The Google calendar notification dings. It’s 1 pm and it’s time to meet with the recruiter for this new potential job. I click the Zoom invite link and breathe in and out slowly. I smell hints of peppermint from my diffuser. I hear the white noise drumming from my air purifier.
I’m not surprised that the recruiter is a white woman—I’d be more surprised if the recruiter wasn’t. She has mid-length blond hair and thick-rimmed glasses. She looks approximately my age, maybe slightly older. She smiles, and I do the same. I can see myself in that little black box on the screen, with my tan skin and black hair.
A microsecond occurs when every fiber in my body tightens up. Muscles recall this unsettling feeling—it’s familiar and discomfort is present. I feel the slight tinge of “flight or fight,” the instinctual internal phenomenon that alerts us if we’re in danger, but I quickly dismiss the energy as anxiety. Unbeknownst to me (or maybe I do slightly know), this was a reaction linked to generations of trauma and oppression.
It seems almost too big of a concept to grasp how this micro-moment evoked such a response. I’d be remiss not to mention how the Spanish colonized the Philippines first and then the U.S. We were dubbed the “white man’s burden” according to Rudyard Kipling, a famous English poet whose ode to U.S. imperialism was captured during the Spanish-American war in 1899 through his poem “The White Man’s Burden.” In it, he emphasized the need for the U.S. to conquer the Philippines. The Philippine people continued to be enslaved in various forms—becoming commodities, exported, and imported for decades as labor in the form of nurses and overseas workers. It’s not hard to see how history imprinted the very dynamic in front of me, generations of this dynamic are simply replaying.
Like many in the U.S., I was a byproduct of immigrant parents, both leaving the motherland in pursuit of something better. Growing up in the U.S., I succumbed to the internal pressure of acclimating to “American” culture—whatever that meant. During most of my adolescence, I grappled with identity and culture, accelerating anxiety symptoms and masquerading them as “ambition.” Later, this would serve me in different ways, which means I became an anxiety-ridden individual with high-performing tendencies. Several years after, I had a panic attack in the middle of a presentation. (It’s still one of the most scarring moments in my personal and professional life. Thereafter, I raced my way into therapy and SSRIs.)
As I entered the workforce, it became clear that “American” culture meant white culture. Professionalism meant wiping myself clean of “ethnic” signals and speaking clearly and concisely. Unintentionally or perhaps intentionally, I was ascribing to what was in front of me: a white person.
Please understand the mental gymnastics I’ve had to lay out in front of me: You’re fundamentally changing a version of yourself to appease the white gaze and corporate America. This also meant code-switching intertwined with societal expectations of being a woman in the workforce (meaning being inundated with gendered standards such as “be assertive, but not aggressive” or not being too “emotional”). My tone is higher, my inflections are more deliberate. In other words, be yourself but not your actual self.
It’s this secret code that we’ve all adopted as minoritized communities, an understanding that for us to survive and thrive, there’s a little bit of ourselves that we need to shield, cover, and/or minimize. Maybe it’s for our sanity and protection (not everyone needs to show up as themselves). Other times, it’s about playing the game.
Research has shown that we have a bias for gravitating toward people that are similar to us. There are several names for this theory such as “like-me,” “similar-to-me,” or “mini-me.” Regardless of the term, we know that people tend to group themselves through various external factors such as race, gender, socioeconomics, where they went to undergrad/postgraduate school, etc. What this translates to me is that if a majority of a company is of a particular group, they’ll likely hire someone similar to them. And that is quite a mindfuck.
In mere seconds, I’m quickly calibrating how I should appear in front of the recruiter. What kind of personality should I evoke? Stern? Bubbly? What will make this person feel warm in my presence? What are the things that we can draw that we have in common? While some will argue those are standards within interviewing, I would argue that not having these in your tool kit puts you in a tougher place to start from. We’re already riddled with our own biases (if someone says they don’t have any, they’re lying!), and if we don’t have the physical attributes that can disarm said biases, we’re working from a place of zero while others have a leg up for simply existing.
As we rap to each other about previous working experiences and the expectation of the role, we’re slowly coming to a close. I feel like I threw up words while maintaining an air of false confidence. I feel like I have, “Hi! I’m just like you, please hire me!” stapled on my forehead. I grin through the entire 30 minutes and am looking forward to when I get to shut up and close my mouth.
We’re at time. We thank each other and I proceed to click the “End Call” button. I breathe in and out slowly. I smell hints of peppermint from my diffuser. I hear the white noise drumming from my air purifier.
I wonder if she liked me or if the call went well. I’m curious about her notes and whether she would consider me a “cultural fit” during her debrief. I wait for her follow-up in the hopes of challenging/seeing whether the company is homogenous as I think it is. Regardless, I know that I have to prepare for what’s to come—after all, it’s all embedded in the fiber of my being.
Healing generational trauma and acknowledging how systemic and cultural racism impacts your mental health takes time, attention, and care. We invite you to begin that journey by checking out our list of BIPOC-specific resources. To read more blogs that relate to topics such as this, go here. And remember: you are not weak for needing help. Your pain is real and you deserve to heal.
Check out Isidora’s book “Working With Feelings: Caring for Your Employees Through Cultural Humility and Emotional Fluency” here.