Ex Fabula Fellow Jennifer Hoepner originally shared this story on Nov. 24, 2015, at a Zeidler Center for Public Discussion Community Conversation. Ex Fabula Fellows tell personal stories to inspire community-led dialogue around some of the most pressing issues in the Greater Milwaukee area — segregation, and economic and racial inequality.
Many years ago I had a job as a director of a small program in a large facility. I had hired an excellent staff and we worked hard together to make the program great. After a few years I received a promotion and was required to hire a new person to take my place as program director. After engaging in a thorough recruitment and screening process and interviewing a number of candidates, I decided on a very qualified individual with a great deal of relevant experience, formal education and a positive, caring personality who I thought would be an excellent leader for the team. Final approval to hire this woman was given by my boss at the time — the same woman who had given final approval when I was hired.
The newly hired director was about to start when my boss approached me in an empty hallway at work. She handed me some paperwork and stated that she had a resume for me to look at from someone who had applied for the directorship. I was confused, replying that the position had been filled and the woman we hired was starting in a few days. I reminded my boss that she had approved this hire and that I had already interviewed the woman whose resume she was trying to give me and deemed her unqualified. She had no relevant experience and no formal training or education that would indicate she could do the job well.
Using heavily coded language and innuendo, my boss made it clear to me that she wanted me to fabricate a reason to fire the woman who hadn’t even started work yet because our clientele wouldn’t appreciate our staff, already composed entirely of women of color, to be led by an African American woman. I was being instructed to hire someone else instead — a very unqualified woman — simply because she was white. My boss handed me the resume, told me she would be out of the country for a month and that she expected this to be taken care of by the time she got back.
I knew immediately there was no way I would do this. However, I was afraid there might be negative repercussions and that I might even lose my job for failing to carry out my boss’s instructions. So I filed a report with the Equal Opportunity Commission, gathered documentation and met with our Human Resources director. Basically, I put everyone on notice that if there was any retaliation I was prepared for legal battle. When my boss returned, she was not pleased. However, there was no retaliation towards me or towards the new African American director. In less than a year, I left that place of my own accord for an institution with a better work environment.
While I figured the incident demonstrated how a person could chip away at oppression in that fashion, I was not yet satisfied with the story. I had never been able to figure out what it was about me that led my boss to think I would agree to comply with her ridiculous instructions. She had known for years that my daughter is biracial — African American and white. Why wasn’t that enough to let her know I would find her proposal repugnant and refuse to do it?
At Ex Fabula I had learned that a good story involves some kind of personal growth as a result of facing challenges or solving problems, and I did not see how this story reflected that. I did not deserve a Medal of Honor for refusing to follow a racist ideology to hire and fire employees. It would have been illegal and immoral to do that and I was really just doing my job the way I had always done it — the way it was supposed to be done.
During an Ex Fabula Fellowship seminar when I shared my story with another fellow, my partner asked, “Jennifer, what are you?” I was confused at first as to what she meant, but then I realized that in my telling of the story I had failed to mention that my boss and I were white. This bothered me. It always bothers me that white folks tend to mention race only when referring to people of color — and I had done just that. I thanked my partner for the feedback.
The next question she asked me was, “What were your credentials when you were first hired as the program director?” This irritated me. The story was not, I thought, about when I was hired as director. It was about my refusal to go along with a racist boss in the hiring of a new director. Since asking and answering questions was part of the activity, though, and my credentials were beyond reproach, I played along by listing the items of my immaculate resume.
Throughout the rest of the evening, my frustration increased. I could not understand why I had failed to mention the whiteness of both my boss and myself. I was still irritated that my credentials had been questioned and could not understand why that bothered me so much. Further, the initial failings of the story had not been rectified.
These thoughts and feelings needled me the rest of the night: in the car on my way home, at home reading to my daughter, while lying in bed. I developed a sneaking suspicion that my questions and discomforts were related to each other and pointed toward something important I needed to investigate. I got out of bed, turned on the lights and got out a variety of books, articles and notes from when I was in college studying social justice, race and gender inequalities. I was up all night poring over materials I had not looked at for years. I came across Peggy McIntosh’s article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (Reprinted from Peace and Freedom, July/August 1989).
In the article, McIntosh discusses how she sees white privilege as “an invisible, weightless knapsack of unearned assets about which I am meant to remain oblivious.” One of the assets listed is, “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.” This item grabbed my attention. It reminded me of what another Ex Fabula Fellow, an African American woman, had said during a sharing session — that she kept getting passed over for promotions at work and that it upset her, especially when other people would make comments like, “You should be happy you even got a job.” They were implying that she had not deserved the job and certainly not a promotion, but had been hired merely to fulfill a quota. This memory triggered something in me and at long last, it dawned on me that I had been hired because of my race.
This hit me like a hard kick in the gut. I felt slimy and sick — like any money I had been paid at that job was blood money. I did not want to believe it, but there it was — obvious now that the dots were finally connected in my mind. My racist boss had been the same person to provide final approval on my being hired as program director as well as on my subsequent promotion. Had I been the exact same person with the exact same resume and interview performance, but without white skin, I would not have been approved for either position.
What is truly amazing to me, and quite troubling, is that the possibility of my having received this kind of preferential treatment because of my skin color had never before crossed my mind. Even when the incident occurred and a gaping hole in the facade of American meritocracy was staring me in the face, I saw it not.
I had been, for a long time, aware that people of color faced many unjust challenges and barriers with which I did not have to contend: police profiling and obstacles to voting, to name a few. I had witnessed some of these myself in the course of my relationship with my daughter’s father, an African-American man. It was easy for me to believe that I was not involved in any way in the promotion of those things and that I did not benefit from them in any way.
This was different, though. In the case of being hired based on being white, I did benefit directly from action based on a racist ideology. I got a job that could not have been more perfect for me at the time and played a significant role in getting my current job as an administrative director at a local university.
I also benefited by being able to go about for many years secure in the belief that I had deserved that job. No one ever commented to the contrary, at least not in front of me. I just knew that I had merited it. That was a good feeling and is another advantage of white privilege — being able to get something good in an unjustified way while remaining oblivious to the injustice — and all the while feeling proud, secure and comfortable in the belief that it was well deserved.
Now I know why my boss felt she could count on my participation in her plot. She overestimated my intelligence and thought I would quickly figure out that I had already benefitted from a similar deed in the past. I now understand too why I failed to mention my whiteness when telling the story and why I was so averse to having my credentials questioned. Even though I was not conscious of it at the time, now I believe that some part of me knew the answer all along and was trying to prevent me from becoming aware of it, trying to protect me from opening Pandora’s box and finding the reprehensible privilege within.
Finally my story has a glimmer of personal growth. Painful though it has been, it was long past due and there must be more to come. I agree with McIntosh when she writes that, “To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.”