Minorities, for Rent

The satirical website Rent-A-Minority is a biting indictment of how people in business often talk about diversity.

A panel of speakers
A panel in need of this website (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

Do you work at one of the 96 percent of top companies whose corporate suite lacks a person of color? Tired of looking out into the audience at the Oscars and not seeing any black nominees? Has your industry been attacked on social media for its lack of diversity? Well, worry no more. There’s a new service to fix your representation needs: Rent-A-Minority.

I kid, I kid. This isn’t a real service, but it is a real website, one set up by Arwa Mahdawi, a New York-based advertiser, to satirize how many business leaders talk about and think about minorities. Rent-A-Minority has on offer a wide array of minorities, whether businesses are looking for an Intellectual Black Guy, who’s good for tech conferences, or a Cheerful Woman of Color, who, the site promises, “won’t embarrass you by being ‘an angry black woman’.”

Shortly after the website launched, I talked to Mahdawi about how it came about, her own experiences as a someone of Palestinian descent, and how people have reacted to the site. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Matt Vasilogambros: So, how much is it to rent a minority?

Arwa Mahdawi: The site is in beta, so I’m just trying to figure out supply and demand and surge pricing. It depends on the minority.

Vasilogambros: Where have you worked that really spoke to the lack of minority representation?

Mahdawi: I’ve been in a couple of industries. I used to be a lawyer and now I work in advertising. I’ve been on a lot of panels and conferences where I’m definitely the odd one out in the room. It’s been on my mind a few times.

Mahdawi: Like all difficult issues, this one can cause people to get upset and angry. Conversations often devolve into something that’s unhelpful. The interesting thing about humor and satire is that it exaggerates and gets a point across in a way that people can easily absorb, but also doesn’t jar.

I’ve written about diversity before for The Guardian, but I started the site as a joke. It’s nice to strike a chord and have people realize their experiences are the same experiences are similar to those that a lot of people are having. They’re not the angry minority in the corner. The minority experience is actually the majority experience.

Vasilogambros: Have you faced difficulties in your own career stemming from your race and gender?

Mahdawi: I’ve had people tell me to my face, “You probably only got this job because they wanted a brown person.” I had one person ask me whether it was an advantage to be brown and female. And I was like, “No, it is not an advantage. How stupid do you have to be to think that that is an advantage in life?”

This was actually a very intelligent person. It was a wakeup call to me that a lot of people think that. It’s not just bigots. There is a bit of friction. You’re in a no-win situation. Often you see institutional barriers that you can’t quite prove are racist or sexist, but you get the sense that you’re being treated differently. And when you do succeed at something, people try to take that away from you.

Vasilogambros: Can we go through the different “featured minorities” on your website? What advantages does an “ethnically ambiguous” person have in a corporate setting?

Mahdawi: I am an ethnically ambiguous minority. The advantage is that I can pass and people treat you more like a white person until you tell them your name. It’s the question that someone who looks like me gets all time: “What are you Mexican? Are you Indian? Where are you from?” And that’s fine. There’s nothing inherently bad asking somebody where their parents are from. It just grates.

Vasilogambros: You have a section on the website to sign up as a minority, where you say they can finally monetize their “minorityness.” Obviously that’s a joke, but you do ask people to share their stories. How many people have you gotten to contribute there?

Mahdawi: I’ve had hundreds. I’m a bit overwhelmed. I wasn’t expecting that. I’m going through them all now. A lot of people have faced very similar questions. The where are you really from? question comes up a lot.

Vasilogambros: How did you settle on the tagline, “Get Ethics With Our Ethnics”?

Mahdawi: I was working on a few taglines that were playing with “white” and “right.” I wanted something that sounded like it could be real. Some people have actually thought this was a real website. It had to be slightly offensive, but not too offensive. Some people went mental when they saw it and didn’t bother to read.