Author’s Note: I requested to be semi-anonymous for the security of my job as well as the protection of my boss and department. Although I wish to convey my deep disappointment in this University’s overall lack of racial diversity, my ultimate goal of this piece is not to “attack” or “shame” any persons or group of people. It is to try to start productive conversations in the workplace about how we can better educate ourselves about racial inclusion.
Every morning I walk into work, I pass a group of people of color getting off of the city bus. The difference between us is that we’re not going to the same place. I walk into the office building; they walk to the nearby restaurant where they work. As I enter my office, I immediately go from being a part of the majority to the minority, and I become inundated by the whiteness of my white-collar office job.
I’ve been in my position for almost two years now. For the most part, I’ve assimilated to the whiteness around me by assuming the role of the “good minority,” a non-vocal and hardworking person of color. I have tried to ignore the problematic comments about race and the so-called wonderful diversity at this school despite the statistics that show otherwise. I have tried to not openly question the ridiculous “poverty porn” videos that we’re shown in order to hype us up for our jobs (i.e., videos exploiting an underprivileged community or person — oftentimes people of color — in order to gain sympathy and increased support for a certain cause). I have tried to never ask why I’m the only person of color out of my 11-person team or why there are only eight visible people of color on my floor of 70+ people.
By not talking about racial inclusion, I invest so much time and energy trying to make others feel comfortable at the expense of my own comfort. The truth of the matter is that it’s hard to speak up when surrounded by so much whiteness. I fear that I will make people feel awkward or uneasy or that they will only see me as the angry person of color who needs to make everything about race. I’m stuck in a difficult position because I don’t want to be further isolated from my co-workers by fighting for racial inclusion at work, but I also don’t want to have to police my identity each day I come into work.
I understand that we as a U.S. culture have been taught a “colorblind” ideology, or the absurd idea that acknowledging or talking about racial differences is racist. When we follow this ideology, however, people of color like me are often subject to having to constantly silence, defend and guard ourselves, our core values, and our cultural and racial identities. It erases and suffocates who we are. It also implicitly places a burden on people of color to be their own advocates. Since it teaches people not to acknowledge racial difference, many white people in predominantly white spaces have the privilege to not feel as though they need to speak up or question the lack of diversity that surrounds them. This absence of conversation only further maintains the white norm and subsequent white dominance.
I can usually put up with the daily micro-invalidations of my racial identity, but a recent interaction with my boss has influenced me to finally speak out. In a meeting specifically intended for discussing each other’s personality types, my boss asked me one thing I think about at work. I said, “Just things I generally think about like diversity and inclusion. On one hand, I know how privileged I am to work in such a physically safe workplace where no one has ever harassed me. But on the other hand, I look around and notice that no one looks like me, and it makes me question why it’s so white here … I also think about the customers we’re catering to and how we mostly cater to white people (while referring to a study we both read that supports this statement). I guess I just wonder if we could change that, or what steps can be taken to broaden our perspective.”
As a reply, I received an off-point speech about how I need to remind myself not to “shame” others for maybe not understanding diversity from the same perspective as me. I explained, “I do understand that, and I only bring it up to people if they ask and seem genuinely interested in what my passions are. I’m never aggressive or shaming toward people either. I just think it’s an important topic to be educated about and something that seems to directly affect me.” But instead of engaging in any sort of productive conversation, she just kept returning to how I need to be aware that if I “shame” people, they’re not going to listen to me.
In this instance, my boss was clearly feeling some sort of “shame” herself and refusing to listen to me. She even defensively began talking about how she doesn’t hire from a race perspective, but from a “personality” perspective. Interestingly enough, I never even questioned her hiring techniques! I also saw her response as a cop-out for assuming any responsibility in racial inclusion (but of course, I didn’t actually say anything to her in response). All I wanted was to have an open, non-defensive, and non-aggressive discussion about how we can include more people of color in both the office and the people we serve. However, simply bringing up the topic of race made her immediately shut down the conversation.
The sad part about this meeting between her, a white person, and me, a person of color, that is not an uncommon interaction. There’s a phenomenon also known as “white fragility,” or as multicultural educator Robin DiAngelo defines, “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” My boss became defensive by trying to ironically shame me into not talking about race anymore. By wording the conversation in a way of “I can’t explicitly tell you not talk about this because that would be ‘racist’ of me, but I’m going to try to tell you in an indirect and roundabout way not to talk about this at work,” she only further proved to me the power and domination of whiteness in our office. And her attempted silencing only influenced me to no longer remain silent on this issue.
Some people may ask why I stay at my job if I feel so racially isolated. The reality is that I shouldn’t have to leave my position in order to find a more inclusive environment. We work at a fairly “liberal” university that prides itself on its “diverse” ideals, so it should uphold those ideals in all aspects of the institution, including its staff. Additionally, I enjoy my job for its overall daily tasks and love working with my team and surrounding co-workers. I also understand the immense privileges I have in terms of gaining work experience, creating networking connections and building new career opportunities. But the absence of racial diversity and space for racial inclusion is profoundly disappointing and inexcusable.
My hope is to one day exist in the workplace as an unapologetic and unashamed person of color, one who does not need to constantly hide or monitor her identity. In order for this to happen, a new and inclusive system that acknowledges, values and embraces racial differences needs to take over. If we don’t do this, then we will only create a larger racial gap in the workplace by continuing to dominate and consequently oppress the employees of color. To begin, we must open ourselves up to productive and active conversations concerning race. We furthermore need to better educate (white) people, particularly those in charge, on how to talk about race without shutting down or getting defensive. By reframing our ideas about colorblindness and listening to people of color and their thoughts and experiences regarding race, we as a collective Michigan community can actually follow through and uphold our slogan, “Diversity Matters.” Because diversity does matter. And I can’t be truly proud of this University until it tangibly shows that it cares about its faculty, staff and students of color.