Interviews: My Bane and My Gain

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Illustrations by Neha Lee

My early 20’s was a major period of growth. I left my family home when I was 21 with a BFA in Visual Arts and was embarking on my next educational endeavor, my MFA in Graphic Design in San Francisco. I went from asking my parents permission to buy a bag of chips to suddenly making decisions on my own now. Big decisions, Life changing decisions. The American Dream… It was now within my reach.

The next three years were the most difficult years of my life. They were trying, challenging, demanding, exhausting but exciting. I learnt so much not just academically or about the world but about myself. A rediscovery of who I actually was as a person. What colors did I really like? Did I dislike reading or was I forced to read books that didn’t interest me? What music did I enjoy? Did I like to wear my hair down or was that something I did because I was told that was considered “beautiful” or “correct”? I had to reflect and think deeply about myself, my characteristics and my values. I eventually matured and became the person I am today.

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I graduated with my Masters in December, 2016. Since there were changes in my Master’s program we were not given a showcase like the other departments in the school. We didn’t have the opportunity to exhibit our work and no industry professionals or recruiters came to see what we had to bring to the table. At the end of my final semester, we were told to bring in our portfolios, check in with our professors and viola, just like that we were done. Of course this bothered me but I was so excited to get out, share my talents, work with agencies, be able to financial support myself and finally stop being a burden to my amazing parents. I was on a student VISA. I was on a timeline: Three months to find a job that related directly to my degree or leave the country. Three months! That’s plenty of time….right?

Remember when I said 2014–2016 were the hardest years of my life? Well, scratch that. The next three months after graduating in 2017 were the most arduous, anxious, taxing, and, emotionally fatiguing months of my life. I grew up only hearing about positive stories- graduating, getting recruited, getting a job and being successful. Surely, this would happen to me. I proudly thought that this would be my story as well! Spoiler: Yes, I eventually got a job but I only after I had applied to over a thousand design positions, went for 70+ interviews, had 200+ phone interviews, handed out 500 printed resumes around the Bay Area, and wrote over a thousand cover letters. This, this is where my story really begins.

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San Francisco has a rich history of art, progressive thinking, innovation and culture. A city filled with writers, artists, musicians, immigrants and intellectuals. Yes, if and only if you can afford to live here. The city no longer has a place for budding artists- this was a harsh lesson for me to learn. I was so caught up with my education and self growth that I didn’t even think about the possibility of this amazing city NOT having a place for someone like me. The Bay Area, land of abundance, and endless job opportunities. Right? Well, the answer is yes, if you’re white, if you are a tech professional, if you’re an engineer, if you’ve graduated from an ivy-league school, and if you’re NOT in need of a VISA.

I learnt over a span of 3 challenging months that just because a major tech company has 10 designs positions open that doesn’t mean that they are actually looking to hire anyone anytime soon. I understood that just because a job description said “We do VISA’s” doesn’t mean that they are WILLING to do your visa. I have seen the same job opportunities reopen multiple times in a single year without it being filled. I observed the incompetencies and inner biases of many HR departments. Some of my worst screening interviews were held by HR professionals who were white, female and American. Not so shocking considering I am brown woman before I am anything else when I walk into a room. I have had recruiters in the past who’ve told me that my rate of $45/hour was too high and these same recruiters have told white candidates I know that $75/hour was totally acceptable even though the candidate had only 3 years of experience at the time and a Bachelors while I had 5 years and a Masters. Is this the recruiter’s internal bias or is this insider information as to what companies are willing to pay white candidates and POC candidates? If I knew then what I know now, I’m sure I would have had a different approach but those mistakes have led me to my current successes.

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Now, the important stuff. What are topics that are illegal to talk about during an interview? Good question! I’m not an attorney but topics regarding race, color, national origin, religion, citizenship, pregnancy status, number of children, age, marital status, and finally sexual orientation are pretty illegal.

Here’s a list of racist questions I have been asked during my many interviews:

  1. Your skin tone… it’s very.. tan. Where are you originally from? Like really?
  2. You’re so exotic looking, your accent..it’s different, let me guess, you’re not from here?
  3. You are one of our most intriguing candidates. Is this your natural hair? Do you color it? Do you have any European blood?
  4. You wear really bright clothing for someone of your color but it SUITS you. I personally wouldn’t recommend it.
  5. You are chubby for a brown girl. Are you going to do an arranged marriage anytime soon?
  6. Are you Mexican? LatinX! Must be exciting to be brown right now!
  7. Are you Indian? I love curry. I make my own chutney. You don’t sound like an Indian though. Are you Indian?
  8. You seem too culturally different to fit into our company. We usually have trouble with our brown employees. It would be different if you were Black or Mexican! Haha! There IS such a thing as too many Indians.
  9. I see you studied in India on your resume. Was this a spiritual journey? Are you from India?… because you smell very pleasant.
  10. We are looking to broaden our diversity at our company. We have Blacks, Mexicans and Asians. We are looking for Indians- specifically South Asian. Your color says that you fall into this category. Oh wait, are you Hawaiian? That would be awesome for us!

Here’s a list of inappropriate and illegal questions I have been asked during my many interviews:

  1. You look a little busty. Are you pregnant?
  2. Are you planning to have children in the next 2 years? If yes, we don’t advise that.
  3. What is your citizenship exactly? Hold multiple passports? Must be great to travel!
  4. How old are you exactly? 22? 23? Don’t tell me you’re over 25? That won’t be a good look for us. Young startups need to stay young!
  5. Are you an emotional person? Our Team is pretty white and can say things without thinking. Just a heads up.
  6. So would you feel comfortable leading a team? I know some women can feel weak or vulnerable in this position.
  7. Are you married? Our bosses prefer married women, less of a distraction if you know what I mean.
  8. Your salary demands are pretty high. Do you think a woman and someone that looks like you can ask for so much?
  9. Design huh? Why not engineering? Aren’t Indians just engineers, IT or doctors? And you’re a woman! Oh man, arranged marriage huh?
  10. Are you “Hindi”? I once dated a “Hindi” girl. I can check that off the list now. Boom.
  11. What are your thoughts on weight loss? Would you be open to it? You have a great face and personality that would fit into this company so well. We like our employees to look “healthier” though.
  12. Do you always wear lipstick? It sends the wrong message to the men at the workplace *gestures a blow job*. Would you be open to wearing a neutral color or a lip balm instead.
  13. Tattoos huh? *whispers* Were you a wild child? Lots of boyfriends.. girlfriends *winks*?
  14. What are your thoughts on activism? Do you post about politics or religion? We would prefer if our employees stayed neutral on these matters. It makes life easier for me.
  15. Wow, a Masters? You Indians are overachievers.
  16. Brown families can be difficult, right? Do they have a problem with your appearance?
  17. Your resume doesn’t match your appearance. Impressive.
  18. Colored hair huh? Edgy. You must have been a difficult teen or are you just creative?
  19. Love your jacket and all the pins! So creative. Being brown must have made you a creative person! So Lucky!
  20. So, you want to get dinner with me sometime ?
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As hilarious, absurd, shocking and terribly offensive some of these questions were, I was hurt. Very very deeply. How do you even respond to questions like these? I was so flustered! Whenever someone asked me “How was the interview?” I would say, “I don’t want to talk about it” because I was unsure how to even talk about it. I haven’t been able to publicly speak about this or even write about it and if you know me, you know that this is unlike me.

This is difficult for me to talk about since I was blind to a lot of the discriminations I was experiencing for years. I needed to SEE what was really happening around me. I was so happy to experience and enjoy all my new freedoms in this country that major faux-pas were overlooked. How did my white classmates find fantastic jobs in a matter of days? How come they only interviewed at 5 places and got multiple offers ? Why were my white colleagues with less work experience earning so much more than me? Why were my white design acquaintances able to charge upto 50% more than what I was charging? Why were my white co-workers getting promoted within months of joining and I was staying in the same stagnant position? Everyone is SO NICE to me? It can’t be racism…. can it?

I have an extremely open and happy relationship with my family but I haven’t been able to talk about this with them. I was so embarrassed and ashamed that it prevented me from telling anyone since I was afraid of being judged. It is only recently that I have been able to share bits and pieces of these awful experiences with trusted friends and my husband. I had to think about these words and these interviews for three years and let them bubble, boil and fester. Of course I have had some amazing interviews and inspiring experiences but I’ve had so many bad ones that the thought of an interview irks me!

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I am lucky enough to be my own company now. A freelancer. A contractor. A remote employee, whatever you want to call it. I am very rarely interviewed by HR (deep sighs): I apply for a job, usually approached by a fellow designer, have conversations with design teams or VP’s of design, agree on a rate, sign a contract and start working. I am lucky enough to be able to work without relying on a company for a VISA and live without the anxiety of losing my job. I have lost a job in the past because of my need for a VISA (which is very illegal, by the way). I was promised a VISA… They kept me motivated by dangling it in front of my face like a carrot and when it started becoming inconvenient for them the rug was pulled from under my feet overnight and I was “Laid off” without any notice. Maybe I will write about this someday but for now I’ve said enough.

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Visual Story Teller.

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