Career Counseling: The Impact of Ethnicity, Gender, and Class on Career Options, Career Choices, and Career Opportunities – An Interview with Emerging Artist Chavonn Williams Shen

By Paula Celeste Neeley, Freelance Community Journalist

In this current environment of “racial reckoning,” I express solidarity for peaceful protests happening across this country and around the globe. Racial disparities have impacted me personally, professionally, emotionally, and psychologically. I navigate around racially-charged micro aggressions regularly, sometimes daily. It is the nature of life in a Black body. Given the history of hatred directed against people of color in this country, I have learned not to forget “my place” in this society as it could mean figurative death or professional death, if not literal death. 

In general, my life has been good, not without trauma and travails, but it has been “good” despite the systemically racist air we all breathe, and maybe, because of the systemically racist air we all breathe! Some of the career “opportunities” I have been afforded were because I was deemed one of the “good Blacks.” That’s a phrase that was used about my family in Anderson, Indiana where I grew up. Good Blacks. Not good people, good Blacks. As if we are an aberration from the normal “criminal Blacks.”

Through my lens, “criminal Blacks” exist, but are a small minority in most predominantly Black neighborhoods. The movie and television industry paints a very different picture of Blacks in this country. All things being equal, I don’t feel “unsafe” in a Communities of Color, but I am on guard in White communities because I know some of them are on guard against me. I see them watch me with wary or hostile eyes as I select a soda at a fuel station … as if I’ve trespassed and am taking too long to leave. Some of them have been socialized to hate me. This experience is closely linked to my experiences as female, a Black female, wherein this world requires me to be on guard all the time, regardless of where I am. 

The Spotlight Series explores how our ethnicity, gender, and class impact a career path. Individual interviews allow us to hear personal experiences of how these three areas are intertwined and the strategies used to navigate around them. Serious attempts to deconstruct American beliefs, behaviors, and even language cannot be accomplished without the complexities of ethnicity-gender-class inserting and asserting themselves. For this reason, I was very excited to interview Chavonn Williams Shen this month. We both attend New City Church in South Minneapolis (a few blocks from where George Floyd’s life was taken) and anytime we end up in the same book group or discussion group, she drops gems of wisdom that speak to the challenges of being female in a Black body. 

In the Spotlight – Chavonn Williams Shen

A Minneapolis native, Chavonn Williams Shen was a winner of the Still I Rise grant, a first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction Contest and a Best of the Net Award finalist. She was also a Pushcart Prize nominee, a winner of the Mentor Series in Poetry and Creative Prose through the Loft Literary Center, and a fellow through the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. A Tin House and VONA workshop alum, her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in: Yemassee, the Los Angeles Review, Permafrost Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.

How would you describe yourself and your upbringing from a socio-economic perspective?  I would describe myself as a queer black woman who grew up in poverty. I would also say I am Christian, a wife, a sister, and there’s a term I heard the other day … not a starving artist, but a “pre-successful” emerging artist. 

“My parents tried very hard to make sure that I still had opportunities.”

I grew up in a very working class family. Both my parents grew up in poverty. My dad, who came from rural Mississippi, has nine siblings and has experienced life on the lowest of the low in terms of socio-economic status as he came from a family of sharecroppers. My mom, her family was more working class as she was born in the north, but her family is from Alabama. So having those two perspectives come together, I was raised better than they were, however, I also know that we weren’t at the place that they wish that we could have been. My parents tried very hard to make sure that I still had opportunities, such as taking me to free museums, making sure that we went to the library a couple of times a month, and things of that sort.

My parents are super supportive of my career in the Arts and ever since I was 12, I wanted to be a journalist. My parents are artists, too. My mom is a musician and my parents actually were in a band together. Mom plays drums and my dad sings and we always had art supplies around so me and my sister could draw … that definitely influenced what I wanted to be … something involved in the Arts. 

When I was in sixth grade, my school did some kind of project with a local journalist and by the end of that year, I wanted to be a journalist. From 6th Grade to 11th Grade, [my plan was to] go to journalism school. I was the head editor for our school newspaper, participated in a variety of writing camps, and all that stuff. 

Then 12th grade hit and all my college essays were about cognitive science and neuroscience and [it completely changed my focus]. I decided to major in Cognitive Science and get a double minor in Neuroscience and Philosophy. I was like, “We can name Jupiter’s moons, but we don’t know the scientific equation for love” or “What is the true definition of intelligence?”

After her graduation from Roosevelt High School, Chavonn shared that her family was confused by her change in focus for college. They urged her to take poetry and writing classes, but she had decided that a career in the Arts would not lead to earning power. Having self-described as “coming from poverty” earning a decent income was a priority. A career in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) seemed to Chavonn the only way to have success. After college, a series of fortunate events led her to ultimately ditch a career in STEM and, instead, pursue a career in the Arts. She said she’s earning significantly less money, but is significantly happier.

People in my mom’s church saw potential in me and they suggested I apply to this program or that one. I was also a part of College Possible, a college readiness program for students in their junior year of high school who are below the poverty line. You apply, get in, and they give you help on doing the SAT or ACT.

“We both have zero student loans from undergrad.”

I actually took the ACT five times trying to get my score up. Senior year, they helped with college essays and entrance applications. Me and my sister, we both have zero student loans from undergrad. That is a blessing times ten, definitely because of that program. My sister got the Gates Scholarship, where Bill Gates paid for her entire college thing, including laptop and whatever else versus me, I got a bunch of smaller scholarships that added up [to cover] full tuition. Without [College Possible], I don’t think either of us would have gotten to where we are, at least not free. 

I had a lot of help in College Possible and they didn’t just do stuff with you in high school. They followed you to college. You got a college coach, who would make sure that you’re able to graduate. [Our coaches] would form friendships and mentorships with [us]. One even came to my wedding, which was really cool. I don’t know when I haven’t had mentors, I guess.

My first job out of college, I was working at a Tech Center. It was a pretty cool place and I was working with computers and helping young adults. We had a 3-D center with a green screen and the students were shooting music videos for the school. I liked it overall, but my heart wasn’t in it. After I left that job, I was tutoring kids in Math –it was a way to pay the bills, and one of my high school friends invited me to a poetry show that they were in … you know when you invite, like, 200 of your friends and you only expect two to show up? That was basically it, but I figured that since I had nothing else to do on Saturday, might as well go. It was an annual performance with the African American Literature Foundation and by the end, I was like, “I want this so bad!”

Chavonn described how she stayed after the performance to meet with the director who directed her to an application. She applied and got in. Her mentor encouraged her to enter other poetry and prose contests, she applied and competed. Eventually, one of her coaches encouraged her to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing, which she did. Through casual conversations over the years, I’ve found that very few people’s lives follow the path that they start out on, including mine. Often it’s a summer job or volunteering for relief efforts that impacts the person in a significant way and, as Chavonn describes, completely changes the trajectory of their professional path. 

“I don’t know if the ‘American Dream’ was ever available for Black people.”

When it comes to the “American Dream,” a college degree has been touted as the ticket to the middle class. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?  I don’t know if the “American Dream” was ever available for Black people. I don’t know if it was ever an option for me as a queer, Black, disabled woman, or for people who are my background, identity, chosen and otherwise. I remember the house that I grew up in –its 100-year birthday was a couple years ago, but right down the block [from where we lived] there are all these newer houses. And I remember watching them be built as I was growing up … ones with balconies and all. In my house, I’d be lucky if the cold water tap was working. A very stark difference. 

The concept of an ‘American Dream’ doesn’t really exist. Each of us would define it differently. Consequently, each of us has to define it for ourselves and determine how to realize it for ourselves, based on our personal dreams and generational expectations. And our definitions depend heavily on the socioeconomic class in which we were raised.

Have you ever felt the divide between what might be called “blue collar” or “white collar” work? If you were to walk down the block seeing what kind of houses were in my immediate neighborhood, and then seeing those newer homes, you would [conclude that] they care about what their block looks like. I was maybe eight, nine and like, “Whoa, people have really nice houses.” I was not aware of blue collar or white collar, but just “you have nicer stuff than me.” 

A lot of my high school friends also grew up in poverty. I don’t necessarily consider the military to be a white collar-blue collar profession, but the people I know who joined the military did it because of class reasons. I have a lot of friends who went to the military so they could provide for their families and get money to pay for school. From my perspective, [the class division] has been divided a lot more along education, or value in education. My parents, they have a high value on education. We did stuff that people considered bourgeoisie, such as going to museums, even if we went on the free days, or going to libraries, which are completely free. That kind of feels like a perception of what would become blue-collar, white-collar when we got older.

“… Wealth was built on slavery and genocide … what money in the States was not founded on that?”

I was reading this article that was saying that the more money you have, you literally don’t see poor people.  People who are in the top 10%, top 20% they’re a lot less likely to help somebody because they don’t see them. So a plutocrat might feel like, ‘Hey, this [wealth] is mine. I deserve this’, and I can see somebody of a working class status, myself included, being like, “No, this was taken from me to begin with. You have it, but it is mine.” And, of course, this is where identities come into play; infrastructures that are already unjust and I’m thinking like, “Hey, your wealth was built on slavery and genocide and all that. Even if you weren’t directly involved.” What money in the States was not founded on that? [People with wealth are] inherently complicit. You are rich. Doesn’t mean you wanna be, but that’s where your money comes from historically.

What specific training or life experiences have prepared you for your current role?  My parents had a daycare [when I was] growing up. There was always someone who was younger than me around, so I knew how to change diapers all that, way before I was 10. And helping to take care of kids, gave me a strong sense of how to teach. My mom, although she’s not certified, I would consider one of the best teachers I know. So, that was training. My most extensive career work is in youth work. I did a lot with community building and, specifically, around young people and education. That was my way into the more academic side of youth work and teaching in schools. And from there, I realized that career advancement was basically zero if you don’t have these advanced degrees. So, I got my Master’s and now I’m teaching in Higher Ed [at Century College].

Can you share a defining moment when you adjusted your thinking around what the “the world” expected of you and what you wanted to accomplish?  In high school, one of the programs I [was involved in] was like language and cultural immersion [camp]. It was super cool. We would go on the bus way up by the Boundary Waters and [the instructors] would be like ‘Find somebody who speaks a different language than you, learn how to say five words, and report back in 15 minutes.’ Those were our typical activities. I loved it, and one aspect of the program was [an annual trip] to Concordia Language Immersion Villages. 

“Those moments are in my psyche, when people assumed they knew my story.”

[Students are] put in a language camp of your choosing and they speak to you almost entirely in that language. That’s how I learned German, Italian, and Spanish. So I was talking to somebody –there are just a lot of incidents of what I would consider now to be microaggressions—and they were eating a sandwich with eggs and ketchup and I was like, “Oh, that’s so gross! My dad really likes that.” And the person was like, “What? Wait, you know your dad?” And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Really? Is this a real question?’ And I had my ears pierced at the time too, and somebody said, “Oh, did it hurt?” I’m like, “Oh yeah, it felt like a shot.” And then the person said, “Like a gunshot?” and I asked them, “Why would you assume I know what that feels like?”

Just the level of –what people of my generation call, the “Caucacity” (whiteness) of it. Those moments are in my psyche, when people assumed they knew my story. I felt that I had to prove that I was even more family oriented, that I was even more academically focused than they were because that was my weapon against these micro aggressions … “I don’t know what a gunshot feels like, but have you read the entire works of Tolstoy?” or “Who’s your favorite 19th Century Russian Impressionist?”… [using intellect as] a shield.

As we wrap up, I have some terms for you to define and share a personal example from your life. Institutionalized RacismWe can start by breaking down the words individually … institutionalized as systemic, something that is happening repeatedly. But on top of that, it’s done at a government and policy level, rather than just individual interactions. Something that is based on race, but as race is a social construct, [it’s] based on people’s perception of what a race is and how that relates to the legalization of certain laws. So: systemic prejudices that have been reflected in law.

In light of police violence and police brutality, I was reflecting on how at the high school I attended, it was more likely that we saw White police officers than Black STEM teachers … in a student body that was predominantly Black and Brown. The priorities [of the school administration] were really clear. Police were there when we came in in the morning, they were in the lunchroom and in the gym, they were there during our school dances. We had to go through a metal detector for school dances and take off our belts and any fancy shoes in order to go [through]. And, depending on what time you got there, you had to go through the metal detector on top of showing your school ID to prove you actually went to that school.

My [China-born] husband’s experience was very, very different at a predominantly White boarding school in Colorado. He didn’t have the same experience of having police in the lunch room monitoring every single thing and only experienced metal detectors at an airport.

EthnicityIt is so ambiguous how it differs from nationality and how that differs from race. Race is the more social construct thing of it all, ethnicity is the more factual base. For instance, my ex-boyfriend is of mixed race. He had a Swedish mom and a Black dad. Why can’t he just identify as Swedish? Because he looks Black and that’s what he is perceived to be in society … a Black man. But ethnicity wise, maybe he could just [identity as] African American and Swedish, rather than his race being Black. Race being the overarching category that is Blackness and then, underneath that can be ethnicity. And then underneath that could be nationality.

One of my friends, her great grandparents made her mother speak in English in the home, even though their first language is German. They were afraid of the kids standing out too much. [My friend’s mother] was told “You’re American now, not German.” So their ethnicity came into conflict with their nationality. It makes me think about how Whiteness is homogeneity. People of specific European descent end up having to [identify as] White to fit in.

Gender BiasI was talking to [a fellow alumnus], he’s Puerto Rican, and he was saying how poverty, to a certain degree, eliminates gender roles. He said that he learned how to cook because his mom was working, his sisters were working and if he wanted to eat, he had to cook and clean along with that. So he knew how to, like, mop and sweep and all those things that were normally associated with “women’s roles.” 

Someone like my husband, who comes from a place of higher economics status than I do, I had to teach him how to mop. I had to teach him how to sweep. I had to teach him how to cook. He’s gotten really good at it. He learned how to make Crème Brule for me and it’s actually really good. But I told him, he’s a direct result of patriarchy because [being raised in] a higher economic status, he didn’t have to worry about that stuff. Gender bias and patriarchy was allowed to be more present in his life than if he were of a lower socio-economic status.

Class BiasThere was this article in the New York Times about how 80% of Americans consider themselves middle class and we know that’s not true. There are people who I went to college with who are very much in the top 20% who are like, ‘I’m just upper middle class.’ And it’s like “No, no, no, no, no. You’re rich.” And people who I know are in like the bottom 20%, are like, ‘Yeah, I am just lower middle class.’ The middle class becomes so ambiguous versus if someone were to actively say like, “Yeah, I’m rich.” 

I imagine people saying that they are middle class is, in some ways, a protection against bias. Whatever bias would be done at them if they were to say like, ‘Oh, I’m rich’ or ‘I’m poor’ and potentially be more truthful about their socioeconomic background or current standing. 

There is no question that our ethnicity, gender, and/or socioeconomic standing makes us a target for micro-aggressions on a regular basis, which is stressful and frustrating and demeaning. Yet, we learn to overlook them, ignore them, and find an alternate route around whatever obstacle our society has placed in our path. Ethnicity-gender-class are intricately intertwined as systems of domination that represent the power dynamics so prevalent in American culture.

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