Code Switching and Quarantine
The Stress of Video Calls on Racialized Professionals
Many racialized professionals endure the feeling that they are on display for their colleagues who are either fascinated, opinionated or critical of what many perceive to be their exoticness – whether they are ogled, examined, questioned or sometimes touched.
This has compelled many of us to be hypervigilant in how we show up for work. We are extra attentive to our dress, our hairstyles, our lunches and, for some of us, even our very names in an attempt to minimize our differences so that we will be seen for who we are and gain merit for our work. We do not want to feel like caricatures, cultural ambassadors, or be tokenized. Already facing the challenges of not being seen as enough or not belonging, many of us are compelled to dress more professionally, carry ourselves more uprightly and put in more hours compared to our counterparts so that we can prove that we do, in fact, belong.
Being in the office has historically been exhausting, requiring us to police our thoughts, our words, our behaviour – what effectively feels like every part of us, so that we don’t stand out too much.
In contrast, our homes have been our sanctuaries. It is one of the few places where we can just be, free from the questions, the prying eyes, the criticisms and the ridicule. It has been one of the few safe spaces many of us have had in societies where we are continually “othered.”
Working From Home
Working from home has spared us from much of the anguish of office life, but it has robbed many of us from our only truly safe space – our homes.
Video calls have been a saving grace during this pandemic, keeping us connected and allowing so much of our work to carry on uninterrupted. But they have also blurred the line between our work life and our home life. This blurring has been felt hardest by those who have been curating their professional images for years while sheltering their personal self from their colleagues’ critical gazes.
In a recent Culture Check-in, a support group for racialized professionals, we discussed the impact that working from home has had on us. I had mentioned that on calls I noticed a larger percentage of people who use virtual backgrounds are people of colour. One attendant mentioned that they are the only person of colour on their team and the only one who uses a virtual background because they were exhausted by needing to continually explain what was happening in their background. Another attendant pointed to a picture in their background and said, “You see that picture right there? I had to switch what was originally there because people kept talking about it so much.” He walked off camera and came back with a painting that was reminiscent of the kind of artwork that is commonplace in most Caribbean and African households, saying, “This is what I used to have up there.”
The common consensus was that video calls have imposed a level of curation to our once-safe home workspace, similar to the curation of our professional selves while in the office.
A Different Type of Zoom Fatigue
Zoom fatigue is experienced by us all, but that fatigue is compounded by our need to code-switch and mask the most intimate areas of who we are. The fatigue is exasperated by the feelings of needing to continually prove ourselves in professional spaces. When our hair and appearance have been policed for so long, we don’t dare show up on camera with the same laissez-faire quarantine styles as some of our colleagues. When our cultural practices or parenting styles are demonized, permitting our colleagues into our homes to only be faced with a barrage of questions and comments is no trivial matter.
The stresses attributed to being racialized in the workplace are not reserved for the moments of overt prejudice, disrespect and hate. It is felt by ways of a thousand cuts – indetectable by those not experiencing it.
Like a stream of water flowing over a bed of rocks, any single droplet of water that comes in contact with the face of a rock seems inconsequential, but over time the persistent exposure to the current has the power to mold, shape and break down the stones to better accommodate the stream.
Cultivating Inclusive Culture
Against the backdrop of working from home and a global pandemic, there has never been a more pressing time to double down on culture. As more companies are seeking to strengthen inclusion amongst their racialized employees, it is imperative that organizations embed psychological safety at the very core of their identity, on which is the foundation that diversity and inclusion is built. If these values are not embedded within the culture in a fundamental way, they will not permeate all aspects of the organization and will fail to truly foster belonging among the marginalized.
Sitting in our discomfort should not be more prevalent than feeling safe enough to discuss our discomfort.
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