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I Interviewed For A Scientist Position, But I Was Asked About Terrorism Instead

Was he insinuating something because of my dark complexion and ringlets of black hair?

Less than a month had passed since I began my job search. Opportunities in single-digit-employee biotech startups to global pharmaceutical powerhouses were plentiful in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the largest biotech hubs in the world, and I was excited to find exactly the right fit. Dressed in a crisp ironed suit for an interview, I nervously set up my computer for my presentation portion. Despite its being my fourth interview within a few weeks, I really had my heart set on a scientist position at this company in South San Francisco. That is, until I was thrust into the spotlight to answer a question about terrorism.

On that day, I fiddled with my hands while about 25 potential new colleagues streamed in. This audience of peers came armed with notepads to learn something about multiple myeloma, but more important, to assess me as a scientist. It was refreshing to see a handful of women, and I noticed one who was darker skinned. We were the darkest people in the room. The demographic makeup of the company was a familiar one. Aside from the hiring manager, with whom I spent 20 minutes before my presentation, every face was unfamiliar.

My introductory slide showed a map marked with arrows and stars of the various countries where I had traveled, earned my master’s degree or held scientific positions during the last 15 years ― an idea my former boss had used successfully. The 30 seconds I expected to dedicate to this slide was just about up when a white middle-aged man at the back of the room asked, “Did you travel through Afghanistan?”

Perplexed, I replied, “No.”

“Well, your arrow goes over Afghanistan.”

My heart raced, my palms grew sweaty as my body went into fight-or-flight mode. Before I had the chance to explain that my arrows didn’t capture the exact flight paths, the voice added, “You know that’s where terrorists come from.”

Aside from glimpsing one woman’s jaw drop and another person’s eyes roll, I couldn’t gauge people’s reactions. No one said a word.

I was at a loss how to react. The room was silent, and all eyes locked on me. I stared into a white and yellow sea of faces with one speckle of brown. Aside from glimpsing one woman’s jaw drop and another person’s eyes roll, I couldn’t gauge people’s reactions. No one said a word.

Despite what could only have been a WTF expression on my face, I replied, “Do you want me to continue?”

He chuckled. “Yes, but you know we do background checks.”

I snapped back, “I’m aware,” and delved into the scientific portion of my talk.

The rest of the day was filled with pleasant and uneventful one-on-one interviews. I understood by the end that the offender was everyone’s boss not only in that room but at that site, hence the silent reaction. This didn’t stop people from calling him out behind closed doors.

It’s ironic that a company founded on connecting people through DNA could employ someone on the executive team who could make such a sweeping racially tinged comment. The foundation of its work was based on stripping away all the superficial assumptions we make about ourselves and one another in order to dig into the unseen commonality of our genetic makeup.

After nearly eight hours of meetings, I slipped into my car, letting my body sink into the driver’s seat, and leaned my head back. I let all my confusion, anxiety and annoyance from the day dissipate with an exhale.

Months after the incident, the offender called me to apologize. The apology seemed forced, since it was witnessed by the company’s human resources manager. He opened with something along the lines of “I’m really sorry about what happened, but I was just doing a parody of Trump. I do believe in diversity. Just look at the company I helped build.” I didn’t consider its predominantly white and Asian employees diverse for the sector, but more important, his stereotyping of an entire country negated any assertion of his respect for other cultures.

How could someone employed by a company founded on genetic and ancestral analysis make such a prejudicial statement about an entire country?

After that interview went sideways, feelings about my identity surfaced. Despite an otherwise positive interview, I couldn’t shake what happened. How could someone employed by a company founded on genetic and ancestral analysis make such a prejudicial statement about an entire country? Was he insinuating something because of my dark complexion and ringlets of black hair? Would he have made the comment if I had been a white male? How could a stranger presume to know things about my ethnic history when that background was a mystery even to me? 

My only clues to my ethnicity are that I was adopted as an infant from India and, as I learned in my mid-20s, that I was conceived out of wedlock. The details surrounding the circumstances of my conception were fuzzy, as was the race of my biological father, who was never mentioned. This enigmatic past affected many aspects of my life — for example, being subjected to slews of extraneous medical tests because of the blank spot in my family medical history. However, affecting my ability to get a job wasn’t one of them. Or so I’d thought.

Being adopted and being a person of color come with a variety of challenges, particularly those surrounding identity. Going through life looking one way comes with a host of cultural assumptions and makes first encounters interesting. There are presumptions that I will have an accent or perhaps an ethnic name or maybe that English isn’t my first language, instead of assumptions that my adoptive mother is white and I jammed out to Michael Jackson while wearing tights under my denim shorts and big scrunchies in my teased-out hair like every other girl of the ’80s. After the first few minutes of conversation, I see people’s expectations recalibrate. Having been publicly humiliated during the first five minutes of that interview, I wasn’t given the chance for that to happen.

But dealing with other people’s reactions pales compared with my own feelings of uncertainty. While I can say with conviction that I am an American, I can’t tell you where the weird red highlights come from in my otherwise jet black hair or why Ethiopians continually mistake me for one of their own. So each time I am confronted with an incident in which my identity is questioned, I in turn question what part of my identity it is that they see. And how that will dictate all forthcoming interactions.

Subtle discrimination is sneaky. It’s dangerous, it’s confusing, and it’s often accepted. Corporate America tolerates it, particularly when a punishment could affect the bottom line, as it would have in my case.

Subtle discrimination is sneaky. It’s dangerous, it’s confusing, and it’s often accepted. Corporate America tolerates it, particularly when a punishment could affect the bottom line, as it would have in my case. I was the peon candidate going up against the most senior executive at that site. Even his direct reports kept mum.

I still get chills every time I see an ad for that company’s genetic testing kits. I vacillate whether to send in a tube of my spit and be done with all the questions. But what halts me each time is knowing my ethnic background won’t prevent a brilliant scientist from looking at me and forgetting that — independent of where we are born, who our parents are or what we look like — we are far more genetically similar than we are different.

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