The Work You’re Not Doing at Your “Diverse” Workplace
“When, if ever, will it be up to these institutions to educate, promote, and put money behind unlearning white supremacy amongst all employees?”
Some might say I was lucky with my first job in the film and television industry, “lucky” being the operative word. I got to help shoot and edit a small TV show at a big Canadian broadcaster. The people were friendly and it sounded cool, so I certainly felt pretty lucky.
One of my mentors was a coworker of mine, the primary camera operator/editor on our small team. Let’s call him Derek. As the intern tasked with only basic video editing, Derek treated me I like was well beneath him. Fair enough. People teased that I should be glad I wasn’t out grabbing coffee for anyone.
Derek actually did teach me a lot: the most optimal way to edit and setup my Final Cut Pro 7 timelines, where the best spots were to shoot in studio, why it’s best to be a jack-of-all-trades in this industry. His words still echo in my ears sometimes.
I shocked myself in being able to get the hang of things and not mess up everyday. Hard work without complaint is embedded in my Chinese blood after all. My boss even seemed impressed at times. The internship became a paid internship and I was thrilled.
The producers booked a range of guests for our show. After a studio shoot, Derek and I would often discuss how it went. One day, he complained about a guest who happened to be transgender. He went on about how inarticulate she was and how she was only chosen for the show because of her identity, not because she earned it. He was mildly irritated, and he started ranting about how this was very typical of our company, to prioritize “diverse” content over actual merit. He eventually said something in passing that drastically changed how I saw myself:
“You know you only got this job because you’re an Asian girl, right?”
It was one of those comments that took a while to set in. I didn’t have the knowledge or confidence I have today, so my response was something along the lines of:
“Oh. Yeah. You’re probably right.”
I turned back to my desk and tried to focus on my work. My eyes widened and I took a deep breath. Thus began the descent. I thought:
He must be right. He definitely knows how things work around here. What do I know? I thought my interview went okay… wait, did it? They do speak highly of the intern before me. Why didn’t they hire him? Oh… shit… He is some white guy…
Something shifted in the air after that day. I felt different when I interacted with the many white, friendly faces around me. Our kind exchanges in the hallways somehow felt more hollow. How many more of them felt the same way about me, but didn’t have the blunt confidence to say it aloud like Derek did?
It’s not that I’m not used to being in white-dominated spaces. As a teenager, I got my fair share of “You look so Asian today,” being called “China” (the most creative nickname), being voted “Most Likely to be Mistaken for a White Person” in the yearbook (next to the white girl who was voted “Most Likely to be Mistaken for an Asian Person”), and so on. With all of the internalized racism that you become accustomed to, you’re just glad to be “blending in” and not hated by everyone around you.
It’s hard to describe how different Derek’s comment felt from everything I’d heard in the past. Suddenly, my Asianness didn’t just make me unique and quirky anymore.
This fear of being both envied and rejected is a very particular one. I think this experience is best articulated by writer Jenny Zhang, in her brilliant piece, “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist”:
When I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction writing, I felt both coveted and hated … I couldn’t enjoy a scrap of validation or wallow in a sliver of self-doubt without someone interjecting some version of “You’re so lucky. You’re going to have an easier time than any of us getting published.” They were shameless about their envy, not shy or coy at all about their certainty that my race and gender were an undeniable asset, which, in turn, implied that I could be as mediocre and shitty as I wanted and still succeed. This was how some of my white classmates imagined the wild spoils of my literary trajectory. This was how they managed to turn themselves into the victims.
Derek was eventually let go and I was his permanent replacement. While I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity, my anxiety deepened and I found myself constantly wondering whether or not I deserved the promotion.
This was also a time when I was also coming into my own queerness, which feels something like going through puberty all over again. It mostly involved feeling disappointed in the dressing rooms of the Gap, Forever 21, and H&M with arms full of men’s button ups that — shocker! — didn’t fit. It also involved bringing hats into my aesthetic, and experimenting with all the different styles out there. (Five-panel? Snapback? How to choose?!) I was thankful for the casual dress code at work.
Derek was also known for wearing hats. Less than a week after his departure, one of his friends, who also happened to be a white male host of our show, mocked me openly in studio, in front of Derek’s other allies. He implied I was truly trying to fill Derek’s shoes by wearing hats. The roar of laughter echoed as I ejected myself out of the room, trying to keep that super chill “whatever-guys-you’re-just-being-silly” smirk on my face.
My thoughts began to spiral again in the bathroom, where the toilet paper came in handy: “It is pretty funny, I guess. You probably do look ridiculous to most people in these hats. Why are you even wearing them, who do you even think you are? They obviously hate me for taking Derek’s job. Why shouldn’t they? It’s not like I earned it.”
Was I thankful for this job? Yes. What did getting hired under some unconfirmed “diversity quota” change? Nothing! I’d try to tell myself these things over and over. “Fuck them,” I thought. I knew I shouldn’t obsess over something I would never know for sure.
The Game Changer
Turns out my smirk was not well-disguised and thanks to my boss I was awarded an apology from this white male host. My trust in my boss grew over time and I decided to finally tell him what Derek said and offer a glimpse into how I felt about it. He made me feel much better and validated my work generously. He told me that my work ethic and creative contributions made me stand out from past interns and that my hiring had nothing to do with my race.
Validation really was what made the difference here. I highly urge employers, managers, senior producers, and executive producers at corporations with any kind of “commitment to diversity” to go out of your way to validate the work of your BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) employees. It took me almost a year to muster up the courage to share a story like this with my boss. Don’t wait for them to have a story like this to tell. Prove that you care about providing a safe, trusting workplace for them. Chances are, they are all dealing with different levels of imposter syndrome — particularly if they are women, trans or non-binary BIPOC. They need your support to thrive. By doing so, you will be enabling them to fully dedicate themselves and give their whole selves creatively. That is ultimately what you want as their team leader, isn’t it?
If there was a diversity quota that I met the criteria for, I am thankful for it. I’m thankful for the doors this job opened and the privilege of being able to pay rent with a job in my field that sounded cool. But it’s crucial that we look at the conditions of these workplaces critically. Part of the culture in established, reputable media companies is that employees are compelled to do nothing but voice their gratitude at just being able to work there; as a result, there is often a total lack of encouragement to interrogate the ways these workplaces operate and how those conditions make us feel.
Policies that attempt to prioritize “diversity” inherently breed tension. There are the cis straight white folks who are uncomfortable with too much change and believe diversity initiatives take their opportunities away, victimizing themselves in the process. They either have no idea how to recognize their own privilege or refuse to. And then there’s the rest of us, for whom change feels like a distant dream.
By implementing diversity quotas, these companies are, in a way, recognizing white supremacy and trying to undo it. But the real work does not come in the form of mere policies and quotas. The real work is in education. This should be critical in our field, where companies are continuously profiting from the distribution of BIPOC stories.
There seems to be a revived urgency in unlearning sexism and misogyny in our industry with #MeToo, which in many ways is fantastic. But when, if ever, will it be up to these institutions to educate, promote, and put money behind unlearning white supremacy amongst all employees?
Do I still think Derek would have thought what he thought had my workplace run workshops like this one, titled “Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression for Cultural Producers”? He probably would have. But what if these were workshops that our leaders, managers, and executives took themselves, fully supported, and actually lived by? Sure, he probably still would have thought what he thought. But he might have thought twice about saying it to my face.
Carolyn Wu is a queer Chinese-Canadian writer/director, editor, and community organizer. Her film “In My Mother’s Closet” has been screened at a number of festivals including Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival and NSI Online Short Film Festival. Her film community events celebrate the work of Toronto’s queer & trans BIPOC filmmakers and are widely attended by 2SLGBTQ+ youth. She is definitely not too obsessed with hats, button ups, and black t-shirts.