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Talking About Race, Social Justice, and Equity as a Person of Color During a Job Interview

Four individual photos lined up horizontally of people caught in the middle of conversation.
Image Description: Four individual photos lined up horizontally of people caught in the middle of conversation.

Over two years ago, during my interview at RVC, I was asked “RVC’s work centers on communities of color. How would you ensure your capacity-building approach is equitable?” This question was a bit intimidating at the time. But it was a question I thought was necessary and a question I was glad to be asked.

These past couple of months at RVC, along with our partners, we’ve been preparing to select a new cohort of fellows, we asked every candidate a variation of the above question. I’m sure I’m giving away an interview question (sorry team), but that question provides us a lot of insight into a candidate’s racial and equity analysis.

In this post I hope to encourage people of color to do both the deep introspective work of understanding our own journey to consciousness around oppression and being clear about the positions we express in critiquing power, privilege, and oppression during job interviews. We often battle with our internal fears of “how will me being vocal affect my interview process or getting the position?” or “how will the hiring person/panel perceive me?” My hope is to be able to provide some encouragement and ways for candidates to feel comfortable and confident in answering these difficult questions around race and oppression during an interview process.

As RVC went through our hiring process, we had candidates that had great analysis, some that were on a journey to deepening that analysis, and a few that shied away from directly answering that question. Again, it’s a difficult question. We still live in a world where we’ve been conditioned to be careful about how we talk about race, oppression, privilege, and power. We still face consequences that can have detrimental impact on our livelihood–not being offered a job, being ostracized, called too angry, too subjective, invalidating our lived experiences, even imprisonment in some cases. It can be a scary place to be when asked to express your position on race and oppression.

However, the conversation is changing. I know it may not seem like it at the moment under the current political climate, particularly here in the US, but it is. Race, equity, and social justice are becoming driving forces across sectors. In Seattle,  city government has been working to implement race  and social justice measures throughout every department. In the tech industry, there have been growing conversation on inclusion and the creation of diversity and inclusion efforts.  Similarly, in education policy and access critical questions are being raised and people are pushing for equitable policies. And of course, racial equity and inclusion has been a driving force in the nonprofit sector for a few years now. It’s becoming increasingly important for people of color and those most impacted by oppression directly to lead, own that conversation, and the solutions.

Having an analysis that is true to you, your lived experience, and contextualized understanding is needed. How you navigate through the world and your interactions with systems and institutions are valid forms of knowledge. The idea that lived experience is not a reasonable base of knowledge is a tool that has been used to limit groups that have been oppressed and continue to be oppressed.

This lived experience in combination with an examination of larger systems is crucial in a time ripe for transformation. So look at how your experience as a person that has been at the margins has shaped your chances at a healthy, thriving, choice filled life in relations to external systems forces. Use that as a foundation to connect to larger, shared experiences–whether that is race, class, ability, gender, gender expression, sexuality, access and opportunity, and other factors that shape how we’re able to navigate through this world. Melissa Harris-Perry, a Black woman writer, professor, and many other things, put it best in saying that to help construct an analysis, “personal experience is a great place to generate your hypothesis, but a lousy place to test them.” As mentioned before, examine your personal experience within the context of a shared experience with others, in relation to systems and power, and in accumulation of history. Because we didn’t just arrive here.These systems and powers were not just created yesterday.

My answer to that question during my RVC interview was not as refined as it is now having learned so much. But essentially, I expressed my thoughts that my identity as a Black, African, Ethiopian immigrant woman from a working class family and background has influenced my lens. In my role to ensure our capacity building approach is equitable, I look at the situation from the perspective of those most impacted and learn from them, take cue from them, and stand along side and when fitting behind them. I also expressed my experience within the East African community and all our complexities and nuances. I spoke to my understanding of how systems and power have impacted the distribution of resources, the misrepresentation of narratives, the false construction of race as a tool that pits those that are oppressed and marginalized against each other instead of working together to change it.

This work for racial equity, to end systemic oppression, and shift the power dynamics from the power to control many by the minority, to creating a world that allows everyone to thrive is work that is necessary and significant. Your experience and understanding as someone that both experiences it daily and can articulate that experience in connection to larger narratives and power is profoundly important.

With that said, during the interview process, as a person of color, be as precise and clear as possible about your personal experience and journey to understanding power, privilege, and oppression. Express the things that have informed your understanding, share the stories that have impacted you most, talk about the doors that were slammed because of bias, and the information that has supported your growth in raising your consciousness of all of forms of oppression. For me they have been elders, Black and Brown thinkers, writers, organizers, often times social media, Undoing Institutional Racism trainings, and folks that have held me accountable when I have contributed to the oppression and suffering of people, the deep and honest conversations I consistently have with friends, and most importantly listening to those who experience different forms of oppression than my own.

I would love to hear from you and your experience in talking about race, equity, oppression, social justice, and other difficult subjects in an interview setting. What have been some of the learnings for you and the moments that have contributed to your awakening? How do you bridge the challenges of having to be vulnerable in talking about your personal experience and openly examining systems of power in the context of a job interview?

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