Exclusion in White Workplaces

Exposing Whiteness: how casual racism excludes non-white colleagues.

By Sofia F.

Image by Pexels

 “The whitewashed workplace, like a whitewashed wall, is seen as colorless rather than white as white culture becomes universalized”

M. REitman, 2006

I have a confession to make. Despite living in Canada for 14 years, I have never been to a cottage. If you are not reacting in shock and horror, perhaps you, too, are not part of the cottaged-elite of this country.

I attended an online summer social event this year. This “social event” generally takes place in person, but because of Covid-19 we saw ourselves doing an online escape room and then a round of Guess Who. Immediately after these directed activities were over, the free-ranging conversation descended into cottage talk. Whose parents are going to which cottage in which area? What will it be like to travel in a car to go to one’s cottage under pandemic restrictions? Who has purchased or is in the process of purchasing a cottage? And so on, and so forth.

This cottage-talk is a result of a primarily white upper-middle-class workforce. There is little room for alternative conversations because there aren’t that many diverse voices in my profession. The voices that exist feel so drowned out that they choose to exclude themselves. They don’t hold senior positions so it is more difficult for them to dominate the conversation.

As businesses become cognizant of explicit racism embedded in their labour structures, and as discussions of diversity and inclusion gain steam, it is crucial to look at the experience of members of visible minorities who are socially othered in predominantly white workplaces. Whereas workplace discrimination with material outcomes is tangible and can be calculated, the feeling of being “othered”, alienated, or at the receiving end of microaggressions is far more difficult to measure.

Setting yourself apart?

For a long time, I found my alienation and exclusion in the Canadian workplace to be something specific to me. I did not consider myself an outsider, though I had only recently moved back to Canada – I went to high school here and did my Master’s here, as well. It was perhaps my lack of passion for recreational and outdoor activities; my lack of children and pets; perhaps even my unsocial mindset that sets me apart. Or perhaps just my family’s socio-cultural and economic background that makes me different.

Before I moved back to Canada four years ago, I used to pride myself on adapting to vastly different worlds. I taught English in Southeast Asia and developed friendships with immigrants and locals alike. While working at an NGO in South Asia, I found myself enjoying my time with my colleagues — a range of people from different sectors of society. I found I could switch my topics of conversation between topics and interests like high-end fashion, Western popular culture, cricket, politics, and local TV. I was not seen nor felt like an outsider. 

It is true that my interests are very ethnicized – I like watching television in my language, I follow the politics of my native country. I have a whole host of cultural and religious obligations that constrain my behaviour. But chatting on this topic with other friends – black and brown, of Muslim and Christian origin – confirms that they also feel excluded from the mainstream culture – a culture that is mostly homogenous. I can’t speak for all people of color, as I am sure many people of colour are able to fit the mold and would not relate with anything I am saying here.

“You’re being too sensitive”

Often, members of minority groups cope with racialized slights and aggressions by ignoring or minimizing the impact of such acts. For instance, a Chinese American who has a white colleague that mocks the Chinese language with gibberish may attribute it to the colleague’s sense of humour. Others may be forgiving of their colleagues’ racist behaviour, attributing it to ignorance, giving them the benefit of the doubt, or ex-post-facto minimizing the feeling that it may have evoked (I may have been too sensitive). Alternatively, some may be careful not to contest or address misconceptions or issues pertaining to their race and culture lest it lead to conflict in the workplace. 

These are the commonly held attitudes and reactions to actions that can be objectively and explicitly categorized as racist. What happens when the general culture of the workplace is so white that it leads to you feeling excluded? It is then difficult to identify where the problem lies much less posit a solution. As members of minority groups, we are already socialized to downplay or ignore so much when we occupy white spaces that expressing disapproval or discontent in such a setting becomes deeply challenging.

When speaking to my racialized friends about this, I saw that many of them jumped to identify feelings of loneliness and alienation in general terms but also recognized that it was hard for them to narrate specific instances or to even verbalize this feeling of being othered.  

For some, the initial distinctions are obvious – the drinking culture of a workplace if you have religious beliefs that prevent you from drinking. Or it could be the vast discussions around topics of cottaging and skiing that your upbringing and class may have prevented you from experiencing. It could be a completely different lifestyle and culture – a culture of arranged marriages versus a culture of casual sex. Or the offhand dismissiveness about cultural interests deemed “ethnic” or “racialized” in a white workspace. 

Disconnect and doubt

When workplace colleagues respond to cultural interests or practices with indifference — whether this indifference masks hostility or general discomfort about race and ethnicity — a racialized person is unlikely to share the intimate details of their lives and therefore also unlikely to develop a shared connection with workplace colleagues. 

On the other hand, upfront and immediate questions about a person’s background, country of origin, or the texture of their hair can create another kind of chasm. Why ask someone about their background as a stand-alone question — why not let it flow out of a dynamic conversation. In other words, a crude interest can also feel like a hostile form of othering. A colleague described the discomfort of being asked where she is from with numerous “piercing Caucasian gazes” eagerly awaiting her response. 

The truth is that our lifestyle could be ridiculed or othered, and we are careful not to draw attention to those dimensions of our lives. And besides the work we actually do in our official capacities as employees, this, too, is labour. 

This disconnect and resultant loneliness makes us wonder whether there is something fundamentally wrong with us that prevents the formation of social connections with workplace colleagues. Maybe if I were more sociable, if I had kids, if I had a pet or I took more interest in recreational sporting activities, then I could have found more common ground. Some of us are silently but constantly doubting our behavior, our interests, and – ultimately – ourselves.

%d bloggers like this: