6/05/2021

What would my career be like if my name was Anja Michalkiewicz?

A personal appeal against loud prejudice and silent discrimination

The fact that the Flemish government recently concluded an agreement with 33 sectors to tackle discrimination in job applications made me think about my own origins. When I look back on the past few years, I can safely say that as Anja Peleman I have had a reasonably easy life. I was given all the opportunities in the world: my school years passed without any worries in the ASO, my studies at university ran smoothly, I quickly fell in with a close group of friends, I found it fairly easy to rent my first flat, I immediately found a challenging internship and my first job at VTM, … I never encountered any form of discrimination or strange comments or prejudice in all those years. But… what if my name had been Anja Michalkiewicz? Would my life have been different? I am half Polish: I have a Belgian father and a Polish mother.

From left to right: my Polish mother, me, my Polish grandmother, one of my two sisters and my Polish aunt

When I look back on my school days, I wonder if my teachers would have looked at my abilities in the same way if they had seen the name Anja Michalkiewicz? Or would they immediately have wondered whether I had a good command of the language? Would they have doubted whether I was well supported at home in terms of being able to speak Dutch? Would I have been advised to follow ASO or would I have been faced with a range of ‘buts’ and ‘maybes’? Would university have been open to me, or would I have found the application process more challenging? Would I still have been the one chosen from dozens of internship applications? Would I have been offered a permanent job as quickly?

Then I think about my personal situation. Could I rent a flat as easily? Do landlords want to rent to a ‘Pole’ or sell their house to someone with a foreign surname if their mailbox is overflowing with interested buyers? Would people have looked at me differently if you could physically see that I have Polish roots, for example, if this were accompanied by a different skin colour? Would all the parents of the children in the youth movement where I was a leader for years have been as happy to leave their children behind? Would I have made friends as easily?

It should go without saying that everyone, regardless of a foreign name or colour, should have the same opportunities. To education, to a job, to a house or to a dignified existence. How different my life could have been with a different surname makes it clear what a difference a name can make in a person’s life. In reality, though, it’s ‘just’ a name; a few letters that don’t say anything about someone’s abilities. It makes me think more than ever about how others, with strange surnames, different skin colours or religions, have to deal with loud prejudices and silent discriminations on a daily basis.

I am proud of my dual background. Anja Peleman or Anja Michalkiewicz, it should not make any difference. The agreement that has now been concluded with 33 sectors to tackle discrimination in job applications is a start. But there is still so much work to be done. That is why I would like to give a shout out to inspiring people like Hanan Challouki, founder of Inclusified, who has just published a book on inclusive communication to help organisations with their diversity policies. It is such initiatives that make a difference. Let’s hope that all people who have the same pride in their roots, regardless of their origin or surname, will have the same fair chances. Embracing diversity is and remains a necessity, each and every day.

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