There is something about being young and Black and educated that either draws folks in or makes them run in the opposite direction.

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To understand that, there are certain concepts that must be explained:

  • “Internalized” means adopting learned behaviors and attitudes. Internalization can also be described as unconscious assimilation.
  • “Assimilation” is what minorities do to survive in a white male-dominated world. Assimilation is simply the act of becoming similar to something and, in the case of receiving young, Black, educated Americans, it often means being prejudiced, hypercritical and dismissive — as your white counterparts might.
  • Another concept that was birthed due to the white male-dominated world we live in is “colorism.” Colorism is technically defined as discrimination against those with a darker skin tone, usually within the same ethnic group. This of course was a survival tactic and now is an implicit bias too many of us have or have been the victim of.

So when someone named Sarah, who has lived in Italy, has run for city council in a capital city, who has a degree from a private Catholic institution walks into an interview and turns out to be a 5’8” dark-skinned, natural-haired Black woman in heels and a suit, people’s responses can range from intimidation or admiration to skepticism or even disgust.

I’m Sarah.

When I graduated from Duquesne University with a degree in corporate communication, I came home to central Pennsylvania without any prospects. My father — who was also looking for a job at the time and has a lengthy and impressive resume ever since he left the NFL and got his master’s degree in business administration — thought it ridiculous I couldn’t find work. He told me I am the demographic corporate America wants so desperately: How could we both be out of a job?

And yet, I walked into interviews time and time again for various levels of jobs with diverse groups of hiring managers only to hear new versions and layers of suspicion about my abilities to assimilate.

Too much and not enough

My attempts at employment in and around New York City were disheartening. From receptionist positions in Midtown and hostess gigs in Hell’s Kitchen to community engagement roles for minority-owned cafes, I couldn’t fit the mold of what was expected of me.

“Wow you’ve done so much. I am truly impressed with your background … but how do you think you’ll manage behind a receptionist desk? Not calling the shots?” I sat across from three white women in this lovely hedge fund office in Manhattan, annoyed because I realized after they finished “picking my brain” on my run for office, I had just scared them out of hiring me.

I eventually moved back to Pittsburgh, optimistic about finding full-time work in the city of my alma mater.

“No one warns you of this in college. No one tells you as a Black woman, as a dark-skinned Black woman, as a pretty dark-skinned Black woman, you will be facing implicit biases that truly don’t even make sense.”

Excited about getting my first second interview in almost a year, I tried to present myself in the best way I knew how. I showed up in a suit with a pair of pink nude heels.

With his hands, the only Black man on the three-member interview panel motioned to his blue hoodie and jeans that were accompanied by a pair of Jordans.

“Are you able to dress how you’re dressed now and show up tomorrow in what I’m wearing?”

I couldn’t even be trusted to adapt my workwear to the job at hand. Had I not worn the suit, would I have been billed as disrespectful, not taking it seriously enough?

No one warns you of this in college. No one tells you as a Black woman, as a dark-skinned Black woman, as a pretty dark-skinned Black woman, you will be facing implicit biases that truly don’t even make sense. No one tells you how to keep your sanity intact while everyone you work with insults your intelligence, broadcasts hurtful biases or simply ignores your existence. And that is if and only if you actually get hired.

The intersection of bias and virtual work

My first big girl job out of college was working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. After months of interviewing and networking and handing out my resume whenever it made sense to do so, I was able to get a job. I was a research analyst, and it lasted six months.

My boss was the only other Black-presenting woman in the office besides myself, though she was multiracial and lighter skinned than me.

Before the transition to virtual work due to COVID, I had discussed with her how she was responding to my questions — that I felt like she was being condescending or not receiving my concerns as legitimate and assumed I was overthinking. She corrected herself. I was coming in on time every day, usually before she walked in with breakfast. I had produced a research memo that later on became legislation and she congratulated me. But all of that was in the office.

Once COVID hit, we all had to work from home. My boss started emailing me, questioning whether I was actually using the full eight hours of the day to work. My requests for clarification on assignments led her to the conclusion that I clearly cannot follow instructions. I was soon put on a professional improvement plan.

“I need folks with morals; I need to work for and with people who don't have a capitalist mindset, who are capable of showing empathy to employees, who have faith in an equitable future, who believe and trust Black women.”

I turned to my coworkers. I had been hired alongside three white recent grads and thought surely if I sent my memos to them for review first, before the managers, the red marks would lessen. I was wrong. I was ultimately terminated.

Termination unfortunately is not a foreign concept to me anymore, but all work environments have helped me learn what kind of non-negotiables I have when it comes to future employment. I need dreamers; I need folks with morals; I need to work for and with people who don't have a capitalist mindset, who are capable of showing empathy to employees, who have faith in an equitable future, who believe and trust Black women.

A future in Pittsburgh

I was recently offered a position — my first full-time position with a salary and benefits and no time sheet in three years. This position was offered to me after I didn’t get another role I was actually interviewing for. The CEO of this nonprofit told me she saw herself in me: a young, ambitious Black woman who was getting blocked from jobs because of who she was and what she represented. I burst into tears hearing that because you go through it so much you begin to think you’re crazy.

You can only blame yourself for so long. Make connections, continue to network, keep your values close and self-respect closer. Because so often, it is truly about who you know and not what you bring to the table. Because if it comes in a package that employers find uncomfortable, it won’t be well received, and that’s not your fault.

Sarah Gethers. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)
Sarah Gethers. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

I think it is so critical for people to genuinely see race. See race in all intersections of life and what kind of thoughts and feelings and assumptions are made because of it.

You see a Black guy that is leading a community; do you think he deserves it or do you think he is filling a quota? You see a woman packing up her things from her desk; do you think she did something aggressive or self-destructive that led to that? When you experience a dark-skinned woman voicing her thoughts and ideas, do you think she’s being too aggressive or challenging?

People have got to start digging deep and asking why they think the way they do, and realize that there is so much power and influence in allowing those implicit biases to guide your decision-making.

Sarah Gethers is a member of Macedonia Church of Pittsburgh, an aspiring screenwriter and lover of Steven Universe. If you want to write to Sarah, email firstperson@rtvsrece.com.

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