Rent-A-Minority Has a Satirical Solution to Corporate America’s Diversity Problem

A ‘cheerful woman of color’ and a ‘smiling Muslim woman’ are available for panels and advertising campaigns.

John Chambers (left), chairman and CEO of Cisco, and Neil Smit (center), president and CEO of Comcast Cable, listen to Werner Struth, chairman of Bosch, in a panel discussion during the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Jan. 7, 2015. (Photo: Steve Marcus/Reuters)

Feb 12, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Listen up, women and people of color: Forget making a little extra cash listing your apartment on Airbnb or driving with Uber on the weekends. Now you can hire yourself out to companies and events—think conferences, government gatherings, or the Academy Awards—that want to avoid seeming to lack diversity.

That’s the premise behind Rent-A-Minority, a satirical start-up launched on Monday by Arwa Mahdawi, a New York City–based advertising executive. According to its website, Rent-A-Minority will provide token women and people of color to businesses and events that realize their “award show, corporate brochure, conference panel is entirely composed of white men. For, like, the fifth year in a row” and want to avoid a social media backlash.

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The website offers up a “minority for every occasion” and will collaborate with renters “to find the right minority for you.” It also vets minorities for companies “to ensure they are not ‘too black’ or ‘too Muslim’ or ‘too much of a Feminist.’ We know how awkward that can be.” The satire extends to the testimonials included on the website, such as praise from Cecil Roads, whose name is a play on that of the notable British imperialist. “Rather good. Is there a Rent-A-Minority for statues yet?” writes Roads.

In an email to TakePart, Mahdawi explained that although she’d been kicking around the idea for Rent-A-Minority for a while, during a hackathon last weekend she decided to bring it to life. There was no one event that motivated the website, she wrote, but interactions with a straight white guy at a conference she recently attended were on her mind.

The man asked Mahdawi to “spell my name out” and asked “if I thought ‘you know, being brown and female was an advantage,’ ” she wrote. “I was like: ‘you mean because of positive discrimination??? Um no.’ ” Mahdawi added that “it astounded me that he (an intelligent guy) could think that and I realized that, actually, probably a lot of people do.”

The lack of representation, wrote Mahdawi, isn’t an issue just at conferences. “When I got my first job (in a law firm) a lot of people told me to my face I had probably only got the job because I was brown,” she wrote.

Indeed, although Slack was widely lauded this week for having four black female employees accept an award at TechCrunch’s annual event, the lack of representation on panels and in workplaces is a pervasive issue. There’s even a Tumblr account, “Congrats! You have an all-male panel!”, that collects and mocks pictures of majority white, majority male events.

Along those lines, Mahdawi has four categories of minorities available for hire: the “Ethnically Ambiguous” minority, the “Cheerful Woman of Color,” the “Smiling Muslim Woman,” and the “Intellectual Black Guy.” She chose those four because she “wanted to address some of the more common stereotypes that are out there.”


Some of the descriptions stem from experiences she’s had in real life. Her Muslim name “means people are constantly asking me for my opinions on ISIS, like I’m some sort of spokeswoman for them,” she wrote. At a time when Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and communities freak out over kids saying the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic, she’s considering adding an Arab American category. Addressing “disabled people as they often get left out of the ‘minority’ or ‘diversity’ debate” is also in the cards.

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So far the reaction to Rent-A-Minority has been “largely positive”—which surprised Mahdawi, because “I do some freelance journalism and have had people on the Internet tell me things like ‘you should commit suicide’ after writing benign articles about the word ‘bro,’ ” she wrote.

For those who feel angry about the effort’s satire, Mahdawi has some words of advice: “Get angry at what Rent-A-Minority is angry about,” she wrote on the website.

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The solutions, she acknowledges, will take time, but Mahdawi believes providing “equal access to education to everyone” and solving poverty is key. “The U.S. is nearly the most wealth-unequal country in the entire world. ‘Diversity’ isn’t about giving a leg up to a few people of color, and then patting yourself on the back, it’s about increasing social mobility by closing socioeconomic gaps,” she wrote.

To that end, the Rent-A-Minority website suggests companies offer “paid internships instead of unpaid internships that only wealthy people can afford to do,” expand recruitment “beyond the boy’s club,” and audit “themselves to see that they are doing what they can to advance the careers of the top talent, no matter race/gender/religion etc.”

If that’s too tough, Mahdawi has a commonsense suggestion: Learn how to conduct an Internet search. “Seriously. It’s not actually that hard to find qualified people who aren’t straight white men to sit on your panel,” she wrote on the website.