Now more than a year into the pandemic, CBC Ottawa is looking at how people are adapting to new realities with its series The Slow Return.
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?”
Racism as a mental health issue
Williams says while isolated microaggressions won’t cause extreme mental distress, they can contribute to trauma responses to ongoing experiences of racism.
At her current workplace, Olumogba has only experienced one instance of what she considers to be a notable microaggression (a joke about her being an “angry Black woman”) by a colleague who is no longer employed there.
While she says she hasn’t been made to feel like an outsider or a diversity hire by her colleagues, serving as the only person of colour on an eight-person executive team weighs on her.
After the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, Olumogba suffered from severe anxiety and sleepless nights, but it wasn’t something she could talk to her co-workers about.
“I would have had a lot of difficulties trying to pretend like I was OK if I had to go to the office at that time,” she said.
Another incident that took place in October was also a wake-up call for Olumogba.
When our mental health is very fragile, we can’t really tolerate some of the bumps and bruises at work as long as we could otherwise.– Dr. Helen Ofusu, psychologist
She says a white man followed her husband, who is Black, home one night and called the police on him while they were on Olumogba’s property in Gatineau, Que.
While she says the police were helpful and the situation did not escalate, the experience was traumatic for her, and she brought it up at work the following day. Olumogba says she found herself trying to justify her feelings to her colleagues.
“I had to completely temper the story on how I truly felt and how everything really went down and why I felt it was racially motivated,” she said.
“I felt like I was overly trying to express that my husband hadn’t done anything wrong … and no one forced that on me or made me feel that way, but it’s still our reality that we face every day when we are a person of colour and we work with people who don’t understand our experience.”
She says the experience has affected her ability to focus on her job.
According to Ottawa-based psychologist Helen Ofosu, that’s a normal response.
“When our mental health is very fragile, we can’t really tolerate some of the bumps and bruises at work as long as we could otherwise,” she said.
When working from home, that was not a problem for her racialized clients “because all of a sudden, it was all about them just doing their work.”
Now, Ofosu says she has clients who are seeking doctor’s notes to negotiate a remote work plan with their employers.
Diversity training isn’t a solution
For those who do want to return to work, there are ways employers can make the transition more comfortable, but diversity boards or equity workshops won’t do it, according to Sharon Nyangweso, CEO and founder of Quakelab, an Ottawa-based communications agency that specializes in diversity and inclusion.
“The trouble with that is that a lot of the … issues around equity are structural, and you can’t solve structural problems with behavioural solutions,” she said.
Instead, she focuses on looking at a company’s policies and finding patterns through data.
One way her team is doing that is through a free resource to help workplaces acknowledge the challenges their BIPOC employees face. It includes a survey that asks employees questions about the factors that impact their ability to work from the office, such as child care and the barriers they face in moving ahead in their careers.
Nyangweso says this will help employers identify patterns so they can better address employee concerns, rather than relying on racialized employees to carry the burden of change.
This means organizations “setting up the mechanisms to ensure that BIPOC folks aren’t taking up the labour of anti-racism work, whether that’s through committees or working groups, unless they’re properly included into their work plans or performance management and if possible, even compensation,” she said.
Olumogba has started diversity initiatives at her own workplace, including a mentorship program for BIPOC youth, but she recognizes without her, they likely wouldn’t have taken off.
“It’s just not something white people think about,” she said. For her, seeing some acknowledgment of that in the workplace would be a good start.
“There’s just so many ways in which workplaces can make people feel more comfortable and can be their real selves and show up fully,” she said.
“When you do that, you create engagement with your staff and your employees, and they want to come into work.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.