I am lucky to work in a large company with a clear policy and stated commitment on equality and diversity. A company which has made a commitment to working without discrimination, and which works with clients who share our beliefs. It’s a really positive commitment, but it doesn’t mean that it’s smooth sailing all the time.
Take for example a conversation I had in a senior stakeholder meeting this week:
Person (in a nice, friendly tone): ‘Here’s Sophie – she’s the diversity’
Me (confused but friendly): ‘Did you just say I’m the diversity?’
Person (same friendly tone, no embarrassment): ‘Yup, you’re our diversity’
Me (embarrassed and confused): ‘Yup, I’m so diverse’ *Makes some sort of joke about my own hair and scuttles away*
This interaction was very short – under 30 seconds, but it left me with two main, unsettling, feelings.
The first feeling was confusion – I know very well that this woman wasn’t trying to be unpleasant. She wasn’t being malicious, or pointed in what she was saying, she just made what to her mind was a joke – without pausing to think about what my experience of that would be.
I have since learned that before I came in someone else had mentioned about the lack of diversity in the room (in the meeting of 15 people, only two were women (including myself) and I was the only POC) and this had prompted her joke and I came into the room – representing a little much needed diversity. But I hadn’t been in the room for that conversation, I hadn’t heard anything and had no idea it had taken place. My experience was just walking into a room where the first thing that happened was someone senior to me immediately pointed out my visible difference.
To anyone reading who is thinking ‘This is no big deal, she made a joke, you know she wasn’t trying to be hurtful, so just move on’, I’m going to make a guess that you’re not a visible minority.
To anyone reading who is thinking ‘This is no big deal, she made a joke, you know she wasn’t trying to be hurtful, so just move on’, I’m going to make a guess that you’re not a visible minority. I’m making that bet because, when you are a visible minority, your bodies’ very presence in space becomes politicised in a way you don’t ask for and can’t control. People feel the need, and the right, to comment on it (or even to touch it, but that’s for another day). Your very presence becomes noteworthy in a way that other people moving through space and just existing in the same way as you are not.
There’s a great video comparing micro-agressions to mosquito bites which I think does a great job of landing the point. What can seem like an over reaction to one little joke needs to be taken in the context of a persons every day life and repeated experiences.
To me, in the moment, it didn’t feel like the joke was about the lack of actual representation in a meeting between two companies who aim to be industry leaders in diversity, it felt like a joke about me. It felt as though she was suggesting that my value to the conversation and the meeting was in my otherness, a representation of tokenism. I felt as though she had pointed out to everyone that I didn’t belong, and I don’t need anyone else to do that for me, thank you very much. Even without anyone else’s kind efforts to point it out for me, I was already very aware that I was the only person like me in the room, as I am in most rooms in my professional life. I have worked, and continue to work, very hard to make sure I’m in those rooms and part of those conversations, and her comment felt as though I was being reduced to a token quota filler.
I felt as though she had pointed out to everyone that I didn’t belong, and I don’t need anyone else to do that for me, thank you very much (…) I was already very aware.
I want to add at this point that this may have felt different in different circumstances. If we had been meeting to discuss the under-representation of minority viewpoints in our organisations, that may be one thing. Or, maybe if we were having a catch up on strategies to reach audiences we’d traditionally overlooked, it might have left me feeling slightly differently. But then again maybe not, because in those situations I’d still hope not to be the one and only beacon of diversity in a room.
The second feeling the joke left me with was embarrassment. I was embarrassed, and as a response I made a self depreciating joke and moved away to somewhere I felt more comfortable – on my own at the back of the room, where I stayed for the majority of the 6 hour meeting. I didn’t feel that there was anything useful or empowering I could or should say back, I just wanted people to stop looking at me. I didn’t feel that saying anything back would have been worthwhile, or that mentioning that what she had said was inappropriate would have had any impact but the have marked me out as difficult and unfriendly. After all – it was just a joke.
Intellectually, I’m aware that I’m not the one who did anything wrong in this interaction, but I’m still the one left feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed. I’m willing to bet that she hasn’t given it s second thought, and never will.