I was at work the other day, chatting with my colleague and telling her about my recent job applications to a couple of publishing houses. She asked me where I had found the vacancies, because she also was interested in a similar line of work once she had graduated.
I told her that I found one through Creative Access, a platform designed specifically for black, Asian and other ethnic minority students and graduates seeking media-related and literary roles. Someone recommended it to me a while back; I’ve always felt strongly about shattering that glass ceiling if given the opportunity, and this way I was even handed the hammer to do it with. The same goes for SEO Scholars, Rare Recruitment, as well as a few others.
But at this, my friend made a face.
“If I’m going to apply for a job, I don’t want to get it because the company just wants to fill their quota of brown people. I don’t like being labelled a ‘minority’,” she said, saying the last word as if it was something that was somehow distasteful.
(For the record, both my colleague and I are British-born South Asians, hailing from India and Bangladesh respectively.)
And it did make me think back to when I was first at university. At my prospective flatmate’s suggestion, I applied for and was accepted into the Warwick Multicultural Scholars’ Programme, which specifically aims to support ethnic minority law students both financially and career-wise. I remember being in one of these careers sessions with our (white) careers advisor telling us, a sea of non-white faces, that we (and of course she didn’t single us out as people of colour, but it was clear we all were because we were part of this programme) had all done incredibly well to get to where we had. But instead of it being a compliment, I remember feeling – in all honesty – a little hard-done-by.
Because isn’t that maybe just a touch patronising, to be told that based on the colour of my skin, or indeed the hijab on my head, or the other facets of my identity that make me “different” in some way, that I am more likely to fail than my white counterparts? And if by some miracle I manage to make it over the socio-economic hurdles that made it almost (but of course not quite) impossible to get those A*s and that 2:1, is it really fair or right that I have to ask for a helping hand to make it over the next hurdle unscathed?
Maybe it is. Maybe none of this is fair when we’re supposed to be living in a so-called progressive, modern and forward-thinking country that should know better. And maybe some of us consider this offer for help too little and far too late.
That is entirely fair enough. I’m not going to tell anyone that that opinion isn’t valid. But I do wonder if this is an issue of pride, of this tendency at the very least in the Desi community, and no doubt in the Muslim community as a whole, too, to constantly turn down offers for help. And I also wonder if that pride is getting in the way of us achieving what we want in life.
Yes, it hurts when I am told that people of my background are not expected to excel in school. But the reasons for that are systemic. It’s not personal. It’s not a dig at my parents for failing to provide for me.
If anyone is being criticised, it’s the people who allowed the disease of racial prejudice inherent in the systems of employment, education and society itself to fester. Those people were the ones in power – in Parliament, in courts, in 10 Downing Street – whose racial privilege rendered our struggles invisible.
But that’s not the case anymore – or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Times have changed. People have changed. And these schemes of what is commonly known in the UK as positive discrimination, in the US as affirmative action, or otherwise favouring ethnic minorities, are there to show that change. We need more people of colour in all industries. And using the schemes available to us is the best stepping stone towards that goal.
Sure, hard work plays a huge role in success, and sometimes it is difficult to tell what got you the job you applied for – your merit or your race. And, yes, it does bruise my ego sometimes when I consider the fact that I chose to apply for a position solely for BAME candidates and thus the pool is much smaller, and it is therefore not as competitive.
But the truth is, I’m not actually being given a hammer to smash that glass ceiling. That’s right – I’ve got to punch through it myself with my own fist, even if it will hurt. And, yes, some company with resources at its disposal is giving me their chair to stand on so I can actually reach the ceiling. But that’s because I would struggle to reach it on my own. I’m still the one to break through it, and my self-worth isn’t any less because of that.
Most of us are minorities in at least one form or another – race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, to name just a few. It’s easy to feel protective of that part or those parts of your identity, but what’s hard is accepting that you are part of a demographic that is statistically at a disadvantage.
What’s even harder than that? Accepting that asking for help, or otherwise choosing the option where the odds are more in our favour, is not a sign of weakness, incompetence or laziness.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, just a little easier. After all, to quote the great Robert Frost – the only way out is through.
Mina had her first novel, See Red, published aged fifteen. After graduating in law, she's now dipping her toe back into the writing pool. She cares particularly about social justice, intersectional feminism and positive, accurate representation of marginalised groups in the media.