The Complexity of Race and Identity in Predominately White Workplaces.

The Complexity of Race and Identity in Predominately White Workplaces.

- Colin Peters

White people will assume the ‘ethnic food’ in the office microwave is yours

When I was a kid, I took a white bread ham sandwich to school for lunch every single day. I hated them. Yet despite my aversion to ham sandwiches, my aversion to being punched by racists was far stronger. So, as one of few brown kids in my school, to avoid being targeted for eating something I was told ‘stinks like sh*t,’ I left what I actually liked at home – renouncing the beloved garlic naan of my family’s Indian past, in favour of embracing the ham sandwich of my Australian present.

And while it is highly unlikely I’m going to get punched by a co-worker in the kitchen for bringing in a chicken korma, I do bristle anytime someone heats up a curry in the office microwave because in my experience, white co-workers will often a) assume the curry in the microwave is mine, and b) find it necessary to ‘relate to me’ by telling me about that time they went to India/saw a Bollywood movie/ate a vindaloo/met another brown person.

Why is this problematic?

On the face of it, there would appear to be no inherent malice at play here, however, as a person of colour, being constantly reminded of your ‘otherness’ and being expected to tolerate any assumption or intrusion into your cultural identity is emotionally exhausting. Significantly, this othering and the accompanying cultural assumptions can have lasting professional implications. For example, the language of workplace management and capabilities frameworks can be used to apply differing sets of coded expectations. In my experience, people of colour are often expected to be ‘team players,’ ‘hard-working,’ and are described as ‘quiet.’ Conversely, their white counterparts are rewarded for being ‘courageous’, ‘outspoken’ and described as ‘emerging leaders.’

People of colour are burdened with resolving the tension between representing themselves authentically – possibly at great professional risk, and figuratively settling for the relative safety and security of a ham sandwich. Notably, this remains a tension I am personally yet to resolve fully, but recognising it is an important step.

POC pro-tip: If you can’t find a way clear in your current workplace or are looking to forge a new path, find inspiration in other POC that are blazing their own trails, like Sasha Sarago, editor of Ascension Magazine, or Beverley Wang, host of ‘It’s Not a Race’ podcast.

Mentors are for white people

Some years ago, while working in a large organisation with a history reaching back to Federation, I chanced upon a view from a mezzanine, of a senior leadership forum being held on the ground floor below. As I scanned the dozens of men and women attending the forum, there was literally no one who looked like me represented in the faces of more than a hundred senior executives. 

Why is this problematic?

The term ‘bamboo ceiling’ describes this phenomenon – where Asian* talent is effectively locked out of positions of leadership in organisations.  When people of colour can’t see themselves reflected in senior leadership, identifying mentors and role models that acknowledge the complexities of race and identity in predominantly white spaces can be next to impossible. The result is that people of colour scale back their ambitions. And women of colour experience the compounding disadvantage of gendered discrimination – where institutionalised misogyny and racism serve to hinder their professional mobility.

POC pro-tip: If you can’t find a mentor you can readily identify with in your workplace, look outside your organisation, field, or sector. There are POC leaders excelling in all sorts of fields of endeavour – seek them out. Or better – leverage your own skills and experience and offer to mentor other talented POC in your organisation to help them navigate the challenges faced by POC.

Diversity cupcakes offer no protection

As an introvert, I find the social obligation of workplace morning teas challenging at the best of times, but as a person of colour in a predominantly white workplace, morning teas have on many occasions proven to be a source of intolerable anxiety.  At one morning tea, I had just returned from annual leave sporting a customary holiday beard, and a colleague laughingly told me I had gone the ‘terrorist look’. I was rightly appalled – firstly, because I had in fact gone for the ‘hipster look,’ but secondly – that I should be expected to tolerate racist vilification under the guise of workplace banter. 

Another time, I wore a blue shirt to work. As I approached my desk, two grown men were giggling uncontrollably – apparently, I looked like I ‘should be driving a cab’. 

On another occasion, at an afternoon tea, I could feel my spidey senses tingling as I followed a conversation where a colleague mistook two Indian actors for each other. Anticipating a barrage of racist jokes that I would inevitably be called upon to forgive in order to restore the racial equilibrium, I removed myself from the scene. To my surprise, one of my colleagues – so convinced I should know nothing racist was said after I left – followed me down the corridor to regale me with the retelling of each of the racist jokes I had anticipated and sought to avoid, insisting they were in no way racist. 

Why is this problematic?

The examples above are a far cry from the ‘diversity cupcakes’ of a Harmony Day morning tea.  These are moments where organisations are presented with opportunities to disrupt the systems and structures that tolerate, support and reinforce racism – to truly and meaningfully demonstrate their corporate values and integrity. Yet they are rarely taken.

With even the best intentions, traditional organisational frameworks are ill-equipped to equitably navigate the dynamics of structural power. HR strategies reframe racism in the workplace as personal conflict, skewing any examination of the issues in favour of the perpetrator. This falsely places the perpetrator on equal footing with the victim, who is required to forensically demonstrate how and why a specific racist incident at work was racist, explain the nature and dynamics of racism and quantify the harm caused in this instance, in order to convince arbitrators of why they should take action. This serves only to exhaust and silence people of colour, further victimising them, and reinforcing structural inequities.

POC pro-tip: Establish your own support networks and find people whose stories resonate with you and who you can identify with – it may be online and through social media. Follow @aamer_rahman@helpmeskeletor@Utopiana, @thePinOnline or me – @colinpetersCBR and build language to help articulate your lived experience. 

*(Asian = East Asian (China, Japan, South Korea, etc), South East Asian (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam etc) and South Asian (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka etc)).

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