Q&A: Author Hadiya Roderique on 'fitting in,' subtle racism and inclusivity

In 2017, Hadiya Roderique wrote a think-piece for The Globe and Mail that served as a wake-up call about diversity and inclusion in hiring processes and workplaces in Canada. She's set to speak at the University of Regina this week as part of the institution's "You Belong Here" series. 

Author will deliver lecture as part of University of Regina's 'You Belong Here' anti-discrimination campaign

Hadiya Roderique is a lawyer, researcher, speaker, consultant, journalist and broadcast commentator. (Submitted by Hadiya Roderique)

In 2017, Toronto's Hadiya Roderique wrote a think-piece for The Globe and Mail about her time as a lawyer at one of the largest law firms in the city's financial core.

The essay, titled Black on Bay Street, served as a wake-up call about diversity and inclusion in hiring processes and workplaces in Canada.

Roderique is the daughter of low-income Caribbean immigrants. She worked hard her whole life to land a big job in law.

And she did. 

But what Roderique experienced at that job bothered her, and still does. 

CBC's The Morning Edition talked with Roderique ahead of her Thursday lecture at the University of Regina, where she'll speak as part of the institution's "You Belong Here" series. 

Hadiya Roderique wrote about Being Black on Bay Street in a 2017 Globe and Mail article, an article which blew open the conversation on racism and what it may take for workplaces to be truly inclusive. She spoke with The Morning Edition ahead of her Feb. 13 lecture at the University of Regina. 9:16

What was it like writing the article and speaking so openly about your experiences as a young lawyer?

Roderique: It kind of poured out. I had actually gone in really wanting to write a more academic examination of the [lawyer] hiring process. But when I sat down to write it, it seemed like my story just kind of flowed. It was not in my control anymore.

Getting a job was a major part of that story. What was the hiring experience like?

Roderique: You kind of get onto this conveyor belt. You get into law school and everybody seems to be applying for these big law jobs, so you apply for them as well. And at the beginning it's kind of like a 20-minute speed-dating process [with various firms] over two days.… It seemed like it was a lot of conversational chit-chat and it was really about whether or not the people felt comfortable with you. 

When you talk about people feeling comfortable with you and you having to "fit in," what does that mean to you?  

Roderique: Well in the law context … particularly as a person of colour … I think fitting in meant presenting yourself in a way that made other people feel like you were like them. Or making them feel comfortable with your difference.

You have to wear an armour. It sometimes feels like you can't really be your authentic self.... I knew not to talk about barbecue, or roti, or my parent's occupation. I didn't mention the fact that my dad is a cab driver, but I would mention the fact that he has an engineering degree. 

Do you feel like you're losing a piece of yourself when you have to go through that? 

Roderique: Yeah. If you're not able to be yourself that's an extra mental barrier that you have to carry around every time you're at work or interacting with people. You can't really feel like you can really let your guard down.

Acts of subtle racism are 'the small acts that chip away at your feelings of legitimacy and belonging,' says Hadiya Roderique. 'They are drops in a bucket, but eventually the bucket becomes too full.' (CBC)

What ultimately influenced you to leave the law profession?

Roderique: I was unhappy and I think I came to the place in my evolution where I decided that prioritizing my well-being and my happiness was worth the pay cut. 

What do think needs to change in workplaces and in hiring processes to make them truly inclusive?

Roderique: I would like to see more measures that eliminate bias in the process. I'd like to see things like trying out anonymous resumes, because there's a lot of research that shows that if you have an ethnic name, you get fewer callbacks than those with white names. I would like to see more uses of standardized questions.

You wrote that nowadays in Canada, overt acts of racism are rare. Instead the subtle ones tire you out, and your sense of belonging. Tell me about that.

Roderique: How do you report someone's raised eyebrow when they find out that you're their lawyer, or that you're the junior that's assigned to their file? Or the look you get when, instead of walking over to be the plaintiff, you walk over to the defence counsel side? Or that someone mistook you for an assistant and not for a lawyer, even though you were wearing a full suit?

These are the small acts that chip away at your feelings of legitimacy and belonging. They are drops in a bucket, but eventually the bucket becomes too full.

The lecture series you're speaking at in Regina is called "You Belong Here." What does that phrase mean to you?

Roderique: I think it means that people feel like they're being fairly judged on their capabilities and their potential, and not on any characteristics that really don't matter … like your gender, your skin colour, your sexual orientation or disability. That you really are being seen as "you," and that your environment really acts like you do have a place there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from The Morning Edition.