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Trouble with the Rules of Engagement

Protocols for demographic affinity
  • May 06 2012

In my previous post, I talked about the joke rule that mandates you can only joke about your own race, gender or ethnicity. Yet, in a recent career advice article, I used American Idol’s Jessica Sanchez as an example of what not to do in a job search. The comments included a heavy dose of "how could a Filipina-American criticize another Filipina-American?"

So, we can make comments, but not critical ones?

At a recent professional women’s event, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, head of the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University, talked about her latest research into sponsorship, noting that executives of color (Blacks, Hispanics and Asians) are hesitant to sponsor up-and-coming executives of color for fear of being seen as playing favorites.

So, while we need to support each other, we can’t look like we’re actually supporting each other?

It’s hard to keep up with all the protocols regarding relating within our own demographic. How are we going to relate with everyone else?

Asians are the fastest growing race group with 46 percent of growth from 2000-2010 according to the 2010 US Census. But Asians are still less than 6 percent of the total population. Are we realistically going to move into the mainstream all by our own bootstraps?

As a career expert, I’ve definitely seen how helpful it can be to use a natural affinity to develop rapport – race, gender, and ethnicity are examples of natural affinities. Maybe Hewlett’s study showed fear of playing favorites, but I’ve seen lots of finger-pointing at the old boys’ network, and they continue to flourish just fine. Besides, could any race, gender or ethnicity show even friendly support without at least some people claiming favoritism is involved? Do we really want to diminish the support just so people think favoritism doesn’t exist?

There are other natural affinities that cut across demographic lines—family status, shared interests, military background, alma mater and Greek life affiliation are just some examples. In 15+ years of corporate life, I’ve seen much more acceptance when someone advocates for an alumnus from their school or a team member from a softball league. We accept this support as good examples of networking. But if the shared connection is built along race, gender or ethnic lines, we cry foul (except when it’s the majority race, gender or ethnicity, then reaction is often resigned acceptance).

When I was a recruiter, I didn’t automatically assume that an Asian referring an Asian was just because of shared race and without other merit. But I can’t control everyone else’s assumptions, and I’m sure you can find people who feel differently. Still, I think the value of embracing a natural affinity outweighs the risk of someone somewhere crying favoritism.

That said, I’ve known Asian employees who steer clear of race affinity groups (and any events relating to the upcoming Asian/ Pacific Heritage month) because they don’t want to call attention to race. For these people, they can still get some benefits of shared affinities by focusing on identifying alumni or the other affinities that cut across demographics. Should these be the affinity groups that companies promote?

Frankly, if we want to be judged on our own merits, apart from race, gender and ethnicity, we need to judge others in this vein as well. I don’t have to be a fan of Jessica Sanchez (or Bruno Mars, Darren Criss or Keanu Reaves) just because they’re Filipino. (Should I just be on the hook for part-time fan since they’re just part Filipino?) I can pick my favorite entertainers just because they appeal to me. Employers can hire the best candidates just because they are the best.  And we can all live happily ever after.

 

Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a co-founder of SixFigureStart and a stand-up comic with Comic Diversity.

 

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