29 October 2010

Not A Good Cultural Fit

Yesterday I was talking with an adjunct instructor at my main job.  He's a few years older than I am and completed his PhD several years ago after spending decades as a labor journalist.

If he knew then what he knew now, he says, he wouldn't have invested the time and money he spent in pursuit of that degree.  He knew the market for PhDs in English was tight even before the current depression hit; what he didn't realize, he laments, was just how competitive it is.

What makes things more difficult still for him is, in addition to his age, his race.  He's a fair-skinned black man and finds that he experiences prejudice, not only from whites, but from blacks who don't think he's "black enough."  

He said something I hadn't expected to hear from him:  that the so-called Affirmative Action laws aren't necessarily making things better for members of the groups they're supposed to protect.  It's almost a cliche to say that charges of discrimination are difficult to prove, as the interviewer or supervisor who commits the offense is most likely to do so in the absence of witnesses.  But what's even more pernicious is the "coded language" would-be employers employ.  They use terms like "cultural fit" , or say that someone "wouldn't fit into the culture" of the organizartion when they can't come up for another legal way to exclude someone who looks, or is in some other way, different from what they expected to see.

When you get past a certain age, it becomes more difficult to fit into the culture, whatever that means, of any organization. And having certain life experiences--like the ones that so often accompany being a person of color or a member of the LGBT community.  

It's not that we don't want to learn or adapt.  We don't even get the chance to do that because some would-be employers are convinced, or convince themselves, that we ca't do those things.  Or they don't want to know that we're capable, possibly because it might challenge that upon which they have based their careers and lives.

Now, as for which culture I or my colleage would fit into...