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How To Survive A White Workplace As A Person Of Color

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Vent. Fight the fight good. Take care of yourself. And, if need be, GTFO.

I was retrieving a pen under my desk when I heard the unmistakably tight voice of my HR manager. Jerking up, I banged my head on the underside of my keyboard — a precursor to the equivalent headache I was about to receive from his words. He was here to force me to go to a mandatory “diversity training” — the very one I’d been avoiding by hiding at my desk.

Dragged to the hour-long training, I sat sullenly in the back like the class punk while my worst fear was verified. The teacher was a white man who gave merit to reverse racism. Leading a diversity training. Repeat that to yourself: Ignorant White Man Teaches a Diversity Training. I kept waiting for my HR rep to jump out from behind a stack of chairs and yell, “Got you!”

I was the only person of color in the room. After an hour of opinions that could’ve given my Asian-American Studies professors heart attacks in less than 60 seconds (including an assertion that we must be doing well because our company had “so many” Asian-Americans), I started thinking about getting out. Not just out of the training by faking severe gastritis, but out of mainstream corporate America entirely, because it was definitely giving me internal distress.

When Your Workplace Gives You PTSD

I had been in the rat race for a decade on and off, where I’d seen that Asian-Americans were often given a messed-up model-minority pass. However, having been burned before, I carefully code-switched my speech, concealed my radical political views, and cloaked my Korean tattoos in modest dresses and my undershaved head with hair I had grown out over the top to provide cover-up as needed.

But there’s more to surviving a mostly white workplace than disguising the real you with a Harry Potter invisibility cloak. Here are a few ways to survive.

Rest, replenish, and vent.

Talib Kweli said it right: “Job one is self-preservation; I gotta stay healthy.” Have you been run ragged — in body, mind, and spirit — by your job? Get yourself some R&R.

If you’re a workaholic, skip those supposedly career-advancing coworker drinks once in awhile and book a dance class after work instead. Use lunch like a mini-vacation, if you can. Make recurring weekly lunch plans to do something quirky (I like to act like a kid on the swings or carousel in the park) with people who lift you up. Head to the gym during lunch and forget your worries on the treadmill. Watch Dear White People or Hasan Minhaj on your tablet while on said elliptical and laugh your ass off. Eat comfort food by a fountain (if yours is kimchi jjigae like mine is, you’ll also get fewer weird stares outside the lunchroom). Duck into a beautiful cathedral to pray or meditate. Spend one hour reading authors who uplift you and/or make you laugh. Get a mini-massage at the nail salon. Unfollow an ignorant Twitter account. Pop outside for sanity-lifting phone calls with friends. Ask them to send you funny memes to take your mind off work microaggressions (or specifically to make fun of those exact microaggressions). Complain to your friends about the corporate schmuck who tells you Syrian refugees are terrorists when you tell him you’re organizing a fundraiser for them (yes, this happened); then, forget him for a moment while you enjoy your life. When you come back to work, have a Teflon mantra for deflecting him every time he says dumb shit. Say it out loud or in your head, depending on how likely that is to get you fired.

No one needs a memo re: your 5 to 9.

Your outside life can be your outside life. If you just happened to write a The Office-style musical where the co-workers critique the protagonist’s “interesting,” stinky, spicy Korean fish stew in the office fridge, you do not have to invite any of your coworkers or even tell them what you’re up to. You can choose to befriend and trust coworkers if and when you feel it is safe to. If you need privacy, use a nom de plume at work or in play. Keep those activities on the other side of town, or in a town where none of your coworkers live, if you need complete compartmentalization. You owe no one your “extracurricular” self, unless you feel comfortable sharing and want to do so. This Onion article may assist you in faking a really boring weekend watching Scandal when what you really did was stage your own radical musical, attend an anti-ICE protest, party with your favorite band, and throw a food pop-up.

Bolster yourself and fight when it’s right.

If you’ve never worked in an all-white workplace before this (Where are you, Hawaii? Can I have your job?), it’s going to take strength to keep you going day to day. This part is not about rest and relaxation and fun; it’s about #hwaeting, as the Koreans say. Put inspiring books, photos, mementos, and quotes around your desk to remind you of who you really are (I had an Audre Lorde quote, a Sandra Cisneros poetry book, a framed photo of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Rita Dove poem, a gif of Grumpy Cat pressing the escape key, and a portrait of my grandmother). Put a dollar in a jar to donate to a non-profit every time someone at work says or does something stupid and watch that money grow. Form alliances with people of color (PoC) and allies, and be an influencer, if you can, to create a more truly diverse and inclusive workplace. When it’s morally incumbent upon you (and if you feel safe), fight the good fight. That could mean going to HR to witness for a person of color (including yourself) who’s being bullied or sexually harassed; it could mean asking the company to take down signs that are sexist, racist, or anti-queer; it could mean asking that the work charity of the month be an explicitly anti-racist org.

Put a dollar in a jar to donate to a non-profit every time someone at work says or does something stupid and watch that money grow. Click To Tweet

Support your Black coworkers.

Recognize that different PoC are treated differently. I’ve had white people in workplaces mistakenly believe that because I am Asian, I am in on the racist patriarchy and they can crack that racist joke around me using the word “thug” or “ghetto” and we will all slap our knees and laugh together. Uh, no — I’m about as okay with that as I am with you stealing my kimchi fried rice from the fridge. #Notyourmodelminority, okay? Non-Black PoC, as well as straight-passing folks like myself, people with “perfect” 2.5-kid families, and people who consume white culture may be given preferential treatment in a white workplace. It’s important to not deny this and to work to change it. If a Black coworker is continually passed over for a promotion or her statements are ignored in a meeting, recognize her achievement with this shine technique that President Obama’s female staffers used.

Fight for your place at the table.

Looking to move up? You already know you have to work 10 times as hard. The authors of Good Is Not Enough: And Other Unwritten Rules for Minority Professionals advocate that PoC stay current on company pursuits and work to be visible in meetings where dominant forces may slate them as ghosts. Clearly state your career goals out loud and in writing to bosses, mentors, and top executives. If you don’t have a mentor, socialize with and recruit allies who will mentor you. Lastly, you can gracefully take credit for what you did, instead of watching white coworkers take credit, by documenting what you’ve done via statistical progress report emails and making it clear that a project’s success was in large part due to your excellent work product. Statistics are hard(er) to argue with, and companies love them.

Looking to move up? You already know you have to work 10 times as hard. Click To Tweet

GTFO.

If you can’t take it anymore, make an exit plan complete with monthly and weekly benchmarks and start looking to dig yourself out. Start auto-saving via a CD, so your money is locked up until the year you’re due to leave, or join Digit, which I call “Easy Savings for Impatient Millennials.” As far as where to go, look at Glassdoor reviews and message folks on LinkedIn and Facebook about what companies have the best environments for PoC. Join every online networking group for PoC you can find. Forbes, Fortune, Essence, Black Enterprise, and other pubs also have lists galore. Fast Company even made a list of the best tech companies for folks of color.

And, if you’re ready, the authors of Black Faces in White Places: 10 Game-Changing Strategies to Achieve Success and Find Greatness encourage entrepreneurial pursuits, because if you own your own business, you can set your own rules and uphold ethical standards. While starting your own business is easier said than done when loans are hard to come by as a Black or Latinx entrepreneur, sometimes entrepreneurship and freelancing are the best option when you’ve hit your corporate limit and are not located in a large, progressively liberal city with better workplaces. Is it worth it to cash out that 401(k) to start your own business? If you have a solid business plan, the answer could be yes.

Here’s to whatever path works for you: scaling the corporate ladder, finding a more inclusive workplace, finally securing that loan for your own business, or freelancing from home while lying down Ali Wong-style — it all works so long as you never have to sit through a corporate diversity training led by an anti-reverse-racism advocate.