Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Complicity and Discriminatory Workplaces

via Unsplash

With all the recent discussions about employment discrimination and racism in media and journalism, including at Bon Appetit and Refinery29, I've become troubled by one particular question: To what extent can a person fairly be considered complicit in a discriminatory system in which they have no, or minimal, power? It's a question I've been thinking about when I see Asian-American women writers around my age respond to recent conversations about racial discrimination at certain publications. 

This question first occurred to me when I saw Christina Chaey's post on Instagram about Bon Appetit (she was one of the nonwhite employees featured semi-regularly on their YouTube channel without extra compensation for appearing in videos). In it, she apologizes for her "complicity in a system that made me feel lucky that I got a seat at their table," explaining that she "hold[s] [her]self responsible for not doing more to support my BPOC colleagues past and present." She then goes on to state that "I've been complicit in - and at times have contributed to - the toxic white culture these men [Adam Rapoport, former Editor in Chief of Bon Appetit ("BA"), and Matt Duckor, former head of video at Conde Nast, both of whom have now resigned due to past racist behavior documented on their personal social media] and many others have cultivated at BA. Like so many Asian Americans given some level of power and voice within predominantly white institutions, I haven't checked a system I benefited from at the expense of other BPOC colleagues."

By her own account, Ms. Chaey has not been given a raise or promotion since she was hired in 2017 as an associate editor at BA for a salary of $68,000. In other words, it does not appear she had any real power within the company.

The question was reinforced in my mind when I encountered Connie Wang's recent article in Refinery29, titled "The 'Grateful to be Here' Generation has Some Apologizing to Do." The thesis is, essentially, this:
We — older millennials in media who I call the Grateful Generation  — saw as national protests against the World Trade Organization, Wall Street, and the Iraq War flared up and then flamed out, making leftist collective action seem like a historical magic trick and not a reliable modern tool for change. The 9-5 and Working Girl of our era was The Devil Wears Prada, which taught us that the best way to deal with a bad boss and a toxic workplace is to quit. But, if quitting wasn't an option — either because we cared too much about our careers or lacked the funds to just stop working — we were supposed to find ways to exist within the broken system, by heeding the unspoken rules, watching our own backs, and privately fixing things when they went wrong. Along the way, many of us did more than just survive a bad situation. We learned how to thrive within these environments, becoming devils ourselves. We, the Grateful Generation, owe you younger people in the room an apology . . . . 
In particular, Black women at workplaces like The New York Times, Conde Nast, and Refinery29 are sparking changes that will benefit everyone. Let’s keep in mind that the things being asked for are simple dignities: a decent and equitable wage for work, a properly functioning HR, and the space to do their jobs without fear of being harassed. If achieved, it’ll be because Black women, WOC, and their allies have ignored these unspoken rules to take care of things in public as well as behind closed doors. The least institutionally empowered among us will have uplifted everyone. 
The gratitude I feel about those who risk retaliation and lost future work knocks me off my feet. In my career, I have mostly felt at the mercy of systems larger than myself. The antidote to that small feeling is linking arms with Black women. It gives me the confidence that we are more powerful than any institution. 
Per her LinkedIn, Ms. Wang has worked at Refinery29 for just over a decade. I don't know how much power within the company - or lack of it - might accompany her current role. She adds, in discussing the comments to this article:

Somewhat relatedly, there's Prachi Gupta's article, reflecting further on the discrimination she experienced while writing for Cosmopolitan's website and the performance of gratitude that was expected of her while she worked there. (This article is not framed around feeling obligated to apologize.) 
But when I began to ask for equal benefits that reflected my labor—when I asked for comp time equivalent to what my white colleagues already received; when I attempted to negotiate a raise; when I sought to promote the work I was doing on TV and Twitter in the ways that political journalists did, I was reprimanded. I was called into a meeting with the site’s then-editor. The calendar invitation called the meeting “2016 publicity/coverage.” Instead, it was an ambush. 
Among the many things said in that meeting, the site editor told me that I was lazy, that I was rude, that I developed a bad reputation at Hearst and that I was sabotaging my career. She told me that I needed to ask for my editor’s permission to eat, and if she said I couldn’t, then I was not allowed to eat. She told me that I was not allowed to ask for comp time or attempt to negotiate it; she told me I should have been thankful for the two percent raise I received, which had been decided without a review or discussion that included me, and to my knowledge, put my salary just shy of what my white woman predecessor had made years earlier. When I attempted to seek clarification or to defend myself from these personal attacks, she told me that I should be thankful for the feedback that I received, and to say nothing else. During the litany of verbal abuse, I cried, and then I apologized for crying and said I knew it was unprofessional of me to do so. 
According to the notes I took following the meeting, she also told me: “You should be grateful you work here. It is a privilege to work here, and don’t forget that.”

Media is, clearly, a very different industry from law, in too many ways to count. Among other things, given typical higher education timelines - three years of law school generally being required - the oldest Gen Z-ers are only just now starting to enter the profession. (It's also looking somewhat likely that their entry into the profession may be seriously delayed by postponed law firm start dates, an otherwise disrupted job market, and COVID-19 disruptions to state bar exams.)

And well, for the most part, prominent biglaw firms - with isolated noteworthy exceptions - have a transparent, standardized salary scale, with all associates of a particular class year being paid the same. We are absolutely not all treated equally, but no matter what indignities are heaped upon you as a non-male or non-white associate, at least the firm is generally giving you the same base salary your more favored peers are getting. (There are quite a number of ways implicit bias can affect year-end bonus amounts. Depending on the firm, there are sometimes discretionary additions or subtractions from each associate's year-end bonus.)

I'm somewhat confident no one my age - I'll be 32 this year - has yet attained meaningful power in their biglaw firm, which only really starts to happen when one gets to equity partnership. People my age who went straight to law school - and who started work promptly upon graduation - are seventh-year associates now if they're still in biglaw. Historically, I think that's around the earliest possible year people start getting considered for partnership, though I believe typical timelines for getting to equity partnership are now a bit longer than that.

Mid-level or senior associates have some supervisory authority over more junior associates on larger teams, which does come with some power to contribute to those juniors' performance reviews. At my first firm, the power to write reviews did not come until one's third year. (I didn't get close to that milestone, I left just before the end of my first year.) Theoretically, in one's second or third year, one might also start interviewing law students during the on-campus recruiting process. But I had it on good authority that my first firm placed zero weight on feedback from associate interviewers. If the partners wanted to extend an offer, no amount of negative associate feedback would cancel that out. That's about it for the power someone my age might have in a large law firm, and I never personally attained even that.

I've previously alluded to feeling some guilt about how brief my time in biglaw was, how I was - in making the choice to leave after a little less than a year, an insufficient amount of time to gain much in the way of experience or authority - failing to fulfill a certain duty to future generations of nonwhite attorneys like me, a duty to persist in a profession that is very much still an old boys' club. Throughout my time in law school and since graduation, I have done my utmost to be a good ally and mentor to anyone who asks for my advice or assistance, a group that's almost entirely comprised of women, most of them nonwhite. But because the path I've taken is not considered particularly aspirational in our professional circles, people have not clamored for my help.

If it could be fairly said that someone like me is nonetheless complicit in reinforcing the old boys' club nature of my profession, in connection with my first workplace, I would certainly be... troubled, and distressed. Alas, this is another of those topics where I don't have anything resembling an actual answer.

I'm also not sure how optimistic I am about whether the profession is likely to change significantly over time. There's an Instagram account collecting stories about racism at Harvard Law and the experiences of Black students and other non-white students there. The stories about racism from other students ring very true to my experience at my law school. These are some of the future "best and brightest" of the profession.

There is also one story so far about an Asian-American student's experience at a biglaw firm, likely taking place while they were a summer associate, which sounds extremely typical (part two is about their career services office's response, which is also typical). I'm aware of dozens of stories like this, including a good number from my close friends. I have a few of my own, though none of my stories involving firm partners rise quite to this level.

I'm particularly shocked and appalled by the stories of overt racism from professors teaching core 1L classes there. (One typically does not get to choose which professors one takes for those classes.) I'm not personally aware of anything similar to the worst stories about professor behavior at Harvard taking place at my law school alma mater while I was there. 

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