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.
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)