A Person Having Origins
I recently completed a job search, which means I filled out the same job application form a trillion times. That’s a conservative estimate.
Humans are flesh, blood and paperwork — and that Form is the gateway to every above-the-table job in America. First, it requires your name and location.
Then it wants your pronouns, which as a cisgender male always felt like a Press 1 for English exercise. This is a me-issue — it seemed like I was disappointing the Form by always confessing to being a boring, off-the-shelf male.
Entitled and unchallenged, the Form would sneer. Just wait, I would respond in my head, I’ll get more interesting here in a minute. Clapping back at job applications while filling them out is normal and healthy.
But first, military service! Are you active military? Are you a veteran? Soldier, thank you for your service. Alas, I never served. Does that make me a coward? Absolutely not. I’m a coward for other reasons. The Form didn’t need to know.
Then it would list three dozen disabilities, with a caveat that it wasn’t exhaustive. I suffered from…none of them? I scoured the list every time. I was incapable of bending any of the listed conditions to fit my reality.
I couldn’t lie to the Form. Big Pinocchio energy. That should be a disability.
Sports teams release meaningless roster updates all the time, stating injured players are day-to-day. That’s me. I’m not disabled at the moment; check back in 10 minutes. You never know, Form. Death comes for us all.
Then finally, my time to shine: The ancestry section. My big moment of differentiation, for which there was a conspicuous spoiler atop the Form where I first entered my name. Ramzy Nasrallah.
Yeah it’s phonetic, don’t try too hard. My name is Arabic for Diverse Candidate.
Hiring bait. Decades of repeating my name slowly in America, having it chronically misspelled or awkwardly butchered by every teacher on the first day of class (or just turned into Randy) would finally pay off.
My name means Victory of God — and since God is famously undefeated, it loosely translates to Redundant Showboat. If I had been born in, say, Birmingham to fairer parents my surname would have been Godwin. No one with that name has ever had to repeat it or explain it.
It’s just Anglified. Juan is John. Carlos is Charlie. Nasrallah is Godwin.
As I ascended through the American experience being brown and having allah conspicuously printed on my photo ID, I discovered my name translated to Is He a Muslim? Ask if he Celebrates Christmas.
I love Christmas — my ancestors are actually from Jesus’ old neighborhood! Does that make me more Christmassy than the average American? Yes, definitely. I eat Myrrh for breakfast (just kidding, I don’t know what Myrrh is).
The Form’s ancestry section should have been my chance to shine, except there was never an essay or a blank to fill in. It was always multiple choice:
I am a person having origins in the original peoples of the Middle East, or North Africa. The Form likes to keep it simple for hiring managers, so at some point it decided half a billion brown people belonged in the Godwin bucket.
I am white. I want to tell my childhood self what he thinks of that revelation.
The kid pictured atop this essay with the amazing hair was still trying to master remedial English when that photo was taken, since he had originally been taught how to make words in French and Arabic. Surprisingly, neither language was all that useful in Iowa City or later in Columbus, Ohio.
He didn’t know the n-word existed on its own until much later, when he read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and it appeared without sand bolted onto the front of it. Prior to that, the n-word was simply part of a compound nickname he was called at recess, walking home from school or just while existing.
I’m no expert on race or much of anything else, but I have read a few books Mark Twain didn’t write. Black encompasses generations of descendants of African slaves whose lineage and origins were scuttled in the centuries predating the pre-23 & Me era.
Their names were assigned at the point of sale. Black is an educated guess for a continent in the absence of country-level specificity. NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal isn’t Irish despite being named O’Neal and having a mother from Dublin.
Shaq’s mom was born in Dublin, Georgia, right down the street from the precise location where Jefferson Davis ended his reign as the leader of the American Confederacy, a mere 89 years earlier. Same town!
O’Neal was assigned to one of Shaq’s ancestors at some point by their owner, and carried into the present by his descendants. Lucille O’Neal named her children Lateefah, Jamal, Ayesha and Shaquille. Traditional Arabic names.
Which means Shaquille and O’Neal are both white, according to the Form.
It’s tougher in America when you look or sound like you’re from somewhere else, but Black absolutely requires unique elevation on account of the origin story. Comparing my experience as a brown kid is insulting to that history.
I have no American ancestors — my folks flew commercial to get here in the 1970s. My Arabic parents then assigned me my Arabic name. I was only owned figuratively (at recess, by kids who didn’t know better, because kids can be vicious and stupid).
That still doesn’t help me understand how the Middle East and Northern Africa ended up in the Form’s Godwin bucket. The Census tries to explain:
Yeah, I still have no idea. I never chose to identify as a minority — my American experience did that for me. I didn’t think I was different until I was treated that way, repeatedly.
America’s original sin is wrapped around slavery and skin color. but our xenophobia and institutionalized racism bleeds far beyond that. When I graduated from undergrad and cobbled together my first pathetic CV — Name, Bachelors Degree, Highly-Esteemed Hourly Wage Worker at a Fast Food Restaurant — I faxed it to over three dozen companies seeking entry-level corporate employment.
This was in the mid-1990s, shortly before the Form in its current condition was created. I didn’t get a single bite from any of the companies I solicited with that CV. I needed a job, but couldn’t fabricate experience I didn’t have (remember, Big Pinocchio Energy) to make myself more hireable — but I could make one minor, semi-truthful tweak.
I changed my last name to George, which is my real middle name, and re-faxed that version to the same companies. Maybe it was better timing, perhaps it was just a different set of eyeballs seeing my nothing resumé — but six of them who ignored Ramzy Nasrallah decided Ramzy George was worth calling back.
I had successfully whitewashed myself. First and only time I’ve ever done that. Every time since, it’s been the Form whitewashing me on my behalf.
A recruiter ended up introducing me to my first career opportunity, so I never met with any of the six Ramzy George enthusiasts. But that experiment was the beginning of a healthy realization that becoming profitable to Corporate America would supersede the first two words on my CV, and much later, on that Form.
The key to proving your worth is clearing the first wall. And that’s the Form.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is not some trendy, woke campaign. DEI has an unassailable business case supporting it that delivers superior metrics in every measurable category, and the companies who execute it properly put more distance between themselves and their rivals who do not. It’s a profit motive.
The irony is the Form uses antiquated Census buckets as its DEI gatekeeper.
Its strategies benefit from diverse and competent candidates. The Form acts as the high wall to keep the vetting process more manageable. But after filling out that Form over a trillion times, it became clear to me that it’s just lazy and outdated. DEI is so much more than 20th century census multiple choice.
My new employer believes — at the Form level, anyway — that the company just hired another white guy who (now) just happens to have a ton of relevant experience and a long track record. Which…I guess that’s all true?
I’ve never asked for a break, an unfair advantage or recourse for perceived slights dating back to 1980s Midwest playgrounds — I have been fortunate and blessed with access to equity and opportunities, which is precisely what DEI is designed to do for others who don’t.
But I’m not everyone. Whitewashing persons of disparate origins has no benefit to any employer or person, because we are not the same no matter what the label on the bucket might say. It’s 2022. The Form should try harder.
Our beautiful lack of sameness will always be our strength. Merry Christmas!