How Racism Harms BIPOC in the Workplace
I got into the field of social work in order to help people. I’m committed to equity, and after working as a clerical associate in pediatrics, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable children. When I started as a social worker, I truly believed that others in my field had entered it because they too were committed to equity. But as a queer, disabled, BIPOC social worker who has survived more than a decade of white supremacy in her field, I’ve learned otherwise. What I wish I knew then was how BIPOC social workers are worn down by racist harm.
As someone with a master’s degree in social work, I tried to give the benefit of the doubt when I was offered part-time work in comparison to my white colleagues, who held bachelor’s degrees in social work and were offered full-time work. I mean, one of them was bilingual and had been in the field for much longer, so I took their experience into consideration. It was hard to ignore though, as multiple hospital staff commented on how surprising it was that the other new hire was offered full-time work over me. Despite this, I was thankful for the opportunity and told myself that I would make the most of it, as BIPOC communities with limited access to resources often do.
Eventually, I accepted my first permanent full-time job at the mental health clinic, which was an outpatient department of the hospital. While I enjoyed my part-time roles as a social worker in child and maternity and as a child development counselor, accepting this full-time role was the best decision for my situation, as I owed nearly $50,000 in high-interest loans from grad school. During the interview for this job, the white psychologist who was to provide me with clinical supervision asked which group of people I was most interested in working with. I remember thinking that it had always been kids, but that was clearly the wrong answer when they were assessing my candidacy for a position that would have me working only with adults. Still, I told the truth. As I was offered that job, I felt much more hopeful than in the earlier part-time role I was in.
I was keen on developing a variety of skills to provide the best psychotherapy care to my patients, and I trusted that this psychologist was going to support me in that process. I was assigned to meet with him for weekly consultation. At our meetings, it was common for him to take a book off his shelf to discuss a therapeutic concept with me, or even lend a book to me so I could review a chapter in between our sessions. Soon though, I began receiving emails from him, asking if I had one of his texts that he was unable to find. I initially paid little attention to these emails, especially since he kept a spreadsheet in which he would record the books I borrowed from him and when I borrowed them.
Over time, I happened to look at the umpteenth email from him asking if I had one of his books and realized that it had come only to me. Until then, I had naïvely assumed that such communication had been sent to our entire building’s staff, rather than singling me out in that way. As I went back and looked at all his earlier emails, they were also only sent to me, and I never had any of the books that had gone missing. Given how easy it is for women of color to be deemed angry, aggressive, hostile, and defensive, I carefully responded to him that I did not have his books, and even wished him luck in finding them soon. As I reflected on why this white psychologist would only email me regarding his missing books, I reminded myself that he had agreed to be my reference check as I explored new job prospects. I was interested in moving out of the area to a place where I wasn’t always the only BIPOC individual in the room, and needed his reference for a potential new job. I put aside my frustrations with his emails for the sake of escaping this city.
One day as I made my way to a departmental meeting, he approached me and guffawed. He wanted to share that I would be surprised to learn that it was Bev, a nurse colleague, who had been in possession of the last book that he could not find. While I tried to keep my tone light, I cannot guarantee that I succeeded. I responded that I was not remotely surprised, as I had never had any of his missing books in my possession. I added that I had recently realized that his emails about them only ever came to me, rather than the entire team of clinicians, which was particularly disconcerting because I am the only BIPOC staff member in the clinic.
Instead of the accountability I had hoped for, he took zero responsibility for his problematic behavior. He went on to share with about a dozen other members of our department at the meeting that he would often rifle through my office when I was not there to ensure that I was not in possession of his missing books. He didn’t try to clarify the email situation because there was no clarification needed. He singled me out. He emailed only me about his books. For some reason, I’m assuming because of the color of my skin, he didn’t trust me and pinned me as the culprit for his missing books. He stood there, in front of me and our colleagues, laughing, as he shared this news about checking my office for himself for his missing books. I sat there, frozen in time, shocked to learn that this white man took it upon himself to rifle through my office and my possessions for something he couldn’t keep up with himself.
Looking back on it now, I am uncertain exactly how I maintained my composure during that infuriating exchange, but it likely reflects how well I understood that my entire career was at stake. At that time, I still believed that I could act strategically enough to somehow survive the assault of racism on my career, so I hesitated to make white people in power uncomfortable as I imagined that my experiences would be much better upon relocating to a more diverse city.
After 52 long months of working for that hospital and finally clearing my student debt, I accepted a role for less money in an area that was closer to loved ones. Even there though, I have suffered workplace harassment at the hands of white people. I now know that I will always be at risk of such harm as an Indo-Trinidadian immigrant. Workplace discrimination is not based on geography. It’s happening everywhere.
This discrimination often comes clothed in business suits and professional language: “You were hired to practice social work, not social justice,” an executive director told me while informing me that my colleagues found me negative. I hear similar horror stories all the time from my BIPOC clients about white colleagues. Because I remain committed to the ethical practice of social work, I bring forward such issues, which usually results in white “leaders” making me the problem. While such a reality often feels debilitating, it is because of how much harm will only continue against BIPOC communities that I feel a sense of responsibility to share my story despite the target it may further put on my back. With what I have come to think of as war paint for skin, this will always be my battle.