<![CDATA[Are you clueless about the ways differences shape the perspectives of your coworkers? Author Tom Finn reminds us that while many differences are visible, many are not, and our ability to connect with and support each other may depend on understanding the histories we carry into the workplace, often generationally. For example, I am white and a secular Jew. While I do not practice the religion, being Jewish is an important identity in my prism. I carry with me a history of my own painful experiences of anti-Semitism from my childhood in Kansas. I also carry with me the images of the holocaust in Europe that my parents made sure I saw while I was growing up so that I would never forget what happened to Jews. This combination of events that happened before I was born and during my own childhood means that, even now, I always scan my environment to see who else might be Jewish so that I know whom I can feel safe with. Because I do not “look Jewish” or have a recognizably Jewish name, I can take a long time to reveal this side of my identity to new people until I get a sense of their attitudes and degree of cluelessness. I have gotten feedback from coworkers that I can seem standoffish when people first meet me. They cannot see this invisible difference that is part of what makes me tick.
Many of us carry in some current and some historical differences that can make it difficult to connect with us. Some of us are from alcoholic families or abusive families or are rape survivors, and we may find it difficult to trust people—but these are invisible differences. I find that white women are often clueless about the long history of betrayal by white women of black women during slavery times in this country, about which many black women are still resentful. Many black women feel unsupported by white women who do not join them to fight against racial profiling outside and racial discrimination inside organizations (among many other race-based injustices). They find it difficult to join white women to focus on gender-based inequities when white women do not make working against racial injustice an equal priority.
Another example of how we can carry history in comes from the experiences of Chicanas and Latinas. We may not know that a second- or third-generation US-born Chicana or Latina carries with her the stories from her parents and grandparents of abusive and oppressive treatment by whites that leave her ambivalent, at best, about expecting or offering support to white women colleagues. And we may be clueless about the shame still carried by a Japanese American colleague about the internment of her family by the US government during World War II. She may seem distant or difficult to connect with if we do not know how history has shaped her prism.
Not only do we carry in differences that affect our ability to connect across groups, but differences within groups can affect us as well. For example, a secular Jew like me can feel judged and rejected by religious Jews. Women can also feel distanced from each other within groups because of class-of-origin differences. For example, two African American women attended a workshop I recently facilitated. One of the women took a big risk in the group and made a statement about race that she knew would be controversial. It was, indeed, controversial, and she took a lot of flak from the predominantly white group—alone. During the break I asked the other African American woman why she didn’t offer any support to her colleague, and she said something like, “She’s always had it easy and thinks she’s ‘all that,’ so I just didn’t feel like helping her out.” With a little more conversation, it became clear that even though they were currently peers professionally, their different class backgrounds—one working class and one upper-middle class—created a reflex to let a coworker stand alone, unsupported. I submit that class differences create this reflex within many, if not all, groups. Class differences, colorism (where lighter skin and “good hair” are more valued), and other differences within groups can create distance, even though group members outwardly appear to share a common dimension of diversity.
An excerpt from my book, New Rules for Women, available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0982056982/).]]>