Alice in Workerland

If you’ve seen Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, you might remember the scene where Alice is trying to find her way and encounters the brush-headed dog erasing the path. Lately, I’ve experienced similar issues at work which have made navigating my professional life somewhat tricky, so I decided to spew some thoughts about labels, affirmation, erasure, and honesty.

I previously noted on Twitter that my workplace is predominantly white. I can count the number of nonwhite colleagues I’ve met thus far on one hand. Granted, I’ve been there just over a month, but since there are probably only a few hundred of us, if that, I’ve at least said hi to most everyone. I’m the only nonwhite person in my department – there are only three of us, so statistically, this is not unexpected for Portland, Oregon – and here’s what I’ve noticed: my white colleagues do NOT use racial or ethnic markers when identifying people.

Since I’m a newbie, I hear unfamiliar names and see unfamiliar faces every day. Later, when I ask one of my colleagues to help me match names and faces, the answer is generally along the lines of, “[person’s name]…uh…older, silvery hair…”

Ok. This is not helpful. There are multiple people who fit that description. I still have no idea whether we are talking about the same person.

I think I know what is up. Someone somewhere told my (white) colleagues that mentioning race is taboo. What that person – or people, or training pamphlet, or whatever – apparently failed to do is give this statement any sort of nuance.

Yes, if you are using a nonwhite person’s race as the ONLY thing differentiating them from the (white) norm, it is problematic.* But, not mentioning race at all? Just as problematic – and dangerously close to the erasure perpetuated by those who advocate for “colorblind” practices. Race doesn’t just stop being part of someone’s identity because you choose not to mention it. I am Japanese regardless of whether you and/or others acknowledge it.

I’m not sure if my colleagues know the meaning of “colorblind” in terms of race. Nor do I believe they are inherently “bad” people. I really like most of them (so far). What I do believe is that no one has sat them down and said, “hey, IT’S OK to mention someone’s race – just acknowledge that race is not the be-all, end-all of their identity.” Look at the world around you. People are different races! Wow! This is reality. It is OK to call it such.**

I’d like to know where my colleagues picked up this way of thinking. Did they get it from a white person making assumptions about how nonwhite people like to be treated? Or did they get it from a nonwhite person who believes in “colorblind” practices? Regarding the latter possibility, yes, I suspect some nonwhite people may disagree with me. We are not a monolith. (I wish I didn’t feel the need to say this in almost every blog post, but there you are.)

Personally, I feel skirting the semantics of race is both privileged and lazy. If you believe “equality” in principle = equality in practice, I highly doubt you have been on the receiving end of the equation. You cannot treat people of different backgrounds the “same” and expect everyone to feel respected – because no one definition of sameness will fit every culture. You can’t magically bring about racial equity by saying you “don’t see” race. Plus, guess what? You’re taking an easy out. By adhering to “colorblind” or “diverse” practices, you absolve yourself of the need to further interrogate the issue. You have done your due diligence and now everybody should be happy because it says on paper that they’re all being treated the same. Wrong.

Erasure is not respect. Denial is not respect. Erasure is not equitable or inclusive. Denial is not equitable or inclusive. Really, what it boils down to is this: we don’t need you to tell us how we want to be treated. Let US tell YOU. Stop erasing. Stop denying. Stop. Listen. Reflect. THEN – respond. And remember – we are not a monolith. The more you listen, the more variety you will hear.

On a final note, some of you may have seen the recent social media posts about identifying the race/ethnicity of ALL book characters, including white ones. If you find my post or blog not to your liking, I recommend reading these posts instead. Same ideas, different voices.

I haven’t yet decided how I want to address the erasure happening in my workplace. I suspect the conversation may be an uncomfortable one for some of my colleagues. Diplomacy is hardly one of my strong suits, so this should be interesting. I wonder how other nonwhite people in other predominantly white workplaces have handled these situations. Is there a handbook for this stuff?

Thanks for reading! Apologies for a rather surface-level handling of a complicated topic. I wanted to spit out my first impressions before I forgot how they felt, but I imagine I’ll have follow-up thoughts (and maybe posts).

*In the same way that conflating nonwhite peoples/cultures with the concept of “diversity” is problematic. We do not exist “in contrast” to the (white) norm. There is one planet Earth and everybody lives on it. The problem lies in assuming and accepting whiteness as the default.

**If you aren’t sure how someone wants to be referred to, ASK. Seriously. It is more honest and respectful than superimposing your outsider notions of how we “want” to be identified. Stereotypes, fetishization, exotification, discrimination, and many other harmful behaviors directed at nonwhite people on the basis of our race/ethnicity are created and perpetuated in large part by ignorant outsiders. So, ask.