushed so hard for my ideas and my equal pay, they may have let me stay. As you say, as outsiders, we can’t participate and rock the boat in the same way and get away with it. Clearly, it’s wonderful not to be working for them anymore, but it never feels good to have done everything right and it not matter anyway. Although coworkers encouraged me to sue for discrimination, in America, it is very hard to win those battles so I just quietly left. But, there are good guys out there too! After I got laid off, 4 of my white, male coworkers quit on the same day and then called me to let me know they weren’t going to stand for it! Many men will fight for us if you find the right ones!

    Like

    • Nara

      I didn’t even think about the religious thing! I think we are quite secular in the UK (corporate world anyway) so it’s not that noticeable. I can’t believe you were let go for pushing for equal pay! That was a disgrace! Gosh I’m mad on your behalf!

      I known what you mean about not fighting though. I stayed after a lot of difficulty last year. They said all sorts of untrue stuff about me and I even consulted a lawyer but they said although it sounded terrible, that it was nearly impossible to prove. I thought about leaving but then thought, damned if I’m going to let you think you won. So I stayed, and I worked my ass off, and I did really well (won a piece of work that someone told me was unsinkable!)… And for everything, I got a “good” rating this year. Not great, not even barely aligned to what I achieved, but I proved them wrong. That’s why they were amazed I hadn’t left.

      But many days I am tired of fighting. I’m so glad you had good male allies! They are key, I think. Otherwise marginalised groups just come off as a niche concern. When white men stand up for minorities, women, gays… people notice.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Arwen

    Oh honey I totally get a lot of this (obv not the non-white) bit. I too work in a white male dominated corporation and to get my voice heard has been nigh on impossible. I’m actually just about to blog about my fight for a promotion that is LONG overdue (and I still am not sure I have got it yet) whereas there are men in my team who were promoted way quicker no more success, brought in ABOVE me when I had been effectively holding that role for two years etc etc. Not least how they stopped giving me the good projects once I ‘came out’ about trying to have a baby. And my boss is female!!
    Anyway. Mucho hugs for a brilliant as ever post.
    Kindred spirits we are, thee and me xxxx

    Like

    • Nara

      Ah, so true… Apart from the fact that you have a potty mouth and I’m of course a very well spoken person who NEVER swears (cough cough!).

      I totally get the women thing. I think it’s hard to figure out if it’s a women thing or a race thing… All I can say is I’m usually the only one of both! But yeah, it seems like women make way slower progress than men in most cases I’ve seen. I need to catch up on your blog re promotion – that’s nuts! But not unusual, depressingly. Xx

      Like

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