It should come as no surprise that a brown person’s experience in the workplace is very different from anyone else’s in Germany. Just walking around the office feeling people look at you with a strange expression, trying to ‘understand’ or ‘place’ you, or put you in a box, can make one feel unnerved and weird. But even if one gets used to that, the fact remains that the burden of breaking the ice and bridging the awkwardness is almost always on the PoC. Because, as I’ve been told, ‘they don’t need me, I need them’.
I can only talk about my own experience, but very broadly speaking, here are the three kinds of people I’ve met at the workplace.
The Woke Ones / The Open-minded Empaths
At every agency I’ve met people who meet you at eye level right off the bat. They are usually open minded and empathic. They invite you for lunch on your first day, welcome you during the company beer hours, sometimes invite you for dinner, and they don’t hesitate to share their thoughts with you or listen to yours.
A Brown Guy in The German Ad Industry
But most importantly, they don’t ask you cringeworthy questions like:“Do you have relatives in London?”
“How long will you stay in Germany?”
And my personal favorite:“Do you speak Hindu?”
They are, to this date, the best people I’ve met here. They are the ones I’ve personally invested in, made friends with and shared rewarding experiences with.
The Well-meaning But Clueless Ones / The (Fake) Sympathetic Ones
They are the ones who, in my experience, comprise the bulk of the people who you’ll meet in any workplace. They are not bad people, and usually mean well, but they lack the cultural sensitivity and the self-awareness regarding how they come across when they talk to you.
They often take it upon themselves to ‘teach’ you how to live in Germany, and ask you weird questions that make you feel like you’re an alien from Andromeda with eight noses and fifteen hands.
They also often lead to the most hilarious stories. I once had a guy at a party explain Indian culture to me for 30 mins. He felt he was
qualified to do that because he once dated a woman of Indian origin, and went to India for a week.
„They are also the ones responsible for the bulk of microaggressions that come your way. They will talk over you in meetings, contradict your points because ‘you probably don’t know how things work here’, and get really annoyed when you don’t ‘accept their help’.“
What is the most surprising is that he felt qualified to teach me about my own culture. This isn’t confidence. It’s ignorance wrapped in arrogance and privilege.
It all stems from the mistaken belief that they can teach something to ‘help’ a PoC. And that they are being kind when they are actually being patronizing and annoying. That need to appoint themselves as my savior and consecrate themselves on a pedestal, that right there is the problem.
They are also the ones responsible for the bulk of microaggressions that come your way. They will talk over you in meetings, contradict your points because ‘you probably don’t know how things work here’, and get really annoyed when you don’t ‘accept their help’.
The other way this plays out is indifference. These are the people who will maintain their distance observing you and gossiping about you, and brush you off when you talk to them. I’ve been in rooms where the air was so thick with apathy, you could cut it with a knife.
I have nothing against these people. Most of them do mean well. And with a little bit of self-reflection and cultural conditioning, they can probably evolve into better versions of themselves.
There are dicks in every culture, and Germany is no exception. These are the ones who have the capability of making any environment toxic and turning every workplace into high school. They are usually at the top of the gossip food chains or desperately seeking to be near the people at the top. They expect you to pay your respects to their social standing or be ready to face their wrath.
They need to be right and win at all costs, often at the cost of others. And when you’re a brown person in a company, it’s easy to be a soft target for their aggression. They’re also often nice to your face and nasty behind your back. One has to learn to identify them very early on, they are sharks with a dolphin face.
„There are dicks in every culture, and Germany is no exception.“
But what’s probably the most toxic is their ability to make life very difficult for people around them. They can lead to petty politics, infect others with anxiety, fear and aggression, and suck them into their misery. And it’s not just PoCs who suffer from them, most of their colleagues do.
You can’t win with these people. The best option you have is to keep them at a safe, professional distance.
A Secret Fourth Category / The Self-racist PoCs
I‘m definitely guilty of this, and at other times I’ve been at the receiving end. People of colour often face bad behaviour from other people of colour who believe they're more adjusted or accepted better than them. This entitled behaviour can stem from a variety of places. But that’s a whole different ball game, and not really a problem when there are hardly any PoCs in the workforce to begin with.
Which brings us to the next part of this article: How to self-check privilege (and see if you’re a dick to your colleagues).
„Self-awareness is a hard goal to achieve because it means letting yourself be vulnerable in front of others and in your own eyes. And this can be a very stressful experience for first time doers, because it involves operating at eye level with someone different than you, who might think differently, or have an opinion that doesn’t match yours.“
I’d like to invite you to ask yourselves the following questions (Yes/No/Maybe):
- Do you feel a need to correct or challenge PoCs when it comes to their ideas, opinions and thinking?
- Are you completely comfortable letting a PoC take a lead on a project and following their directions?
- Does exercising your right of self-expression come at the cost of someone else?
- Does the conversation around race and privilege make you feel uncomfortable, annoyed, or feel like it’s not relevant to you?
- Do you feel the urge to interrupt, change the topic or silence the person who brings up the conversation around race and privilege?
- Do you feel like the person talking about privilege is ‘playing the race card’ or ‘just trying to feel important’?
- Do you believe people of color or from other countries have exactly the same challenges as you? That if they worked as hard and smart as you, they will get exactly the same kind of success as you? That you don’t have a ‘home-court advantage’?
These are uncomfortable questions to try to answer, and for good reason. Self-awareness is a hard goal to achieve because it means letting yourself be vulnerable in front of others and in your own eyes. And this can be a very stressful experience for first time doers, because it involves operating at eye level with someone different than you, who might think differently, or have an opinion that doesn’t match yours.
But that’s the point. That’s how you evolve as a person. It can’t be done in a day. But with regular practice, you might just stop living in the prison of your own invisible biases.
The question is, are you capable of this change?