3 Types of Problematic White Coworkers and How to Deal*
I love HBO’s “Insecure.” While I am not a Black woman, the experiences particularly of Issa and her coworkers in the nonprofit workspace are so, so, so relatable. How many times, as women of color, have we dealt with problematic white Millennials in the workplace and beyond? I remember cheering with joy when Issa told one of her coworkers to carry back a cooler after a beach trip -- it a small action but a huge victory for Issa. And it was so satisfying.
While this is somewhat of a parody, this little blog is based off some real life experiences I’ve gone through in my professional path.* Generalizations can, indeed, be slippery slopes but we hope this serves as a comedic guide to white people gaining awareness of how their actions can impact women of color.
The overachieving one, whose competence seems to excuse her abuse.
I used to work with a highly competent white woman. At first, I was thrilled by the possibility of not having carry the working weight of two people, but that excitement was doused. As it turned out, her competence was used as a weapon against me. Not only was she quick to throw me under the bus (as a manager, no less), she never gave me credit for any of my ideas and solutions, just for my mistakes.
One day, she publicly called me out in front of the entire team for “messing up” a product. Shocked, I didn’t have much time to respond. But as it turned out, she had given me an outdated template to work off of, thus causing the mistake. Of course, she apologized to me in front of the group… Just kidding.
Frustrated, I spoke to people above me but nothing ever came of it. Her hostility was allowed to continue, and I left. Now imagine if this woman was a person of color -- she’d be immediately flagged as aggressive and not a team-player. But because she was white, she was permitted to be, well, terrible.
So, How to Deal: When dealing with white coworkers who are hostile, it’s important to stay calm and collected, and realize you’ll have to do double time for anything to happen. As such, it’s important to keep track of the abuse. Whether you follow up with the person through email, documenting the situation, or make HR aware -- keep the receipts! If you can concretely show this person is impacting your productivity (dollar signs, in company speak), the company’s best interest would be to intervene.
But in the meantime, take self-care seriously. Talk to a therapist, book some weekly yoga sessions, do breathing exercises -- toxic stress is real.
The incompetent one, who mishaps are placed on you while she gets the goods.
Women of color have to work twice as hard for the same praise our white counterparts get for doing the minimum. Until the entire culture of the working world decides to acknowledge this fact, and pay and give us credit accordingly, not much will change. Which is the perfect impetus for our white colleagues to get away with about anything, while we pick up the scraps.
I used to work with a white colleague, who while nice enough, was just bad at the job. It got so bad that, at one point, I was re-doing her work just to keep programs alive and moving. But despite her forgetfulness and disorganization, she was never corrected. The powers that be allowed her to move un-interrupted, while the women of color in the office were constant targets for abuse and ridicule. She was promoted within a year.
So, How to Deal: Boundaries, chica. As a woman of color, it’s hard to watch pieces of the puzzle collapse before your very eyes but resist the urge to correct the course. You have your responsibilities, your coworkers have their responsibilities. If they want to let assignments fall to the wayside that’s their prerogative. Setting boundaries taught me the importance of accountability, yes, but also that problematic white coworkers will if given the chance use you as a crutch to dig themselves out of a hole and take all the credit, too.
The woke one, who talks about intersectionality but also doesn’t mind spewing out a micro-aggression or two.
You know the one. He decorates his desk with “all are welcome” posters, but doesn’t mind asking “what are you” in the break room. She carries a tote bag with My Feminism is Intersectional emblazoned in pink letters but doesn’t think skin color makes a difference in whether or not someone gets hired. Microaggressions, you have to love them.
My own life can be an example: few job positions ago, I was casually asked “what are you” by a colleague. I was annoyed, but not surprised, that this pussy hat-loving and HIllary Clinton-worshipping woman would ask such a question, a microaggression fraught with the underlying message of “you are an outsider” and “something about you doesn’t belong.”
It’s tempting to want to ask these people how they became “woke” -- but I understand if you’re already dealing with some emotional frustration. For while they look good on the outside, you still have to deal with daily slights and insults that may not be ill intentioned but are still problematic AF.
So, How to Deal: While it’s not the oppressed’s job to educate the oppressor, microaggressions will keep happening if the harm goes unaddressed. So when an interaction at work leaves a bad taste in your mouth, call it out for what it is neutrally:
“You just said/did X. It may not be your intention, but your statement/action harmed me. Please consider the impacts of your statement/action and work not to say/do something like that again.”