For BIPOC employees, remote work meant a welcome break from office microaggressions

posted on December 3, 2021

For those who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour, the office often comes with workplace discrimination

Anchal Sharma · CBC News · 

As a Black woman in the corporate world, Mila Olumogba, 35, knows what it’s like to experience microaggressions at work.

“I cannot tell you how many times someone has come up to me and touched my hair,” the marketing executive said.

Usually, microaggressions are much more subtle forms of discrimination, such as being confused for another racialized co-worker by a white manager, being scrutinized by security or having your name constantly mispronounced.

Working from home throughout the pandemic made it easier to avoid such behaviour.

I cannot tell you how many times someone has come up to me and touched my hair.​– Mila Olumogba

“I would say that on Zoom, I didn’t really have the thought like, ‘Oh, I’m the only woman of colour here.’ And maybe that’s because I felt safer in my own space,” Olumogba explained.

Now that she has been back at her office in Ottawa since August, she feels “more guarded than ever.”

“It’s been tough,” Olumogba said. “In the workplace, I still have a lot of anxiety. It’s exhausting.”

Olumogba isn’t alone in feeling that way.

‘Not feeling respected’

Experts like Monnica Williams say working from home throughout the pandemic has provided a mental break to employees who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC) who are used to dealing with daily microaggressions in an office environment. With many employers now beginning to consider a return to work in person, that feeling of safety is threatened.

“Often, it’s just not feeling respected,” said Williams, who is the Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Disparities at the University of Ottawa’s school of psychology. “And to not feel like you’re respected in the workplace, especially, when you’re doing good work, can be very demoralizing.”

CBC spoke to more than a dozen people of colour, including lawyers, public servants and managers, who said the thought of returning to work in person made them anxious. None of the other people with whom CBC spoke was comfortable being named in this article for fear of reprisals at their workplace.

In addition to dealing with microaggressions, many of them do not want to have to resume “code switching,” or changing their mannerisms, appearance or behaviour to fit what is appropriate for a mostly white office setting.

As one of few Black women in her field, Williams understands these concerns firsthand.

A research study she conducted with racialized therapists and volunteers at a medical centre drew the attention of nursing staff, who she says questioned why her team was at the centre and whether they could prove they were allowed to be there.

“People with dark skin will tell you that just their presence makes other people uncomfortable,” Williams said.

“Who wants to deal with that?”

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