Ask Sahaj: Second-generation American feels small in White workplace

Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Q: I am a second-generation Indian American. I have noticed that my culture has socialized me to make myself smaller, more palatable and more available with my time and energy, to an uncomfortable extent. This is a big contrast to my White co-workers, who seem to carry themselves with much more confidence and self-respect and with less worry for negative consequences.

At work, I feel that my White co-workers get much more credit for the work they do by other staff, while I end up fading into the background even though I have completed equal if not more work. This makes me feel invisible, and I’m having a lot of trouble navigating this. I don’t want to lose my personal morals and ethics, and I want to continue being courteous and kind; however, it seems like I need a completely different persona to survive in a majority-White environment.

– Struggling

A: As an Indian American, you may have been socialized to embrace people-pleasing behaviors, but that isn’t the whole story here. There are also systems stacked against you. Compared with their White peers, Asian Americans receive less support and experience lower inclusion at work. In fact, out of all racial groups, ​​Asians feel least included in the workplace. Of course there is room for you to improve your situation, but this isn’t all the result of your own shortcomings.

Dealing with these diametrically opposed values and norms at home and at work can create a split sense of self. I encourage you to really consider and parse how you can show up at work and still be true to a version of yourself. You don’t have to be the same person in every situation – at work and at home. You can, instead, be driven by your values and still discern how much of yourself to give, or how you can allow yourself to evolve.

Asian Americans are often stereotyped as polite, submissive, hard-working – albeit doers not leaders – because of the model-minority myth. While this is something you seem to be encountering at work, it can also be a mind-set you have internalized. What has led you to believe that speaking up means you’re being unkind? What have you been taught about taking up space? Have your immigrant parents’ or elders’ survival tools – like leaning into invisibility or a fear of seeming ungrateful – permeated into your professional life?

These coping skills can become norms, but this is something you can unlearn. And unlearning them doesn’t mean you’re becoming a different person. Instead, try seeing your ability to speak up, self-advocate or set professional boundaries as an act of resistance. Practice stepping out of your comfort zone, first in small ways. This could look like trying new things, taking on new tasks for skill-building and saying no. Be proactive in taking up development opportunities when they arise. Practice strategies for speaking up in safe relationships to build tolerance for the uncomfortable.

Consider keeping a work log where you detail accomplishments and tasks. You can reference this log when you have conversations about your performance, and it can also give you perspective on all you are doing to clarify if you can or should scale back in certain areas.

Find allies in the workplaces through affinity groups or an employee resource group. A mentor you respect who works outside of your organization could also be helpful. These relationships can be a balm to help you feel less alone, brainstorm communication strategies and learn more about opportunities you may have.



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