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This is what happened when we asked job candidates to describe a time they experienced racism at work

I appreciate being part of the process, a representative of the fleck of color employed on staff, able to use my innate racism radar to help build the best team possible.

This is what happened when we asked job candidates to describe a time they experienced racism at work
[Illustration: Michael Kennedy]

“The Only Black Guy in the Office” is copublished with Levelman.com.

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In my very first column, I dropped some game on one question that any person from a marginalized community should ask while being interviewed for a new job: “How would you define diversity and what does that mean to you?” It’s a query that has, for the most part, helped me suss out companies that clearly don’t give a damn about making their work forces fair and safe spaces for Black employees like me. Yet as of late, I’ve been able to drop it from my repertoire completely.

For the first time in more than a year, I’ve been playing the field for a heat check on my market value. I’ve noticed that things are different this time around—and not just because I’m staring potential employers in the face via my laptop screen. In what’s likely hangover effect of Freedom Summer 2020, interviewers have been beating me to the punch engaging with topics like diversity, equality, and inclusion. It’s an encouraging indicator of the small shifts happening in corporate America.

I’ve even seen it from the other side of the interview process. As a member of the DEI committee at my current job, I’ve been tasked with sitting in on Zoom interviews with prospective hires. The process has been . . . interesting, to say the least. (And dumbfounding to say the most.) The conversations have been conducted panel-style with a few of my colleagues, all of whom are white or white-passing. I appreciate being part of the process, a representative of the fleck of color employed on staff, able to use my innate racism radar to help build the best team possible.

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We’ve stuck to a pretty straightforward script for these interviews: some questions about background, successes, failure, decision-making processes, improvisation, leadership, conflict resolution. And then, quite abruptly, we get to the good stuff.

“Tell us about a time when you’ve experienced racism in the workplace.”

My coworker Linda delivers it in the same deadpan manner every time—I’m starting to suspect that she gets a kick out of throwing folks off. And while I can’t help but feel some secondhand awkwardness, I eat it up every time, especially considering that thus far, all of the interviewees have been white. And their responses have run the gamut from empathetic to damn-near callous.

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Admitting that you don’t know it all about disparities that exist in the workplace is a promising sign of willingness to try to understand other people’s experiences.

Our first candidate outright said she’s never encountered racism on the job. After a few seconds of radio silence and studiously blank expressions, my colleague Dennis pivoted to ask, “Well, if you were to experience racism within a team, how would you handle it?” Her response—basically that she trusts whatever the company policy is, so she’d defer to that—was triggering for me. It was like she was passing the buck and hoping for the best, rather than tapping into her own moral ethos and acting accordingly. It’s how impartial systems continue to work exactly as they were intended; a more precise metaphor for America than any I’ve ever written in this column.

I jumped in, Cordial Black Guy and all, and thanked her for her honesty, then launched into the follow-up question she couldn’t have imagined was next. “So, what do you like to do for fun?” (What, we can’t have our own fun during these interviews?)

I was already turned off by the second candidate, this time a white man, before we even got to the DEI line of questioning. His interview strategy was cramming as many buzzwords as possible into every response. (We get it, dude. You’re a “disruptor” who also happens to be an “active listener” and a “thought leader.” How does someone manage to be a rock star and a ninja?) He, too, had never witnessed racism in his professional career, but to his credit, he made an effort to draw from relevant experience. He shared a story about supporting and encouraging one of his female employees to step forward after she was sexually harassed at a convention. She eventually did, which led to disciplinary action against the offender and some changes to the company’s harassment policy. It was a better response than Status Quo Stacey’s, even if dude made sure to mention he’s an “ally.”

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The third interviewee was another white woman—not quite Goldilocks, but she had the best response of the three. She brought her own buzzwords, admitting to having “blind spots” when it comes to racism. But she also showed some awareness, citing a meeting in which she checked a colleague who made presumptuous comments about low-income families. A private, informal 1:1 conversation followed, she said, with the purpose to unpack the prejudiced thought process and highlight the importance of mindfulness. It seemed like an honest and impactful example of confronting an issue with a strong follow-through. And admitting that you don’t know it all about disparities that exist in the workplace is a promising sign of willingness to try to understand other people’s experiences.

While we have yet to hire for the role, my hope is that we get some Black folks in the mix for the position. But if so, I’m gonna push to scrub or at least adjust the question about racism. Sure, perspectives need to be interrogated, and you can’t judge people solely by the color of their skin. But asking a Black person if they’ve experienced racism in corporate America is like asking a fish if it can swim. And imagine how dumb you’d look talking to tuna.


This essay originally appeared on Levelman.com and is reprinted with permission.

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About the author

The Only Black Guy in the Office is a Seattle-based marketing manager who writes about navigating the White waters of corporate America. He’s like a modern-day Dilbert — that is, if Dilbert were Black, woke, and outspoken about the foolery, joys, and microaggressions that Black professionals experience on the daily.

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