Sunday, November 24, 2013

What would you do: Diversity discussions at work

I keep thinking I want to write this post, and then I keep telling myself that I shouldn't...and then I keep wanting to write it...and then I stop myself again...

So I'm going to write it, but I'm going to write it carefully because I don't want it to be misconstrued.  If I say something that doesn't sit right with you, or something that doesn't seem like me...ask me in the comments and we'll talk.  Chances are that it just didn't come out right, in spite of my being careful.

There is this one particular colleague that challenges me for several reasons, but mostly, I think, because we are just very (very) different people.  She is not a bad person, and I don't want to come across as saying that she is.  She has very different values than I do, sure, but she's not a bad person.  I think her intentions are mostly good.

This person, who I'll call Emma, challenges me most of all on two topics: (1) completely unchecked privilege that she has no intention of recognizing and (2) complete lack of awareness on issues surrounding diversity. 

Allow me to set the scene for the following conversation.  Emma, another colleague I'll call K, and myself were sitting in our cubicles.  I was writing progress notes, and Emma and K were talking.

Emma is a Caucasian, cisgender, Christian female in her early 30s, born and raised in a (self-described) wealthy, religious family in a Midwestern state. 

K is an Indian, cisgender, Hindu female in her late 20s, born and raised in Delhi, India, in a (self-described) "well-off" family.  She has been in the US for 5 years.  It should be noted that K has a traditional Indian name.

K asked Emma for assistance with pronouncing an unusual name for a client she would be seeing later that day.  Emma provided as much assistance as she could, and laughed at the name.

"You know," K said, "I always thought I wanted to give my children traditional Indian names because they have so much meaning, and I just have always thought they are beautiful.  But after working with kids and knowing how much I mess up their names all the time, I don't know if I want to do that to my kid.  I'll probably name him John or something," she laughed.

Me, as I was pretending to write notes
"Oh my gosh," said Emma.  "I can't stand know...interesting names.  You know how I told you that I did foster care when I was living in [Midwestern state]?  Yeah, well, did I ever tell you the kids' names?"

"No," said K.  "I don't think so."

I continued typing my notes, but my fingers were turning into claws on my keyboard.  This was not going to end well, I could tell.

"Well," said Emma, "the first child I had...a little boy...his name when I got him was [insert traditional Native American name here].  Well, let me tell you, I called the foster care agency and told them "there is no way I'm calling a child this name.  We're going to have to give him a new name instead."

K laughed, sort of.  "So wait, his name was [traditional Native American name]?  And they changed it?"

"Oh yeah," said Emma.  "There was no way I was going to call a child that.  So we changed the name to [insert common, European sounding name here].  And then my SECOND foster child...I couldn't even figure out how to pronounce his name.  His name was [insert traditional Native American name here].  And I just told them, "no, I'm calling him [insert similar sounding name that is a relatively uncommon, but clearly European, name]."  She laughed.  "I mean, come on.  How was I going to call a child [traditional Native American name]?"

K laughed again, sort of.  "So you just changed the children's names?  You can do that?"

"Oh yeah," said Emma.  "The foster care agency didn't have an issue with it.  I think they probably understood."

There was an awkward moment while I weighed the anger that was coming out of my ears, the likelihood that I would be able to respond in a calm and rational manner, and the fact that I need to work with her for at least another 10 months.  I couldn't stay quiet.  I took a breath and turned around.

"Growing up in Midwestern state, there must have been a large Native American population," I said, hoping to give her a way to introduce this fact, or recant her prior judgment, or change her story, or offer a redeeming piece of information, or something.  None of that happened. 

Also me, waiting for the smoke to start coming out of my ears.
"Oh yeah," she said instead.  "They're everywhere."

I'm pretty sure flames came out of my ears.  I took another deep breath.

"Well, given that, and given the children's names, it sounds like they were probably from families with Native American heritage.  Right?"

"Well, yes," she said.

"Hmmmm," I paused.  Everything paused for a moment, as both Emma and K waited for what I was going to say next.  "You know," I said, thoughtfully and calmly, "I don't know that I agree with you on this.  Given, they weren't children that I was caring for, but it concerns me that children who are being taken not only away from their family, but also away from their culture,  would also have their names that link them to that culture taken from them.  From what I understand, names and the naming process are extremely important in some cultures...not to mention that there is an identity with that name, even with very young children.  To take that away so that I could feel more comfortable, or so that the people around me could feel more comfortable, is not something I think I could condone."

"Oh, they were really young...I mean, the oldest was 3.  And this is something that the foster care agency has to do all the time."

"Hmmm," I said, pausing again.  "You know," I said, continuing to breathe and attempt to sound thoughtful and calm, "I think this also bothers me due to the fact that this fees like a perpetuation of what Caucasian people have done to Native Americans and their culture for generations.  I just think that I would really hate for a child to lose their traditional name and their link to their heritage because someone isn't comfortable with calling them by their given name."

"Yeah..." Emma paused.  " was really no big deal.  The foster care agency was cool with it."  She laughed and made a joke, and then her pager went off, calling her into session. 

K and I turned back to our computers and started typing after she left.  My heart was pounding because...dude, standing up is hard.  There wasn't a reason to stand up to this particular issue, necessarily.  It was all over and done.  But I had to do it anyway.  I just had to.  I couldn't have let myself just sit there and listen to it.  Why?

(1) Because I don't know how this conversation might have affected K, as a Indian woman living, at least for now, in the US.  As an Indian woman expressing -- albeit tongue-in-cheek -- her hesitance to name her future children with names that are culturally important and significant to her. 

(2) Because we work together in a helping profession with children from all walks of life, from every possible background and history, and because the sort of ignorance and judgment she was displaying is not okay with me if she is going to continue to work in this profession.  I mean, if you change your own foster children's names, what might you say to a family or client with whom you are working?  (Keep in mind, we have lots of prior history, too.  I'm not basing this on a one-time interaction, even if it was a whopper).

(3) Because this just was not okay.  Changing others' culture to make you more comfortable is not okay.  Laughing about others' heritage to make you more comfortable is not okay. 

(4) Because, it seems, that this had been told and retold as a "funny story" for years, and had always gone unchecked.  I couldn't let it go unchecked.

It was hard.  But I had to say something.  I don't think it changes anything.  I also don't think this will be the last conversation of this nature that we have. 

Also me.  I'm the dude offering the drink.
(I do know that she did not come to the didactic I did on cultural spite of supervisors directives to go.  This was a serious bummer, as I did the didactic because I saw a need - from her and others  - and asked to be able to help to fill that need.  I expressed this disappointment to my supervisor later, and her response was, essentially "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."  This is true, but hard to sit with.  I kinda want to shake her and say "LEARN, DAMMIT!"  This, however, is generally regarded as unprofessional).

How would you have handled this situation?  Would you have had a conversation?  Or would you have let it be?


  1. My first thought did she manage to foster NA kids without being an ICWA home?? I don't know how I would have handled the rest of the situation/conversation because that would be foremost in my mind.

    1. I didn't know what an ICWA home was and had to look it up. I didn't know such a thing existed! I don't know how she ended up with these kiddos. Interesting question, though. I wish I had this information at the time.

  2. I like to think I would have handled it in a similar way. I'm bad with confrontation, but I've (slowly) gotten better at addressing things I simply can't stand aside for. It sounds to me as if you were calm, presented your thoughts, and maybe (I hope!!) helped K to realize that Emma is not representative of all Caucasian, cisgender, fairly privileged young women.

    You never know how those seeds will grow. Emma doesn't seem very fertile ground right now - that horse ain't gonna drink. But there may come a time in her life when her perspective shifts, and she may appreciate what you said eventually. Or, she may never have any idea, and remain clueless, and do what she does. But you will be easier in your own mind for speaking, I think.

    In my own workplace, most conversations don't veer in this direction. The ones that do tend to be overtly political; in those instances when I cannot stay silent, I try to take the most middle-of-the-road position possible. Merely introducing the fact that there IS another way to think about things is sometimes the best we can do. And I sure fail at that sometimes too. It's not easy, but I usually wind up being glad I've done it.

    1. I definitely felt better for having said something. If I hadn't, I would be beating myself up over it. Confrontation is so hard. I have also gotten better, but it's definitely a huge challenge.

  3. It sounds to me like you did a rockstar job in an incredibly challenging and alarmingly common situation. You were thoughtful, mindful, circumspect, and fair. Go you! :)

    Also, "Emma"s drive me bonkers. Especially when they work in helping professions. :/

    1. Thanks, Dr. Alison. I hope I handled it okay. It was certainly a challenge.

      "Emma"s drive me bonkers, too. PARTICULARLY when they are in a position of power in a helping profession.

  4. I would have said, "Are you kidding me? You changed kids' names because you didn't like them? I don't like 'Emm.' So I'm going to call you .... wait, let me see..... Oh, I know! I'll call you Bigot, which is much better than the B-word I thought of first."

    You handled it much better than I would have. You planted a seed. That's the best you could do. For now.