Ethnic minority schemes: is positive discrimination really positive?

Ethnic minority is the theme of a standing joke at home between myself and my husband. Whenever I see a job ad welcoming applications from “members from the ethnic minority groups”, he says, “It’s for you. Go for it.” And my stock answer is an indignant, “But I’m not ethnic minority.” It makes him laugh that I am so reluctant of being called “minority”.

Bizarrely, as a child, growing up in Brazil as a second-generation Japanese Brazilian I was always conscious of being “different”, the odd one out, the kid that never quite blended in in a classroom. When I went to work in Japan, I was relieved not to stand out in a crowd at last. But the physical alienness was only replaced by one of psychological ostracism, as,  being a Brazlian at heart, I felt very much a foreigner in my thoughts and values among the Japanese.

I had to come to terms then that wherever I went, East or West, I would never be quite the same as the natives in the land. When you grow up on the borderline between multiple cultures you don’t belong anywhere, and at the same time, you are a citizen of the world. Some will respect you that much more for it; others will make sure you know your place and stick to it, ie always on the outside looking in.

Fairy tale of gypsy girl in a wagon
This week the news that a journalism graduate, who was a former “gypsy”, was awarded a traineeship at The Guardian and had a four-page feature published in G2 struck a chord with me.

Roxy Freeman, now 30, came from a traveller family and grew up in a horse-drawn wagon for a home with nine other siblings, roaming round Ireland, with no formal schooling until age 22. Her only educational credits are an Open University degree and a diploma in journalism obtained  at the same training centre in Brighton where I studied last year.

Considering that travellers are one of the most hated, contemptuously discriminated and abused minority groups in this country, I felt like giving Roxy a standing ovation for her admirable feat. The published feature, “My restless Gypsy life“, is her own life story so far, which she tells with disarming candidness and, surprisingly, not an ounce of bitterness  against anyone who may  have once slighted her. Proof that living as an outsider can help you acquire wholesomeness as a person in a way a school can never do.

According to an article posted in HoldtheFrontPage.co.uk, Roxy got a work placement thorugh The Guardian’s Postive Action Scheme, which “supports journalists from ethnic minorities”.

Daily Mail goes ethnic
This immediately reminded me that, last summer, the Daily Mail started recruiting young applicants from ethnic minority groups for their annual Young Journalist of the Year prize, which included a week’s internship at the Daily Mail and £500 in cash.

There was a lot of jeering on Twitter at the time. A web editor of a regional newspaper I “follow” sarcastically tweeted: “The Daily Mail wants a brown face on their front page.”

It was unfortunate that this initiative was associated with a redtop better known for its right-wing views on immigration and foreigners in general. The Daily Mail may have used it as a publicity stunt to undo some of the negative PR it regularly receives, but the original intent of the award is supposedly to encourage diversity in journalism. Details on the GG2 Young Journalist of the Year Award can be found in the PDF document within this link.

My question is: are such awards really that positive a step towards including the excluded at a time when journalism has been found guilty of being an elitist and exclusive profession of the middle-classes? (I have written a little about this in my previous posting here and in Journalism.co.uk: Journalism: an aspiration soley for the elite).

Women, the ethnic minority of publishing
When I used to work in publishing, I always felt slightly irritated by the existence of the Orange Prize for Fiction aimed exclusively at female writers when there isn’t a men-only one. It is ironic then that the Man Booker is for both sexes, but doesn’t a unisex prize suffice? Or could there be a sinister, male-chauvinistic and condescending flip side to the Orange Prize, which implies women authors are not good enough for the Booker and therefore need to be evaluated separately?

Could it be that women, like ethnic minorities, are considered under-privileged in some way, and need that “little push” to come to the limelight?

Don’t get me wrong. I am delighted that lady writers are being given the opportunity of winning a prestigious literary award that could help boost the sales of their books, but unlike in sport, where there is an obvious difference in physical strength between males and females, I struggle to accept the idea that women need to be placed in a category of their own.

A little help from your friends
Awards  and traineeship schemes for ethnic minority journalism graduates are excellent initiatives, without which someone like Roxy may never have got her foot in the door. At least not so fast. It gives them that little edge over the others, who may not have to fight so hard against discrimination to get that first job.

Roxy’s story made me suddenly wonder if any of my job application rejections in the past was in any way influenced by my being of Japanese origin, even though a candidate’s racial discrimination is officially illegal.

I recall now that when I changed my family name to Elliott, after my marriage, I felt much more confident introducing myself by name to people I was interviewing.

I realised, in shock, that I had sub-consciously imagined people would never believe someone with a foreign name could write a story in decent English, let alone for a newspaper.

As with appearance, people make judgements based on your name. If you have a double-barrelled name, that is an indication of a privileged status. If you are a Smith, you are nondescript. A Rothchild means a free pass in life. A foreign name and people are immediately suspicious as they cannot pigeonhole you in a category they can easily understand and rate.

Roxy had a blank space on her application form under “education”, which provoked frawns and dirty looks.  Now her CV will say “trainee at The Guardian”. “Features published in The Guardian.” Who will dare refuse her an opportunity? Good on her.

Pride can takes you places
Yet, just as I have my gripe against literary prizes for lady authors, I cannot help but dislike the thought that any minority group should need the “protection” of the state or of private companies when they are just as capable of great achievements as anyone else.

Maybe I am too proud.

Maybe because of my pride I do not feel comfortable being classed as ethnic minority because that feels a bit like second-class citizenship. I  remember that as a child I worked twice as hard as any Brazilian kid at school just to prove that I might be “a Jap with slits for eyes”, as a bully at school once told me, but academically I could outshine them any day.

In fact, many ethnic minority children grow up to become grand figures in history exactly because they had their prides to defend and a point to prove. Hardship gives you chutzpah.

Did you see where that little half-cast boy called Barack ended?

I will make a concession and accept that they –correction, we – we at times do need a little help from our friends. It may not be so bad after all to be granted special opportunities and schemes for being  under-recognised and under-represented in a certain community. 

What saddens me is that we live in a society where discrimination and social inequality are so rampant that, without the extra help, it is still difficult for some of us to jump off that travelling wagon onto the bandwagon of security and success, which should be our birthright.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Ethnic minority schemes: is positive discrimination really positive?

  1. Hey Chie,

    Nicely put. And it is a very interesting subject I have been thinking of writing a piece on whether being “different” is helpful or destructive in this highly competitive world. As you say I wouldn’t have got the internship at The Guardian and made the contacts to get my piece published if my life had followed a “normal” path.

    I must say though that the past couple of months is the first time in my life I have been open about my background and received a positive response. which is very refreshing!

    I’m touched by your kind words and really pleased you enjoyed my article. I hope to write many more, about other people and things though, not about me.

    x

    Like

    • I am sure any articles you write about “other people and things” in future will be that much more interesting for having the weight of double perspective – both as an insider and an outsider.
      Wishing you much success, Roxy. Thank you for leaving a comment. 🙂

      Like

  2. UK Employment law allows discrimination to an extent in some areas. Generally you can’t discriminate on race, age (older range), disability (if you employ over 5 people) or gender; however, you can discriminate on “genuine occupational requirement or qualification”.

    For example… you can choose to only employ chinese people at a chinese restaurant; you can discriminate anyone who isn’t a Christian for a christian charity (although its aims might be generic and not directly about religion).

    You can’t however choose only White British people in a Fish and Chip shop or fast food.

    In theory (although likely to be challenged at a tribunal) it is lawful to refuse an opportunity of employment based on race, sexuality or gender if the other employees are severely racist, homophobic or sexist where it can be proved that it is an “occupational requirement”.

    Positive discrimination is done by most councils where disabled people are guaranteed an interview (although may not be suitable for the job based solely on their skills and experience). Its unfair! lol

    Like

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