12.09.2008

Diversified Holidays


I had a little “incident” at work yesterday. I brought in some snowflakes on a string (some would call them ornaments) that I got at an after the holidays sale at Target about 2-3 years ago. They are just snowflakes with blue, aqua, white and silver glitter on them. Nothing major. In an attempt to make my office look sparkly and festive, I made a chain of snowflakes and hung it above my door. They looked awesome. Well, they still look awesome – as they are hanging there right now. After the successful completion of sprucing up my office door, I felt filled with the spirit of decoration. In my office, I had two strands of white lights that I let a coworker borrow for a friends’ wedding. The two strands had been sitting in my office since he returned them.


“Hmmmmmmmmm, what can I do with those white lights?” I thought. We have a fichus type tree in the entry way to our floor. It’s there, but it’s dull. Then it came to me, “How about I fix up the dull fichus and put some white lights on it?” I figured it could be an all seasons accessory. It’s a tiki plant in the summer, and sparkly and happy in the winter. I recruited another coworker, and she, too, thought the plant needed some décor. So, we wrapped it in the white lights. Definite improvement.


Let’s jump forward in time 30 minutes later. One of the commercial lending vice presidents is standing at my door. “Michelle, our office decorations policy states that no holiday decorations can be placed in common areas of the building. We need you to remove the lights from the tree,” she said. I could tell she felt odd pointing this out to me. I was shaken a bit. I have always been the type of person who hates “getting into trouble.” When I was kid, there was no need for an adult to spank me when I had misbehaved. All they had to do was get mad and tell me I had disappointed them. That was the worst punishment I could ever receive. And that carries on to today. Anyway, I apologize and say that in no way did I mean to offend anyone. She told me to not worry to much about it – but since a complaint was issued she had to enforce the rules. I wondered who the hell complained, but of course I couldn’t ask.


I was shaken, but I also get it. I understand diversity issues, even for a Southern white girl. I’ve spent enough time having terribly painful and uncomfortable discussions about race in my lifetime that I get it. I understand that a word, a phrase, a symbol, anything – can represent one thing to one person and an entirely different thing to another. I understand how to be politically correct and/or culturally sensitive. So I guess in a way I felt like I really screwed up. Even though this was just white lights on a fichus to me, to another it was yet another outward celebration of Christmas and one that they did not want to deal with in the workplace. So yeah, I get it.


Now, here is my problem. So, I was the first person to put something up. Which was construed, and admittedly, as part of my joyous celebration of the holidays – specifically Christmas. Sure, I don’t identify as a Christian, but I was brought up with Christian traditions like Christmas. To say that I was just putting white lights on a tree is what I did, but my cultural upbringing of course associated those lights with Christmas celebrations. There is an underlying motive behind my actions, yes. But couldn’t one of my Jewish co-workers bring in a menorah? And could someone have brought in a kinara for Kwanzaa? Couldn’t we have celebrated diversity in celebration rather than scorned it? I would love to learn more about other festivities celebrated by my coworkers. But the fact of the matter is that some people are offended by others beliefs, see them as wrong, or would just not care to see it in the workplace. I get it.


I work in a very liberal and forward thinking non-profit. Dealing with that diversity is a challenge. I work in a field that through its mission seeks to “create and protect ownership and economic opportunity for people of color, women………..” and on and on. Yet, the majority of our workers are white. Our organization has to deal with diversity issues every day. It was actually kind of off that my light debacle happened at the start of the week, for I have now found out about an issue of race that has been floating around here lately within our offices. I don’t participate in the gossip circles, etc, so I had no idea this was going on until I happened to ask if someone had replied to a certain e-mail that had some issues of race associated with it.


Okay, I am getting off track here. What I am trying to say is that dealing with diversity is hard. When we say that we want to appreciate and respect everyone’s diversity, how do we do that? Do we allow everyone to openly be who they are? Or do we tell people to keep it to a certain level in the workplace? I think we go with the latter far more than the former. But does this accomplish what we want it to? People know there are different ways of thought floating around in the world. My opinion is that we need to develop tolerance for those ways of thinking far more than just knowing they exist. It is the lack of tolerance that causes problems. It’s the classis, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” that allows us to know that yes, there are different people around us, but if we don’t talk about it everything will be okay. It’s the fear of everything breaking down once we actually tell who we are. But damn it, shouldn’t we tell who we are so we can all work through it rather than acting like it doesn’t exist in every facet of our lives?


I am mainly just thinking out loud here. Turns out our office policy says something like you can decorate however you want in your office, but the common areas are off limits. I will be sure to adhere to that rule from now on. I felt better today, too, after at least two co-workers commented to me that they were sorry the lights had to be taken down. One was a Christian, the other was a Jew. I also received a “brownie point” ( a $1 off coupon for downtown restaurants we give out in our building to say thank you to folks who do something nice) from the VP who had to tell me to take the lights down. They thanked me for being so “gracious and understanding about diversity issues in our workplace.”


Again, I get it. I just wonder if there are other ways to go about it.

1 comment:

Meredith said...

Growing up in the same area that you did, I certainly understand and agree with just about everything that you said. Hell, I grew up with a "tree of celebration" that always had white lights on it and was decorated for every holiday f the year!

Though I understand a fear of backlash or embarrassment or something like that, I wish the person who had complained could have spoken with you about it. I think it could have been a learning experience for both of you - it would have been interesting for you to learn why someone would be offended by the lights as it would have probably been good for the person offended to hear your perspective.

We learn largely through experience so if you had learned why white lights on a tree may be offensive, you could have thought more about it the next time you had this opportunity... as could all of us if you could have shared the different perspective on the issue with us. It's our luck, though, that we're probably overthinking this and the person just wanted the common space to be a common space :-)