⭐ why diversity matters
I read an article today called "The Cost of Code-Switching" (ironically, while feeling demoralized at work). It made me think of a time a few weeks ago when an old coworker of mine listened in as I participated in a team meeting. She noted that I code-switched almost effortlessly as I switched between talking to her and my team, and pointed out the slight Southern accent in my work voice absent in my normal speech.
I've been blessed (maybe?) to not grow up with the typical "outsider" experience an Asian immigrant normally would in the United States. My parents and I moved to a very diverse suburb when I was young, and growing up almost all of my friends were children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. I might have resented some aspects of it then (the ultra-competitive academic and extracurricular scene, especially), but in hindsight I'm grateful for the safety I felt growing up in my own skin. At the very least I was never made to feel like I didn't belong because of it.
It wasn't until I moved to Chile to work for a semester in college that I truly experienced what it feels like to be an outsider. There, children pointed at me on the streets, friends asked me to cook them the "exotic" foods from my "homeland", and people called me chino everywhere I went. I never felt like any of it was malicious, as it can sometimes be in the States. But even still, I was made to feel different and very much an outsider.
I now work in a small private company that can best be described (generously) as not very diverse. Our office looks very much like what I imagine one might have decades ago here, with the accounting and marketing departments made up entirely of white women and with leadership and IT dominated by white men. I have never met anyone at this company that didn't identify as straight or cisgender, and there are no people of color on the executive board. I am the diversity hire, one of only two people of color in an office of around thirty. (We had a third, but he quit... for reasons unknown.) The lack of diversity is surreal at times, like I'm in a scene from Get Out except there are no Black people in the office. Every recruitment cycle I pray for some more minority representation, for someone who might understand my struggle, but it feels like the hiring classes only get whiter.
I'm fortunate I don't have to do nearly as much to fit in as some of the Black people interviewed in that HBR study. I don't have to speak in a totally different accent (I speak Mandarin at home), nor do I have to try to change the way my hair appears naturally. The main problem I face is that I don't share much in common with anyone I work with. As one lady interviewed summarized succinctly:
"I rarely engage in social gatherings with coworkers because there are few things that we have in common, and I don’t feel that they are interested in learning about things that interest me, because they are the majority."
I'm not very social to begin with, especially when I'm not comfortable, and since my coworkers only seem capable of talking about college sports, golf, booze, and old American movies I never really say much at work. After hours and hours of feigning interest to people talking around and over and through me, I've gained a new superpower—invisibility! I can hide in plain sight. At most work functions I am certain nobody would notice if I disappeared.
I recognize this for the vicious cycle it is. I withdraw because I can't talk to them about anything, and in turn they'll talk more about beer/football/golf/fishing and think of me as the quiet Asian in IT, which only further discourages me from speaking up. And this cycle repeats ad nauseam until you have a very undiverse group with detached, disgruntled outsiders on the fringes.
To their credit, they do try to include me once in a while. But I never know what to do when coworkers introduce themselves and tell me straight away that their wife is Chinese. Nor do I know how to react when they proudly seek me out to tell me they visited a new Chinese restaurant. Great, when can I tell you about my trip to Chili's?
My boss asks me a question about my interests maybe once every two hours of conversation. But it's obvious he doesn't do so out of genuine curiosity because he always either ignores, belittles, or makes fun of my response. He'll ask me what sports I like to watch and then go on a long diatribe about how soccer is boring and not nearly as entertaining as American college football.
I do my best to find things to talk about with my coworkers. Film is where I feel like we'd have the most common ground, even though I rarely watch movies. But it's incredible how few movies we have in common. They don't watch any foreign or indie titles, and I've never seen any of the old comedies they reminisce about. Somehow, we live and work in more or less the same place but inhabit two distinct realities that don't overlap at all.
I used to complain to my parents about never being able to get a word in at work. It's exhausting spending time with people you don't share anything with and who aren't earnest in their curiosity, after all. They always urge me to do more to fit in, like learning to play golf or watching some NFL. To them, it's my responsibility to ingratiate myself to my employers. Some of my friends will watch popular shows and blockbusters or sports games to have more common ground with coworkers, but doing so feels like I'm betraying myself. My job already intrudes on my freedom so much; why should I sacrifice my precious, scarce free time to compromise my identity?
I wish I could speak up and contribute my viewpoint to help make this a better place to work. I know they probably mean well, but are simply blind to all the ways working in an all-white workplace can be exhausting to minorities. But I don't know how to, especially when the stakes are so high. Even if they were somehow receptive to feedback, it would mark the start of a long, slow process to change culture, one that likely won't make any headway in the time I'll be here. And if they don't take it well? History has not been the kindest to people who stand up and rock the boat, especially in corporate.
Besides, what can they do, other than the most straightforward answer of hire more minorities? Could you imagine HR trying to ask a bunch of middle-aged conservative White men to try to be more inclusive? I don't want people to talk to me out of obligation. If everyone suddenly started asking me questions about myself I would feel no less ostracized, maybe even more than I currently do.
These questions are difficult ones to answer, and I imagine they must be for the four white women in HR as well given how little progress I've seen. I don't feel comfortable in my current work environment and it provides me with a constant stream of stress, but I'm grateful for the lessons it's taught me about the importance of diversity. I never placed much weight on it before when searching for jobs, but I know the next time I look it will be one of my top priorities.
thank you for reading; write to me at
yourstiramisu 🐌 proton dot me