The Double-Take

Interviewing while Black can be a nightmare

Hi friends,

Welcome to the latest edition of the newsletter. If you’ve seen the lead article before (by no means certain the way social media algorithms work), scroll down for links to a couple other interesting pieces. If you haven’t, then read on:

The Double-Take: Interviewing While Black

If you’re Black and you have a name you’ve inherited from the colonizers, then you’ve likely seen the double-take. It’s that moment when you walk into a room and your interviewers realize that, despite your anglicized name, you’re actually Black.

The classic double-take follows a particular pattern. First, their eyes widen (there may or may not be a stifled gasp). Next, the eyes sort of glaze over while the person deals with the cognitive dissonance of seeing a Black person when they expected a white one. Finally, there’s a weak smile, and they get back to business.

The first time it happened to me, I was in my mid-20s (I’d previously worked in the Caribbean, where my color wasn’t an issue — at least not in terms of employability). A white colleague and I had applied for the same job. We both thought I had the edge because of my years of writing experience. I also matched every point on the job description. For her, the job was a bit of a long shot. Our interviews were on the same day, so we traveled up together, and wished each other luck.

But when I stepped into the room, I could almost hear the indrawn breath. I could feel the thinly veiled shock. And I definitely saw the double-take. How the heck did someone whose name was Sharon Hurley look like me?

The interviewers recovered, apparently, and the interview proceeded. (Side note: another thing that goes along with the double-take is an aura of disbelief about your qualifications and experience, but I’ll talk about that another time.)

Going back on the train with my colleague, we compared notes. I’d done a great interview. She said she’d flubbed hers. She was sure I would get the job.

But I didn’t. She did and was pretty embarrassed about it.

I wasn’t surprised, though, because that double-take had sealed my fate. And because we were fortunate enough to be able to compare resumes and experiences, it’s one instance where the implicit bias that often harms Black people’s career prospects was crystal clear.

Fast forward a few years, and I had another surreal experience. The CEO of an NGO had traveled down to London to interview me as a potential editor for their journal, newsletter, and books. He liked what he saw and invited me up to see the panel.

When I walked in, an older gentleman asked me why I hadn’t applied to work for The Voice (a Black-oriented paper in London). I replied that education concerned everyone, and I didn’t see why the color of my skin should pigeonhole me. He asked a couple more questions along those lines, and I began to wonder if I even wanted the job. I got it in the end and enjoyed it, but I could never rest easy when I attended meetings where that person was in the room.

Now you’d think that switching to working mostly online would stop this kind of thing from happening, but it hasn’t. The digital double-take is alive and well, along with discrimination based on skin color. Racism, really; let’s call it what it is.

I no longer have the email, but I remember being offered a writing gig by a South African woman, who was happy with everything right up till she discovered I was Black (probably via my Twitter account). All of a sudden her well-thought-out content plan became less certain, and we didn’t end up working together.

And then there are the people who imply that as a Black woman I shouldn’t be charging as much as I do for my services. I’m well educated and have decades of experience, but for some people, that’s not enough.

My story isn’t unique: every Black person I know who has ever applied for a job has seen the double-take at least once.

At some point, I decided to do some digital triage of my own. My photo is on my website and all my social media profiles, so those who see it as a problem can absent themselves. If someone is prepared to ignore my skill because of my skin color, I don’t want to work with them anyway.

Naming and Performance

One of the results of writing the article above was a collaboration with fellow writer Jevin Lortie, who experienced the double-take the opposite way because of being christened with a name commonly believed to belong to a Black man. You can read about that on Medium in What’s in a Name?

Finally, I’d like to leave you with these questions from fellow anti-racism writer (and my sister) Lisa Hurley: Was your black square performative?

Thanks for reading. If you find my articles interesting or enlightening, please consider supporting this newsletter with a paid subscription.

© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020.

Sharon Hurley Hall is an anti-racism writer, a professional B2B writer and blogger, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast.

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