© Copyright 2010 by Joseph Worrell. Reproduced with permission on Restructure!.
In February 2006, The Canadian Labour Congress presented a disturbing study on Canadian workers. The report maintained that Canadian-born visible minorities faced the highest barriers to steady, well-paying jobs of any group in the country.
Post 911 Arab-West Asians came in first with a 14% unemployment rate, Blacks at 11.5% and Latin Americans at 10.5%. Aboriginal Canadians also failed to reap many job rewards but statistics curiously grouped them with unemployed Euro-Canadians.
The Labour Congress’ study caused a bit of quandary, except among those who are already “in the know” about the dilemma.
Leslie Cheung, of Simon Fraser University, declared the report could not disavow “workplace inequality with education disparities because non-White Canadians are better educated as a whole than native-born Whites and immigrants”. The Labour Congress predicts the situation to worsen as huge numbers of non-White young people enter the job market.
The mainstream media responded at length, with some incredulous disbelieve, on what the CLC described as racial discrimination, almost parallel to the causes of the Paris youth riots. Immediately, one notices the mainstream framing the argument as “discrimination” for minorities rather than as “invisible privilege” and “preference” for White workers.
It leads us to turn the spotlight of inquiry on the situation. Why have Euro-Canadians continued to hold the competitive edge in labour mart?
As a high school youth, I observed that my White peers were regularly employed thanks to parental intervention and nepotism. I remember that my struggling nurse’s aide mother couldn’t work any job “obeah” for me—she simply didn’t have the right connections.
When I was an undergraduate, a frustrated journalism student cum English and History major, I could never secure a decent summer position that met my financial needs or career goals. Like many Black youth, I was relegated, over-represented in “Black jobs”, in old standbys like housekeeping or food services—Burger King, Mickey Ds, toiling in the campus cafeteria as a short order cook – food prep. As Black summer students looking for work, many of us fell through the cracks of the federally sponsored programs.
By the final academic year, I hit the jackpot in acquiring some “upscale” retail bookstore jobs. What was the reason for this sudden job mobility? I socially knew the White owner’s wife and the White manager who all cleared away an “invisible barrier”, conferring some privilege upon me. As a young Black job seeker, personal initiatives of submitting unsolicited resumes, answering ads, completing applications, garnered nothing, not even confirmation letters or interviews.
However, the doors of opportunity flung wide open, merely upon knowing someone within the White network. They bestowed that necessary “seal of approval”. They silently ensured that my resume rose to the top of the pile, that Euro-Canadian managers considered it and granted an interview. Without these benign “pixie” White helpers, I realized I wouldn’t have progressed.
My sense of individual “merit” was immediately deflated, the mantras of “working hard” in getting to the top, became an illusion.
How many Black folks would be honest in admitting that our entry into the Canadian workforce, our climb to management heights was contingent, however tenuous, on some personal contact within a White network, on White guidance or fatherly “benevolence”?
So why is it that Euro-Canadian job seekers are least likely to encounter systemic barriers in gaining access to meaningful jobs, moving beyond the glass ceiling?
This is part of the secret networking, of the unspoken advantages and benefits that White job seekers and their hook-ups access daily, without critical reflection, while declaring “no discrimination” and “meritocracy” in the Canadian job market.
In the recession ’90s, experiences as an ESL instructor and employment counsellor, courtesy of more White and female contacts, further exposed the covert privileges many Euro-Canadians garnered in the labour market.
Workplace experiences unveiled another insidious facet of White privilege that frustrated many job seekers of colour. As an employment search trainer – interview coach to job hunters on Employment Insurance and Social Assistance, I perceived how many African Diaspora and South Asian Canadians, experienced difficulty in performing for the Canadian interview. They faced obstacles in “performing Whiteness” and “middle-classness”—-the social behaviours that facilitate immediate identification and assimilation in the Euro-Canadian workplace.
With coaching in communication skills and personal deportment, Black and Asian applicants were able to grasp the nuances of this White minstrel performance in polishing our interview technique. Disciplinary control over our body language, how to dress and speak as “non-threatening” model minorities, could be mastered in the game.
However, some learn it, some can never assimilate the subtleties of this mimicry. Black males, especially, experience the most trouble, unless already initiated from affluent middle class backgrounds. I learned “perform” this compliant survival strategy but at a great cost of repressing my frustration and rage, policing the conflicting Euro-Canadian and Afro-Caribbean cultural dualities of my body and consciousness.
On the other side, I surveyed how ethnic White, foreign speaking Mediterranean and Eastern European job seekers, some with guttural accents and limited skills, always managed to achieve something in meeting their vocational goals. Often, assistance from their respective White ethnic community networks did the trick. Europeans can transcend and transform their ESL – foreign accent liabilities into assets. As for the salience of Black and South Asian job candidates, many fell short of reaching their job goals, ending up “settling” for third best, out of some desperate necessity.
While not committed to these notions of assimilation and Euro-Canadian standards, nonetheless, I recognized them as real and inhibiting to Black job seekers in achieving their vocational goals. As a facilitator, I always felt these job search skills—a solid resume, a professional appearance, could be mastered and mediated while leaving our human dignity and self-respect in tact.
For many Euro-Canadian job seekers, these cultural performance issues and the power relations behind them, remain quiescent, as Euro-Canadians have set and maintain the standards to which other racial groups must conform. Euro-Canadians can safely discount and remain oblivious of the power of White skin privilege.
I like to recall the ironic moment of a time I was assigned a young Jamaican Canadian-born female client for interview coaching. She was very attractive, very lucky in that she possessed “desirable” Caucasoid keen features, a beautifully proportioned figure, café-au-lait colouring and “good” hair. Her diction was flawless. However, rather than the demure receptionist positions she sought, the young woman’s provocative wardrobe made her appear otherwise….
Establishing a friendly rapport with the striving office worker, I politely asked why she wore so much makeup, unobtrusively suggesting that she wear a dress to her next interview. She turned to me, asking point blankly, “you want me to act like a White girl, don’t you”? “I can’t act like no White girl”, she protested. Shocked and sputtering, I denied that “acting White” had anything to do with it. It was about appearing “business-like” and “professional”, deflecting both the patriarchal and class contradictions as a Black male instructing a Black woman in appearing “lady-like”.
Frustrated, I lamented, why are these attributes of being educated, well bred and professional, always considered the exclusive domain of White people? Why do they continue to set the standards?
I didn’t see the young woman much after that.
Perhaps the client had penetrated the mask behind the Black counsellor’s own “White face performance”? Increasingly edgy, his mask of assimilation was developing severe fissures by now.
For Black and people of colour, solid qualifications or “acting White” is not always enough.
If the Black candidate can convince the prospective employer that he won’t impose his non-European culture or anti-oppression politics in the workplace, he has the job. On the corollary, the Euro-Canadian candidate assures the Euro-Canadian employer sitting across the desk, that he is “safe”, able to assimilate into the organization’s homogenous White culture, and unlikely to file a complaint based on race.
As members of the same racial group, they identify, they speak the same language.
I’m often left benumbed whenever I read reports about minority discrimination in the labour market and workplace. I am left bewildered and alienated at Premier McGuinty and Mayor David Miller’s repeated call to business community to hire more “at risk” youth. What is the colour of the “at risk” youth that Mr. Miller is encouraging the predominately White private sector to hire?
I am similarly concerned about Black leaders and parents imploring our youth to “work hard”, in striving for “excellence”. How do they explain and reconcile the contradictions of such rhetoric, as Whiteness silently frustrates and undermines their children’s efforts?
Concerns about Black youth exclusion in the merit based “colour-blind” job market that claims not to “see” race when hiring remain unanswered because we insist on evading the critical ones.
Rather than discrimination as the subject, the debate should interrogate the hidden but tangible advantages of being socially White in a labour force that communicates to and privileges that dominant racial group.
All Euro-Canadians regardless of class background should ask what does it mean, not having one’s race or gender militating against one’s vocational and quality of life chances.
Only in soliciting these kinds of questions, can job-search trainers and employers develop critical anti-racist strategies with committed ameliorative actions for changing the Labour Congress’ “timely” discoveries and the White myths of meritocracy.
We must work in exposing and dismantling the pervasive systems of privilege.
Whiteness secretly guards its “entitlements”.
© Copyright 2010 by Joseph Worrell. Reproduced with permission on Restructure!.