The WHOM Syndrome

The We Have One Minority disease seems to have no cure, at least in my lifetime. Other than my experience working at the Tribal government level in the 1980s, most of my career I have found myself as the only American Indian/Alaska Native, the one minority on a federal government staff.

This is a tremendous burden to carry. It has hurt my career development, my earnings potential, professional relationships, my family life and taken a toll on my health. This leads to another workplace disease known as racial fatigue syndrome.

One of the burdens of being the only American Indian/Alaska Native on staff is the pressure to represent all American Indians/Alaska Natives either at an event, in an advisory capacity or as a technical consultant. Oftentimes, I am expected to know every little fact and history tidbit on every square inch of Indian country that is the equivalent to the size of New England. Sorry, but I do not know in great detail the culture and history of the 567 federally recognized tribes in the country. It has taken me a lifetime just to master my own Tribal identity.

I apologize but I cannot do my own job which is challenging enough and at the same time serve as an American Indian/Alaska Native headhunter for my organization in search of others who look like me, talk like me and act like me. That is supposed to be the job of the recruitment office.

Another toxic by-product of being the most under represented race of people on staff is the unavoidable daily and sometimes hourly hand-to-hand combat with sources of privilege in the workplace as you challenge the negative messages they spew against your subordinate group and others. You get trapped in this prison of conflict and quickly inherit a reputation of being needy, incompetent or a trouble maker. When the conflict really heats up, to diffuse the situation the dominate group will challenge my Tribal identity by questioning my group membership, forcing me to spend extra energy proving to them that I am who I say I am.

Diversity starved organization do not give much thought as to how to invite American Indians/Alaska Natives to the table. They follow the notion “if I build it they will come.” The dominant group is not prepared for the inevitable pushback that results from bringing disenfranchised people into the workplace with their propensity for challenging cultural norms.

Organizations with not so great diversity and inclusion track records should understand that if you hire American Indian/Alaska Natives, you are putting them on the front lines of a battle that most folks in the workplace never experience. It is important to usher American Indians/Alaska Natives through these difficult circumstances with support resources that understand the unique challenges they face. Otherwise, they turn in to the most disengaged workforce in the federal government.

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Mark Hammer

Interesting, and obviously exasperating, conundrum. A few comments and tangents.

1) When I first started in the Canadian PS, working on employment equity review of tests and selection processes, one of the first reports I was given to read was a presidential report (for then Pres. Clinton) on under-representation of Hispanics in the U.S. federal PS. One of the stats that jumped off the page at me was the observation that, at that time, something like 84% of American Hispanics resided in those areas where only 37% of the federal jobs were. I mention this not as any sort of excuse, but to highlight a challenge that often people are emotionally attached to where they live or grew up, and that the structure of any public administration is not geographically distributed to facilitate diversity goals; the buildings having been erected long before diversity became a goal. If the participation of under-represented groups is desired, one needs to find ways to bring the jobs to *them*, rather than force them to choose between work and that attachment to the land and whatever family or other social ties are there.

Related to this, I think a good place to look to for ideas is New Zealand, where the physical distance between where their indigenous population resides, and where the jobs are, is shorter. From what I understand, they do a pretty good job.

I know in my own national context, a significant share of Aboriginal federal employees live and work where the development and career-mobility opportunities are more limited; a thousand miles away from the capitol.

2) “Why do I need to be part of *your* government when I’ve got my own?”. Our own First Nations and Inuit people here have their local band councils, and I don’t blame anyone for one minute if those with a passion for public administration feel a stronger tug from local governance than from the federal level; particularly if the one requires relocating and the other doesn’t. As I keep reminding people, you can throw the doors as wide open as you can (and hold them open), but you can’t always make everyone interested in the jobs you have to offer. Back when I started, part of my duties involved looking at employment-test scores for different designated protected groups, and I was struck by how very few Aboriginal applicants there were to the Foreign Service – practically none. I’m confident that it wasn’t a case of there not being anyone qualified; they simply never indicated interest in that stream in the recruitment campaigns, despite indicating interest in other streams. I won’t speculate on the reasons why, just that they were sorely, and dismayingly, under-represented.

Of course, the scenario that sets up is precisely the one you describe for yourself. And I can understand why that scenario does not pique the interest of others and lead them to ask “Where can I sign up for what Richard has to deal with!”. So it becomes self-sustaining in a way.

On a brighter note, our new Prime Minister recently appointed the first Aboriginal person to the post of Justice Minister ( ), which is more or less equivalent to the position of Attorney General. I would hope that sort of appointment sparks Aboriginal youth into thinking “Hey, that looks like the sort of thing I’d like to do one day”, so that folks like yourself don’t have to shoulder the whole load on your own.