I showed up at a university office, my crisp brown shirt and a pair of trousers, the hair still moist and pulled back in place and my recent immigrant status was sitting pretty on my sleeve. The interview went really well and once I had divulged that I was a graduate student in law, landing the job was only a logical consequence. Notwithstanding my skills, I think my ethnicity is always an easy sell when it comes to qualifying for those quota positions. But soon I began wondering how long I could continue to sell this product that I really wasn’t? I also wondered where did merit(ocracy) find its place in my immigrant name and my currently hidden sexual orientation? Was it true that my ability to ‘pass’ meant that I fit right into the ‘skilled worker immigrant’ mould and that was sufficient to find work in this new country I was calling home? Or conversely, would a visible queer person of colour find the same opportunities simply on the strength of their merit?
A Human Rights education office at a university turned out to be a cakewalk and I faced my real test only when I left the safer confines of graduate studies and entered the market place. After over a hundred CVs, the first interview I managed meant that I fearfully took the easy route and conformed to my imposed social identity and towed the line. I was going to be the model immigrant skilled worker, who would do anything to be part of an organization and contribute to its success. I would present nothing that broke this image and would shock no one with any personal details. That was perhaps my way of beginning to participate in the building of this great nation that I now called home.
This new environment welcomed me into its heteronormative and shockingly homogenous reality. For a while it was hard to look beyond the paycheque at the end of every two weeks. The frequent pats on the back, the promising young worker who was only headed in one direction. But then came time for payback. I was never allowed to exit the picture frame I sold myself in. I was always going to be the nice brown immigrant who was a hard worker and would eventually conform to his cultural expectations (marriage, children, brown picket fence and the whole she-bang). This obviously didn’t prevent me from living my life away from the prying eyes of my colleagues. But I kept nudging myself further into the closet, for it seemed comfortable, even easy and perhaps I wasn’t ready for the consequences of the dread that awaited me outside. My partner would drive me to work and I’d hesitate to kiss him for fear of being seen or found out right outside my office door.
After the grueling success that is bred from conformity and the termite that festers in the comfort of normative living, I had no choice but to get out. I had to get out and come out, so that if indeed merit was the only determinant, then I’d see other factors visible and invisible fall off like water off a duck’s back.
Unfortunately, I still took the easy route and decided to start afresh. Coming out and facing my fears was not very tempting and so I sought a change. This time when I did seek a new workplace, a new beginning, I decided to wear all my societal negative identifiers and asked to be judged on them just as much as my other skills. I declared as loudly as I could, who I was and what came with this bundle that I had to offer. Being a gay person of colour (the obvious choice of identity I could make) became the centerpiece of who I was. This time it was my turn to say ‘take it or leave it’.
I remember hesitating twice, maybe three times before I wrote of myself in my cover letter. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a risk that I would regret, nor was I confident that I was doing the right thing.
Two women of colour became visible last week when they spoke out against faux ideas of merit and ‘equal representation’, to only add to a growing voice among all of us that wants to question that status quo that falsely believes that our modern societies are based on principles of equality. Whether it’s the American (Western) dream or seeking political office in a vibrant Western democracy, it doesn’t matter what your last name, skin colour or manner of your accent is; that’s what they tell you. And then I am always asked how in the world do I manage to speak English so well? Or what justifies this weirdly sounding half-British accent, given my obviously un-British roots.
Viola Davis and Effie Brown spoke to me directly and told me that its opportunity and opportunity alone that will allow me to look beyond my ethnicity and my status as a sexual minority, when I look through the classified pages for my next work place. While my trans friend dreads bringing up the issue of washroom use at a job interview, I don’t want to fear using gender-neutral pronouns when I talk about my partner to a prospective employer or when I respond to a question about my family.
Now that I have gone through the grind of hiding and then declaring myself, I have decided to go a step further and throw in merit as my last name and see how I fare.