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What it means to belong (part 2 of 2)
We talk a lot about Belonging in context of Diversity/Equity/Inclusion/Belonging (DEIB), but what does that look like if I reflect on my experiences?
Welcome back! Very excited to jump into the second part of this post. Happy reading, and thank you for being here with me. If you have any topics you’d like me to cover, please feel free to leave a comment or send me a note.
Last week I left off with the story of the first time I truly felt like I didn’t belong. You can read more here.
Learning to lean into the differences and finding my voice
A few months after this project – or maybe even overlapping – Asians at Bain took off and I got really involved in the San Francisco office chapter. I distinctly remember one of the first events or kickoffs we had, where we were given context on why Asians at Bain existed. A team had done research on the Asian experience in Bain’s North American offices and someone had summarized a list of microaggressions. I’d never heard of the term microaggression before, but the list of examples helped me immediately understand. I remember being so shocked when I learned this new vocabulary – suddenly, I could describe so many experiences so concisely.
Previously, I’d never had the vocabulary to describe certain moments and this made me realize I wasn’t alone in how I’d felt.
Examples of microaggressions (from my own understanding today) include having your food made fun of, being met with shock or surprise that you’d never been to the Caribbean (as if that were something everyone should have done), or being asked to front a large expense for work on the assumption that you have enough cashflow to cover the cost before it gets reimbursed.
As I learned how to describe these moments and heard from others who had gone through similar experiences/felt similar feelings, I felt empowered to start leaning into these differences. Before, I’d hidden anytime I felt different but suddenly, it felt acceptable – or even somehow cool? – to be different because I wasn’t alone in that. I found a sense of belonging through Asians at Bain, where I would start to describe an experience or a moment of frustration, and before I’d even finished describing it, I’d be met with a room of nodding faces.
Up until this moment, I’d never felt a sense of belonging that was this strong.
Over the next few months, as I kicked off on a new project, I started to find my voice and represent my opinion with more pride. I didn’t feel the need to always stay quiet when I knew no one else would agree with me, and I started to grow more comfortable being disagreed with. Before, when I voiced an opinion that ran contrary to everyone else’s, I felt like it meant my opinion was wrong. But now, the comfort of knowing that there was a group bigger than myself that had my back gave me the confidence that surely my opinion wasn’t wrong just because it was unique.
Fast forward a few years later
I have grown a lot more confident with the different parts of my identity. Some parts allow me to blend in seamlessly in a room even when I’m the only woman or the only person of colour (POC). Other parts make me stick out like a sore thumb. I’m a lot more comfortable with that than I was, in large part because of the growing dialogue around the Asian-Canadian / Asian-American experience (including the community I found through Asians at Bain), but also in part because of the many small moments where I’ve been able to test the boundaries and seen that most people do accept me for who I am.
Being my weird, quirky self hasn’t led to my total downfall, yet…
I’m hyperaware of when I’m faced with a microaggression and I’m a lot more proactive to call others out. I feel really fortunate that I work in an environment where I have the comfort to do that.
On the flip side, as I’ve grown as a leader and taken on an increasingly large role at work where I shape large parts of our culture, I’ve also started to look at my own behaviours and actions more critically.
Here is an example that’s kept me up at night recently
A few of us on the team really enjoy fancy food and fine dining. This isn’t something that’s accessible to everyone in the workplace and it’s also not something that interests everyone. I personally love trying new restaurants and will be the first to admit that fancy restaurants are one of my guilty pleasures. I get really drawn into conversations on this topic and there have been moments where I catch myself afterwards and I think about how out of the ten or so people who’d been on a call, only four or five of us had participated enthusiastically in that conversation.
I often think back to moments earlier in my career when I left a conversation about basketball or football and went home to search up the latest stats / games / news so I could have something to participate in the conversation with later. I worry if after certain conversations, people on the team start to feel like they need to learn about fancy food and fine dining in order to participate in the dialogue. Speaking for myself, I generally found it interesting to learn about new topics and appreciated feeling closer to others when I took an interest in their hobbies. That said, I can also imagine that it may not always feel this positive for someone who feels like they need to go study up on a given topic in order to participate.
In particular, I reflect a lot on the topics that map to socioeconomic divides. These hit a lot of second gen immigrants, first gen college grads, and folks who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds the hardest, even if many of us are now fortunate to be well-paid.
I’ll share another relevant anecdote: my college roommate told me a few years into college that she’d never eaten at a sit-down restaurant before college. Her family always ate at home to save money. She didn’t know how to approach the whole process of dining out, from telling the hostess how big your party is, to figuring out how many appetizers to order, to understanding whether dessert was a required part of the meal. In dragging our friend group out to dinner on occasion, I’d introduced her to how this whole ritual worked. There were many times in her first year of full time work – or even summer internships – when she went out to eat with her team. It could have been really challenging for her to know what to do and be at ease if she hadn’t been exposed to these rituals before. One can hardly imagine someone being excited to show up and ask their manager, “How do I order off this menu?”
All of this is to say that it feels incredibly important for me – and other leaders – to remember that the definition of “universal topics” or “universal knowledge” isn’t that clear cut. There have been several conversations (including the one above about fancy food) where in the moments or hours afterwards, I’ve worried about whether I was the instigator of a microaggression.
I think to myself, ‘Did I say something or behave a certain way that made someone else feel like they didn’t belong?’
As I’ve become increasingly aware of the role I play in setting the tone and creating culture in any conversation I’m in – whether at work or elsewhere – I’ve become more attuned to when the topic of conversation goes in a direction that might not make sense for everyone. When this happens, I try to drive the conversation to a topic that I know the others in the room are more excited about after a few minutes.
At the end of the day, I will caveat that there is a really fine line between doing your best to avoid microaggressions and being overly sensitive. Knowing that a topic only excites half the people in a room shouldn’t be a reason not to talk about that topic, but when this continuously happens and it’s always the same half of that room, then it becomes problematic. It sounds easy to lay it out in writing but in reality, it is incredibly hard to know where that line falls and very easy to miss it as it happens.
All of this begs the question of how much should I change in order to belong?
I think nothing puts this question into perspective as something I’ve caught myself doing. Sometimes, I feel really self-conscious if I’ve leaned into a topic that feels very distant from my roots and how I grew up. The fancy food/fine dining topic is a good example, where I think about my modest upbringing and suddenly feel like I should follow up in the conversation with my love for McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s to show that there’s more to me than just an interest in bougie dining.
I feel this overwhelming fear when I imagine a colleague who might not know me as well leaving that conversation with an impression of me that’s just “Isabella loves fancy food and never eats normal food.” That’s such a far cry from who I am and how I grew up, and I worry if I’ve changed and adopted certain hobbies or interests in order to belong.
I sometimes catch myself and think, “Do I look totally unrecognizable to past me? Have I strayed too far from who I am?” I think about the frequently heard piece of advice from my parents or other parents of similar backgrounds to the effect of “Learn to be more white so that you can talk to your boss.” There’s a scene in the first episode of American-Born Chinese that reflects exactly this.
It feels wrong to become someone else just to succeed.
I know for a fact that if I succeeded (on paper) in large part because I’d become a totally different person, I wouldn’t call that success. That would mean the system around me had failed me and I had failed myself in being true to who I am.
But that said, I don’t think the answer is to not change at all, because there’s a lot of magic in the connection you can form with someone when you take the time to learn about their interests, and that’s what the root of “changing” represents to me in this context. It’s me taking the time to learn a bit about cycling or going on a hike that someone recommended in order to understand what that person might be deeply passionate about. I’ve grown closer to a lot of people by taking a little bit of time to invest in something they’re excited about.
After thinking about this extensively and discussing and reflecting, and rewriting this blog post, the closest I’ve gotten to a conclusion is that it comes down to always asking myself if I enjoy whatever new thing I’m trying out. I will happily try out new hobbies and interests and if I enjoy them and it gives me more to bond with others on, then that’s awesome. If I don’t enjoy it, I won’t engage in it just for the sake of fitting in. That’s my answer, and that may not be the one that feels right for others, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you view this another way.
I didn’t have the vocabulary to capture the lack of belonging I felt when I was the only POC in the room until I learned about microaggressions. I share a couple of personal examples above. As I’ve matured in my career, I’ve started to wonder when I am an instigator of microaggressions and looked for ways to avoid doing that. As I reflected on this whole topic, I started to ask myself “How much should I change in order to belong?” and I would love to hear your thoughts on that, and if you have any suggestions on how to handle / avoid microaggressions.