You see, I don’t want to hurt my business
I am a black woman. I went to university in Toronto, Canada, and came back home to Switzerland after I obtained my degree in sociology and mass communications. At the time, I dreamed of becoming a reporter. There were very few jobs in that space in Switzerland, and the ones available were given to white Swiss people. When the only mixed-race presenter was fired from national TV because of low ratings due to the fact that she was black, I lost all hope of ever working in media in Switzerland. I looked for other alternatives.
One day, however, I opened the newspaper and saw an advertisement for an editor for a group of English language magazines based in Montreux, Switzerland. I was eager to apply for the role because they were looking for someone who could write both in English and in French. That was something I mastered well so I sent in my application with a stellar cover letter. A few days later, Elena, the publisher reached out to me.
“I’d like to invite you in for a job interview Mrs. Stevens. Your qualifications match what I am looking for”, she said over the phone.
I was beaming from ear to ear. I was finally going to be able to work in a field that I loved. The night before the interview I couldn’t sleep. I was very excited.
The next day, my husband Oscar drove me to Montreux — it was about a 1.5-hour drive away from our home. I realized that if I got the job, it would be a long daily commute, but I was eager to make the compromise as it meant I would get to work in a field I loved.
I got to the interview location. It was an open space office on the ground floor of an apartment building in Montreux. The minute I walked into the room, all eyes were on me. Everyone was white. It was intimidating, but I didn’t let it show.
“I’m here to see Elena Dufour”, I said to the lady sitting right by the entrance.
“Is this for the job interview?” she inquired politely.
“Yes, it’s for the editor role,” I responded.
“Wait here, I’ll go get her”.
I stood by the door, my heart pounding in my chest. Now, everyone seemed lost in their work, nobody looked up. I stood there. Nervous.
A few minutes later, I heard the familiar sound of high heels tapping on a wooden floor on the level above. I looked up to see Elena descending the spiral staircase in the middle of the room. She was stylishly dressed, with long flowing black hair, high cheekbones, and beautiful green eyes framed by fashionable Dior glasses.
“Mrs. Stevens, I’m so glad to meet you. How was the drive up from Geneva?”
“It went very well. Montreux is such a beautiful place. I won’t mind driving up here every day if I’m lucky enough to get this role,” I said.
Elena broke into a wide smile.
I followed her to her office where we spoke for over an hour.
“I’m very impressed with your background,” she said. “You fit the profile of the type of person I am looking for for this role. I have a few more candidates to interview. If you’re shortlisted, you’ll be called in for a second round.
I thanked her for her time and left.
A week later, I got a call from Elena’s office. I was being called in for a second round. I was completely ecstatic and started thinking of ways in which I could improve the publications if I was offered the role.
The second interview went well, I got to meet with other members of the team including the head of marketing and advertising revenue Alain. He didn’t seem to like me, but that didn’t alarm me because if I was hired for the role, I wouldn’t have to work much with him. Despite the passive-aggressive behavior I felt from Alain, I still thought the second interview went pretty well too.
A few days later, Elena called me for a discussion.
“Rebecca, everything about you fits into my company. I just checked your writing samples and they’re really good. You’re a great editor, I think my team will learn a lot from you. Your French is also excellent and I love your passion for writing as well as how proactive you are in sharing ideas for how we can improve these publications more, build a website and increase our ad revenue. You’ll make a great addition but I do have one challenge, you are black and that might bother our customers. Alain alerted me to this just after he met you. We are going to reach out to our customers to ask them if they don’t mind working with a black person. If they don’t, the job is yours. I’ll get back to you in a few days.”
I looked at the phone in shock, I was speechless. So here, I was explicitly being told I had all the qualifications and experience needed for the job, yet I might not get it simply because of the color of my skin. I pondered what I should do: report her for discrimination and lose the opportunity or just wait to see what the verdict of her customers might be? I chose the latter because I really wanted the job. Why would I risk losing it by reporting her for discriminatory behavior? On one end, I suspected there’d be a stressful and perhaps endless court case, and on the other, I’d get to do a job I loved.
The customers said they didn’t mind that I was black and I was hired into the role. It was a good job in that I got to write morning to night about all things Swiss — from watchmaking to banking to cheese to chocolates. A lot of the work focused on promoting Switzerland abroad and the publications were distributed in Swiss hotels, embassies, consulates, and tourism centers. I got to work a lot with Swiss watchmakers, I wrote about their painstakingly meticulously crafted timepieces and won their hearts.
A few years later, Elena had to shut down her publications. She was losing more money than she was making. When she started laying off members of the team, I kept on wondering if I would be the next one. She shared that I’d be the last one to lose my job because, without an editor, she didn’t stand a chance at surviving. Elena and I became great friends and I’d probably still be working for her if her business hadn’t gone under.
Recently, as I thought about this episode in my life, I wondered how many times a black or brown person has not gotten a job because customers or other stakeholders say they do have a problem working with a black person? How many times has a black person missed an opportunity because of something like this?
Yes, if you suspect you didn’t get a job because of racism, there are anti discriminations laws out there to protect you. But most often if you go the legal route, you’ll end up in months and years of court battles. And you’ll suffer double: you won’t get the job and you’ll be waging a battle in court for a long time. And if you live in a place like Switzerland, you’ll get a meager settlement of about a couple of thousand dollars if you win. Why would anyone want to go through such hassle — especially if one needs to provide for one’s family. I suspect, that like me, there are many black and brown people who will simply look past discrimination as being another portion of “tax” that one pays for being black. Few will ever take matters of discrimination to court.
Many of my white friends think that racism is a thing of the past. It isn’t. Even though this story happened to me quite a few years ago, today I still hear that permission is needed to hire black people in certain organizations. It’s a covert type of racism, it’s hidden under layers of performative diversity and inclusion initiatives. It didn’t go away, it still lurks. And unfortunately, white racist employees that uphold white supremacy, see to it that not many black and brown employees are even called in for interviews.
Whenever I have a job interview, I think back to my experience in Montreux. It’s one thing not getting a job because one is unqualified, but it’s another not getting it because one is black. This points to how systemic racism consistently denies opportunities to black and brown people. Whenever I’ve been turned down for a job, I’ve always wondered what the “real” reason is. As a black person one never really quite knows.
If there is one thing that you should take away from this article, it is that we do not yet live in a racism and discrimination-free world. These societal ills still exist but because of the legal consequences that can occur if people are overtly racist, these behaviors are now even more hidden than before. Hidden but in no way absent. Black people still suffer.
How can you help? If you’re in a position where you have influence over a hiring process, make sure there’s a diverse pool of candidates to chose from. If there aren’t, ask your HR team why. Don’t just accept this situation, don’t be complacent. Challenge and question it and do what you can to bring about change.
Thank you for reading my perspective.