Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Preeti Singh or Pat Smith?
Same book, "different" author. Which one gets published?

Julia Roberts in the feature film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love

So we all know that racial bias in hiring is real. There's the "Brendan and Lakisha" study - the one in which researchers sent out identical resumes that only differed in that some of them were doctored to belong to "Emily", some to "Brendan", some to "Lakisha", some to "Jamal." Predictably, and sadly so, resumes belonging to seemingly African American candidates got 50% less interview call backs. In a variation of the study, the researchers manipulated the fictitious resumes even further by adding and removing desirable skills. "For us, the most surprising and disheartening result is seeing that applicants with African-American names were not rewarded for having better resumes," they says. Affirmative action opponents are ever so worried that taking racial disparity into consideration would force employers into hiring less deserving candidates that they never recognize the possibility that better candidates are already being overlooked. Similar research has shown that female applicants are continuously rated significantly lower than male applicant in both competence and hireability.

Now, to add an ethnic flavor to this ever-growing body of research, here's a personal account by Indian author Preeti Singh of her success to get noticed by a literary agent in the United States. After completing her manuscript, Singh attended a publishing workshop.
I got down to work - wrote a nice query letter, researched which literary agents/agencies would be best suited for my book and sent it off to all of them. And sat down and waited. And waited. Not an email, not a word, for over three months, despite reminders in some cases.
Well. Tough, you'd say. Writing a book is difficult. Getting it published is ever harder. But then...
Just for fun, one crazy day, I set up another email account - in the name of Pat Smith. Then I sent the same query letter, the blurb, the bio and the sample chapters of Unravel to the very same literary agents. I merely changed Preeti Singh to Pat Smith in the documents.  
You can probably guess where the story ends at this point. Within 10 days, five of the previously unimpressed literary agents responded! All of a sudden, the book was publishable. Singh offers several hilariously speculative reasons why Preeti Signh failed while Pat Smith was able to succeed.
Unravel by Pat Smith becomes exotic. Pat may be a Caucasian, a foreigner who was in India. She observed India closely, and wrote ‘insightfully‘ about Indian women.  She felt the pain of the common sisterhood of shared experiences between women across the world.

As important and illuminating as all of these (formal and informal) studies are in raising awareness about the inherent racial, gender and ethnic bias of the supposedly bias-free capitalist labor market, one's got to wonder how effective awareness can be in bringing about actual change in perceptions and attitudes. And in the particular case of Preeti-vs-Pat's experience, what does all this mean? Why are we uncomfortable to face a narrative whose only downfall is that it fails to reaffirm our biases?

via Parul Sehgal

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