Bringing inclusivity to the workplace

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I rant about the lack of diversity and inclusivity in my workplace on a fairly regular basis. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, well, I rant about the lack of diversity and inclusivity in my workplace on a fairly regular basis. Today I’m discussing some thoughts about making my workplace more inclusive.*

Fair warning: This is a long post, mostly full of my opinions on things that are fairly specific to my situation, so maybe don’t read it if you’re looking for sweeping statements about social justice in general. (Actually, if that’s what you’re after, my blog is probably not the right place for you. But check out the Resources page for other great folks!)

Part I

As a bit of relevant background, my actual job description contains no explicit role related to inclusivity. I don’t work in the diversity and inclusion department – actually, we don’t even have one – the entire burden, on paper, is on one of my few nonwhite colleagues, who is our diversity and inclusion manager. Nothing in my day-to-day responsibilities includes the active creation and/or enforcement of inclusive policies.

That said, since I believe inclusivity should be a given in any environment, I try to be mindful of how I interact with the people around me. Based on my own experiences of frequently being in the racial minority, I try to be especially attentive to the other nonwhite people in my majority-white workplace. By “attentive,” I don’t mean striking up conversations about what microaggressions they’ve encountered lately – there’s nothing wrong with this, but not all nonwhite people are equally comfortable talking about racism in such explicit and personal terms, so I avoid bringing it up until the other person initiates the discussion – but rather, trying when possible to have conversations with them that go beyond the usual (and generally uninterested), “hi, how are you?”

As an introvert and hater of small talk, I’m really not good at starting or maintaining conversations in which I have no interest. (Similarly, I also don’t believe in blogging if I have nothing to say, hence the long gap between this post and the last one.) At the same time, thinking back on all the times I’ve felt hyper-aware of being in the racial minority, I know it would have helped me immensely if another nonwhite person in the same situation had reached out and let me know they were there. It doesn’t mean we have to become BFFs or even interact at all outside of work. It just means showing someone else that you get it, you’ve been there, you ARE there, and they aren’t alone. But how, exactly, do you demonstrate this?

I haven’t been at my current workplace for very long – less than six months, I think – but I’ve already met most of my nonwhite colleagues. Yes, there are very, very few of us. Less than ten from what I’ve seen, out of a total of probably 150-200 employees. Ironically (or not, considering the people making the decisions are almost always white), all of the new hires I’ve seen in the last few months are white. There was one South Asian man who was hired around the same time I was, but he no longer works here.

Having so few nonwhite colleagues is disappointing, but it does mean I see the same faces more often than I might otherwise, which has allowed me to get to know these people relatively quickly. In the process, I’ve realized the ways in which nonwhite people build community and solidarity often depend on the personalities of the people involved. For example, the diversity and inclusion manager, who is one of my favorite colleagues, is completely receptive to frank, open discussions about racism and other forms of discrimination. I feel absolutely comfortable telling her about microaggressions and other experiences I’ve had with racism, without mincing words and without worrying I’ll be judged for what I say. Even though we come from different racial and cultural backgrounds, we have bonded over our shared experiences of being nonwhite in mainstream (white) US society. She has also offered me invaluable professional advice, based on her own experiences as a Black woman in our workplace, and is the first nonwhite colleague in any of my workplaces to offer me this kind of support.

Another colleague, a Latinx woman, has told me a bit about her interests outside of work, but we have never discussed or alluded to racism in our conversations. I do, however, know she is a reader, and we’ve chatted a bit about the book recommendations I’ve posted on my office door. I’m not sure if she’s noticed that all the recommendations I post are by nonwhite authors, as she’s never mentioned it, but I hope she continues to find my lists interesting. It’s so nice to discover a fellow reader, especially a fellow POC, at work!

The third colleague with whom I’ve conversed at some length is a Chinese man. We’ve talked about our experiences as East Asians in Portland, especially the ups and downs of trying to find Asian communities of the types we knew in our previous cities of residence. He’s lived in Portland many more years than I have and often recommends good Chinese restaurants and reliable Asian supermarkets to me. Occasionally, we also talk about our families. Although we’ve never explicitly catalogued our similarities and differences, I’ve gathered that we share many life experiences, including being bilingual, having family who immigrated to the US at different times, having family outside the US, having roots in the Asian communities of California, and viewing food as a cultural anchor. We’ve touched on racism a few times, though not very explicitly, but I feel we’ve exchanged enough personal anecdotes to understand that we have some common ground regarding our experiences with race.

Although the conversations I’ve had with these three colleagues cover a range of topics, no matter what we discussed, or how, each conversation was a way of building connections. With each successive conversation, I felt a little less racially isolated. I don’t know what thoughts, if any, my colleagues had about race while talking with me, but I hope they at least enjoyed the opportunity to chat about things beyond superficial niceties – and I especially hope they will see me as a safe conversation partner if they ever need to talk about something difficult like racism.

Part II

In a previous post – or maybe it was on Twitter, I don’t remember – I mentioned my workplace has an “Allies” network intended to promote a diverse and inclusive environment. Employees complete a single online training course and receive a certificate or sticker, which they can display in their office to indicate they are a member of the network. I’ve discussed this system with the diversity and inclusion manager and we both feel it is highly problematic, so for the time being, I’ve refrained from joining the Allies. The diversity and inclusion manager mentioned the possibility of starting an organization specifically for marginalized employees, a safe space where we can devise ways to make our workplace more inclusive as a whole. I let her know I would definitely be interested in such an organization, but I also noted that, due to the small number of self-identified marginalized employees at our workplace to begin with, we might not have enough interest – so, we’ll see how that goes. Suffice to say, we both realize there are not many “official” channels through which we can engage our workplace on issues of inclusivity.

As someone who prefers to work within the rules where possible – I’m opinionated, but I’m not the right person to spearhead redesigning the system – I’m frustrated by my workplace’s limited, almost nonexistent policies regarding inclusivity. The diversity and inclusion manager has put in countless hours trying to develop inclusive policies, but very few of her suggestions have been put into practice by the (white) people up top. My own position gives me zero authority to assist her, save for informal suggestions on the projects she chooses to discuss with me (and yes, I’m keeping an eye out for openings in her department). So far, all I’ve really been able to do is offer my opinion on how “diverse” or “ethnic” events are advertised around the office, such as the Chinese New Year celebration. My colleague has been very receptive to my feedback on these, but I would certainly love to do more.

To this end, I started my book recommendations list. My self-imposed rules are – I will only recommend books I’ve actually read and enjoyed (this seems like a given, but people ask me this sometimes) and I will only recommend books by nonwhite authors. The list lives on my office door and gets switched anywhere from once every 30 days to once every few months.** I recently decided I would also make an effort to curate book lists for racial/ethnic heritage months, as well as LGBTQ+ month and disability awareness month.*** While I’m not a fan of the white, heteronormative, cisgender, ableist thinking which causes these months to be viewed as “novelties,” I do see these months as benchmarks for diversifying my reading list. A quick survey of my bookshelf shows I read mostly East Asian writers, both Asia-based and diaspora, but very few writers from other racial/cultural backgrounds. Since I recommend three books per list, this means I will read a minimum of three books a year by every marginalized group for whom there exists a celebration month. If I’ve already read a lot of books by the group in question, I commit to reading at least one new book per year by that group – for example, I have a backlist of Asian American titles to recommend, so for 2016 I will commit to reading at least one new book by an Asian American writer. By contrast, I believe I currently have zero titles by nonwhite LGBTQ+ writers on my to-recommend list, so I will be reading at least three this year. I also make an effort to seek out a range of voices within each marginalized group, including looking beyond the nonwhite writers whose names constantly pop up on Twitter, as well as voices from marginalized groups not represented by celebration months (for example, some of my recs for AAPI month may be from Asia-based and/or non-US-based Asian writers).

Book recommendations might seem like a small gesture, but for me, they combine three great things: my passion for reading, my commitment to making my workplace more inclusive, and my interest in finding work-appropriate ways to raise awareness. In an age of activism where even individuals with the same goals sometimes inadvertently silence or speak over each other, I find it vitally important to seek out my own ways of making a difference.

Part III

While I’m quite satisfied with how my book recommendations are working out so far, I think I need a more visible way of letting nonwhite colleagues know they can talk to me. So, my next goal? Decolonizing my office.

Here’s what I have to work with: a small, square-ish room with one big window, walls painted dingy white, and overhead lighting.

Right now, the biggest thing on the wall is a bulletin board, where I pin work-related stuff. I also have a calendar, a couple more work printouts pinned above my desk, and two very colorful paintings given to me by a white male colleague. I don’t mind the paintings – I like colors – but I have no idea who the artists are and the styles aren’t really to my taste. I’d like to replace the paintings, as well as fill up the remaining blank wall space, with items which will indicate my commitment to inclusivity without being too overtly political.****

Since art tends to be more expensive per piece than a book, this will be a long-term project, but my current plan is to buy from marginalized artists I’ve encountered online, as well as from a couple of artist friends. My hope is to choose pieces which will spark conversations – and maybe additional business for the artists – about cultures, identities, languages, nationalities, races, and more. Again, this project will combine a passion of mine – art – with my commitment to making my workplace inclusive without exploding heads.

I’m also considering three-dimensional décor, like small sculptures or figurines, also created by marginalized artists, but since my usable surfaces are limited, I have to balance this with preserving a decently sized workspace. I do regret not buying the Koro-sensei figurine I saw at Kinokuniya, even though it was thirty bucks. It would have been a terrific addition to my desk.

Once my office redecoration is complete, I’m not sure where I’ll head next, but I’m confident I’ll come across more ways of bringing inclusivity to my workplace. I’d especially like to work on something more large-scale and long-lasting with a team of nonwhite colleagues, but I’ll have to do some more personality-reconnoitering before deciding if this is a possibility. In a majority-white workplace like mine, I can’t fault fellow nonwhite people for wanting to fly under the radar, even if I disagree with them.

In closing, I’ll reiterate that this post is in no way any kind of authoritative text on how to be nonwhite in a majority-white workplace. It is reflective only of my personal opinions and experiences and should not be considered representative of anyone else. Thanks for reading!

*Note: This is in no way intended to be a how-to guide of any kind. I’m really just thinking aloud (on paper) about my own experiences.

**I feel this is a reasonable amount of time to give people a chance to peruse the list, considering the rate and frequency at which people cycle past my office door.

***If it is a month like January, which has no celebration associated with it, I will recommend a list of three books by assorted nonwhite writers.

****In other words, I don’t want to end up giving Racism 101 lessons to the entire HR department if my office décor impinges too heavily on white fragility. Even the idea is exhausting.

Advertisements