Subtle Racism is the Harder Kind

Years ago,  I happened to be at a meeting where two well-known African-American researchers were speaking. Like many conferences, there were “round table” luncheons with the famous people that you could attend. I forgot what the topic was supposed to be, but there were a couple of young African-American women at the table and somehow the topic got to racism. Famous Professor A, who must be about 80 years old by now, said,

“I really think it was easier back in our day. Racism then was blatant. You knew what you were up against. People would just say to you right out that they wouldn’t hire you because you were black.”

We all look puzzled, but Famous Professor B nodded understandingly and agreed,

“Then you’d go to all of your friends and say, ‘They said they wouldn’t hire me because I’m black’ and all your friends would have your back and say, ‘Those racist dogs! You’ll succeed despite them! You’re better than them!”

Professor  A went on,

“Now, they don’t tell you that, they say, ‘You’re unqualified. You don’t meet our requirements.’ No one ever says they don’t want to hire you any more.”

Professor B nodded again,

“No one goes back to their friends and says, ‘They wouldn’t hire me because i’m unqualified.’ They’re ashamed to say it, or if they do, there’s just this awkward silence and your friends say, well, I’m sure you’ll find something.’ I think it is harder for people now because with subtle racism you don’t question the system, you question yourselves.”

Professor A said,

“You know what, though? These young people are JUST as qualified as I was at their age. No one told me I wasn’t qualified. They just told me I was black.”

Professor B nodded for the third time.

I’ve never forgotten that conversation.

Personally, I had some incredible luck in mentors in my Ph.D. program. Prior to that, though, as a young engineer, as an MBA student, I seldom had the same kind of experiences. Which, now that I think about it, seems kind of funny.  At 23 years old, I was an MBA, working as an engineer, with a couple of years professional experience. In retrospect, that kind of seems like the type who would be “qualified” and attract some mentoring. Was it racism? Sexism? Or just that I was pretty much of a pain in the ass know it all (I was, but I think that is to say I was 23).

I noticed over the years that the junior people I tended to co-author papers with were predominantly Hispanic.  So, I cut it out. I didn’t cut out co-authoring papers with students or encouraging students to present. What I did was cut out encouraging individual students. Now, I make a blanket announcement to my class that anyone who is interested in presenting their research should contact me. (I can make this offer because I seldom teach more than one class a year. I have a company to run.)

Because both the Western Users of SAS Software (WUSS) and SAS Global Forum offer student scholarships, I forward links to those to the class mailing list.

I was reminded of that conversation recently because two of the students took me up on that offer this year. Their paper was excellent and it was accepted for the conference. Coincidentally, they are two young, African-American women.

And they are DEFINITELY qualified!


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