August 17, 2015

A Brief Story About Ethnic Authenticity and Interviews

"We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes..." 
-Paul Laurence Dunbar


As a freelancer, your life is filled with meetings, "projects," and temporary deals. Now that my most recent temp. job has come to a close, I have been interviewing and taking meetings, a lot. To make myself stand out, I have re-positioned my college info back to the top. (Hell, I worked hard for that magna cum laude.) However, as an unintentional consequence, my study abroad experience has become a new topic of discussion. While it has always been on my resume (since 2009),  professionally it has only been an honorable mention as the recruiter/hiring manager pours over my credentials. It has never been anything I have had to prep a PC interview answer for.

Don't I look so optimistic about the future?
Here's the truth: Erin Parks has a rebel heart. I really only have sheath dresses because I need to pay the rent, and to occasionally flex. (See photo.)

Going back to May of 2008, stepping off the plane in Accra, Ghana, it is hard to explain. I wasn't there "to feed starving children," I don't have a savior complex. I was there to learn. I wanted to soak up the accents, faces, and elegance that is a woman walking in perfect balance with her hand-woven basket of goods to sell at market. She is smart and perfectly dressed. I, a Black woman from America, am one of "the lost ones." My birth place hyphenates my very existence.

At one point during the study abroad trip, I got a little sick and spent the ENTIRE day in my room watching a marathon of some soap opera. That day changed my life. That day, the days we went through Elmina and Cape Coast slave castles, or the days I just felt free from not being a "minority," are not admissible, which makes the interview question about that experience itself somewhat invasive and false.

The whole interview process goes something like this:
Step 1: Firm handshake

Step 2: Convince the hiring persons that you're awesome. Your awesomeness is not up for debate, they just have to know how to see it, Valencia or Lo-Fi.

Step 3: Show enthusiasm for the position, and that you won't be a complete waste of space on the job.

Step 4: Ask a few questions to make sure you wouldn't in fact, be completely miserable, but with a smile on your face.

Step 5: Firm handshake

The most lengthy part of the process is Step 2, and unfortunately if the other person's filter is stuck on Willow there is not much you can do, but because you don't know that, you will try. You will avoid getting cornrows "to look more professional." You will find a way to contain your fro so you don't look too "combative." You will wear your sheath dress without the fun pattern. You will wear tiny ear rings, not the ones shaped like Nefertiti. You will use the King's English and say complex words, like interdisciplinary with amazing diction. You will say, "my trip to Ghana was great, it inspired me to travel and discover things for myself." 

You WILL NOT say the U.S. and French govt. need to stay the f%ck out of Africa. You will not say this process is exhausting. You will not say, "Love me or hate me, I get sh@t done." #nofilter, and drop the mic. Even if all of it is the truth

I once saw an article about the power of ethnic authenticity in the work place. The article emphatically stated that we have come into an age where people actually want to learn about other cultures and are not repelled by things that are different. My issues with this type of work/personal integration advice is that it focuses on how to "make it work for you," i.e. using the cultural elements that you are the resident expert in to make people comfortable. Talk about Chinese New Year, don't mention Chinese railroad workers. Talk about the whitewashed Martin Luther King Jr., not the MLK that called for economic equality and rolled with Malcolm. Talk about that salsa recipe you learned from your host parents, not the exploitation of immigrant workers. Well, my authentic isn't about placating people. So let's just focus on my Photoshop skills.  

From the Author
This is my perspective coming from working in a predominantly White, heteronormative industry where the environments reflect that. However, there were two times in my life where I interviewed, was hired, and did not feel "othered" during the process. Follow-up to this piece to come. 

Also, Part 1 of the Ghana album is here

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