Friday, 14 December 2012

The Wake Up Call

Posted by Theodor Bishop

Lately I’ve felt pretty down. Real life has been getting to me and the more I reflect on my life the more I feel out of control, despite everything I have achieved in my life and every personal challenge, I still have the challenge of overcoming judgmental others. I’d like to talk to you about something that I would like to describe as the wake up call.

The wake up call describes the moment in which you realise you are being discriminated against or oppressed in some subtle or non-subtle way. The moment when you realise that despite the successes or privileges one may have; or despite the social and legal conversation about an equal society; there is something about you that other people want to put you down for.

I have had my wake up call. I’ve been in many job interviews where I’ve been asked overly technical questions that are inevitably supposed to trip me up. I thought it was notable when I know that other candidates (after speaking with them) were not asked about when a chi-square test was needed. Instead they were asked more general questions that are hard to ‘fail’. There was time when I was interviewed by a BAFTA winning media company. I applied as a researcher to help make a client list for an arts festival. I was asked about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for 40 minutes.

The interviewer who by strange incident had a PhD in the Philosophy of character asked me questions completely irrelevant to the skills associated with the advertised job: organising bookings for an arts festival. The interview thought it might be nice to ask me hard philosophy questions to test my abilities. I just didn’t feel that being asked about the Transcendental Deduction in Kant’s B-version of the Critique tested my ability to make a client list and and organise meetings. It made me feel very unwelcome when I was told that this was an interview for a non existent role as a previous intern with the company had already been selected and shortlisting other candidates was merely a technicality to avoid the appearance of nepotism. The wake up call is when I realise how interview panels treat me with antagonism, and expect me to give ‘better’ answers. The wake up call is when I realise how I’m the only non-white person sitting among the other interview candidates and I’m intruding into their native cultural space. I get the distinct impression of discrimination when the reasons I am given for rejections contradicts what was said in an interview. I’m told I have not enough relevant experience, when I was explicitly told that experience is not essential. I’m told in person descriptions and job descriptions that I’m judged by my ability, and not by the degree to which one assents approval by a hiring panel.

I am unemployable because of some perceived ‘otherness’ about me. I absolutely hated when I talked to other interview candidates after an interview with a certain progressive thinktank and heard that the Arts grads were asked simplistic questions such as’ what is your greatest weakness?’ or ‘why do you want to work for us?’. By the same panel I was asked different questions, such as:  ‘can you tell me the relevance of ecological validity on the study of poverty?’ or ‘What’s the best margin of error percentage for a sample size of 500’ for the same role. It’s odd how they ended up as social researchers in a thinktankwithout having to study Quantitative Research Methods in an English Degree. But I’m turned down because of my ‘lack of familiarity’ about a question that wasn’t featured in the job description. These non-transparent hiring processes are a front for discrimination and  I distinctly feel that I’m given harder challenges by employers so that I am meant to fail. It eats at me in ways more than words can describe. It also makes me painfully aware that when I’m going into their office, and seeing the faces of the other candidates, I’m the only non white person there, and I definitely felt that was relevant to the questions they put at me.

As well as being an ethnic minority, I also have a minor disability which I never thought would be a big issue as an adult. I have dyspraxia*, I have vague memories as a child going through occupational therapy, speech therapy and being taken out of mainstream schooling for a day every week. I now realise as an adult how stigmatising it was among my peers and other adults. I realised how different I was percieved when I had difficulty speaking or doing ordinary tasks.

School friends years later told me how they were made aware of my disability when I wasn’t present in assemblies, and that I shouldn’t be treated any differently because I used a computer to do classwork, or had to be taken out of classes from time to time. I must admit that helped with my peers letting me get on when I did school work in ways different to them: when they were using pens and pencils: I had a 90s laptop with a loud dot matrix printer.

I had a great amount of specialist support through most of my education, even when during the mental health issues of my undergraduate years. Many of the Special Educational Needs (SEN) specialists did tell me that I had to be more than what every other candidate had to be in order to get half of their success, and that my ability wasn’t judged. I was told that I would be judged on things like the way I walk or speak, or the way I walk into a room and sit on a chair before an interview panel, or if I have trouble pulling back a table it will be interpreted as clumsiness and a lack of attention. I should have taken that advice more seriously. I also feel a victim to a self fulfilling prophecy, namely that knowing people would judge me harder I have had to work all the more harder in everything I’ve done. As a result many use disproportionately higher standards to rate me negatively than they would for others who are rewarded for less effort. An unintended consequence of the attitude I’ve fostered from the SEN staff’s advice.

My disability wake up call came when I had an interview for a Central Government Department (*cough* Home Office), in which I pointed out on the application form that I required reasonable adjustments in order to do the assessment/interview. I was told that this was acknowledged and I was to write a handwritten test. I made a call to an HR Assistant who dealt with public sector recruitment to clarify if there was a problem with what I told them about my disability. I then reminded the HR Assistant that my disability was related to my handwriting abilities and the individual seemed unconcerned as if I just brought up a non-point or a sentence of silence. The HR assistant was unwilling to make any changes to my application. I asked simply for clarification: “Are you going to put me into a handwritten test when I’ve put on the online form that I require reasonable adjustments because of a condition which affects my handwriting?”. The HR Assistant’s answer: “Yes”.

That was my disability wake up call. This was the moment when all the times when I was told as a child and a teenager about how society’s attitude to disability is changing throughout the 1990s and 2000s to the point that eventually my dyspraxia wouldn’t be an issue. Despite being able to play Bach, despite being able to deadlift my own body weight in Iron; or overcoming severe depression and all my other adversities and achievements; I’ll still always be labelled and made to feel like that kid who was taken out of school to have occupational therapy. At that moment I exploded in anger.

My response was a sense of indignation and my refusal to simply accept this situation quietly. I responded to the HR assistant and said a lot of words that were definitely not safe for work. I said (in cleaned up version): “If you put me into a handwritten test, then I am being discriminated against and you are knowingly doing nothing about this”. It was only after I called their organisation a privatised-outsourced-HR-service-working-for-public-sector-to-cut-costs-hypocrite-organisation-adhering-to-the-farce-of-two-tick-employer-in-the-guise-of-inclusivity-*$*£!!!!!1, that they decided to make some changes to my interview/assessment. Also maybe its more relevant that I threatened to tell his manager and let him know that my smartphone is set to record all my calls and I will find out his name and shame him publically. I can’t complain as to how nice they were afterwards. I’d like to think that their commitment to equality of opportunity (one of the traits listed on the person description for the job I was applying for) rather than their fear of being caught out, that led them to be more amenable to my interview adjustments.

Sometimes my wake up call happens in strange ways, which are less upsetting to me than..bizarre. On some occasions my Indian appearance and long hair with the combination that I have an academic background in philosophy makes some people (notably of the patronising hippie spiritual type) to think that I’m some kind of spiritual guru or mystical wise man because of my ancestry, and bizarrely enough, sexually exotic to certain parties (aforementioned hippie type). I find this patronising that my ethnicity should ever considered a ‘sexy’ thing as if it were to be considered as ‘other’ or a novelty. These things have been less offensive wake up calls but more bemusing when it reveals the kinds of weird assumptions people want to have about me!

Another wake up call I recall was when I joined the LGBT society at university during my undergraduate years. The LGBT soc had a mentorship scheme for those who were opening up more to their sexual identity such as myself at the time. The ‘mentor’ I had was very friendly and pointing out how important it was for homosexuals to be represented in all different areas of society and how wonderful it is to embrace one’s sexuality. However at the moment when he asked ‘you aren’t bisexual are you?’  which followed a disapproving monologue on his views on bisexuality, I felt very uncomfortable about opening up to him and a little bit confused as he seemed so positive about sexual difference. Wake up calls can be weird, and the kinds of oppressions we experience can come from unexpected places.

It’s my uncomfortable truth to realise that I have been discriminated in small ways and large ways. I’ve also experienced privileges which also intersect in weird ways with disadvantage. I’ve heard many other wake up call accounts which differ to my experience. I’ve heard from people who have had wake up calls on things like the prejudice against single parents, non-male gamers, gay airsofters (where homophobic language is commonplace) or religious secularists. When I first heard stories about the antagonism that my friend experiences as a single mother, I had a wake up call about an issue I never really thought about. Sometimes its the casual things that hurt. Sometimes its the institutional things like a lack of role models in our industry or sphere of interest, or a lack of positive media representation of the group that we identify with.  I also recognise that many oppressed people aren’t in a position to take a stand against their discrimination, sometimes that is because they have other struggles such as making ends meet financially, health issues, childcare obligations, or the intolerance of others to listen to an oppressed group.

My wakeup call is unique to me and I realise there are many others who have their own kinds of wake up calls to oppression. Such oppression can manifest in grossly obvious ways while others are more subtle and coded. I also accept that the wake up call can happen within contexts where a person may enjoy relative social privileges in other aspects of their life. I found it really hard to talk about my wake up call, I feel that it might be so much easier to pretend it doesn’t exist or that there are other reasons to explain discrimination. My wake up call was the realisation that decades of disability awareness and real changes in social attitudes have not really gotten far enough, my wake up call was the realisation that the struggle for equality on many fronts is still relevant.

Have you ever had a wake up call? If so, what was it, and how did you react to it? 

**You can learn more about dyspraxia here

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