Challenging the Narrative: Intersectionality in the Workplace

Group Interview by Anh Vo, Meg Schroeder and Thandi Cai (9 minute read)

Team members Anh Vo, Meg Schroeder and Thandi Cai share their experiences of navigating the intersectionality of their identities in the nonprofit space. They explore honest partnerships and equity-centered practices by discussing their personal experiences and envisioning what a truly inclusive work environment looks like.

Intersectionality describes the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination overlap to create unique outcomes and experiences. [Center for Intersectional Justice]

How do you identify? What language do you use to identify yourself/your intersectionality?

Anh: I identify as a refugee immigrant, non-native speaker, able-bodied, short, Vietnamese Asian cisgender woman.  And to be honest, I don’t always include the Vietnamese part. I rarely say Asian-American. I normally describe myself simply as Asian. BIPOCs are the ones that commonly have to further identify and classify ourselves… You don’t often hear white people describe themselves as German-American or English-American. Not to mention that living in the intersection of Asian Americanness has been difficult and lonely because I don’t belong to either Asianness or Americanness. I’m too Asian to be accepted as American and too Americanized to be accepted as Asian.

Meg: I identify as a Black, non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, able-bodied, English-speaking individual. I also identify as biracial, as I am both Black and white. I am a city dweller, with a rural upbringing. I use they/them pronouns and prefer the title “Mx.” I would also describe myself as a lifetime learner, friend, gardener, reader, creator and traveler.

Thandi: I use the following identifiers to describe myself: artist, designer, storyteller, mover, caregiver and friend. I use the following identifiers to describe my external expression and position in this world: East-Asian presenting, femme, 1st generation child of immigrants, Chinese Indonesian American, Asian American, slim and able-bodied, queer, genderfluid, nonbinary and neurodivergent.

Chief Culture Officer Anh Vo. On the left is a photo of Anh as a young girl, on the right is a photo of Anh as an adult.
Anh Vo [she/her], Chief Culture Officer.

How have your identities shaped the way you have navigated the professional environment throughout your career?

Anh: There are stereotypes in being Asian: the loud Asian, the quiet Asian, the smart Asian. The one that I bump up against the most “the little Asian woman.” Over the years, I have found that this usually means someone who fits this description: non-threatening, quiet, compliant, supportive, malleable, hard-working, doesn’t make waves and doesn’t complain. In my early career, I’ve had to ask colleagues to not pet me, stroke my hair or pat my head because of being perceived as the “little” Asian. We’ve come a long way since I entered the workforce. To some, it may not seem that way AND to many of us, it is certainly not enough.

I have both benefited and been disadvantaged by these stereotypes. When I was young, I was afraid of being labeled a loud Asian, so when I had the impulse to be loud and assert my voice, I would hold back. Then I had to learn to make my voice heard in a way that wasn’t reactionary and that stayed true to myself. Being perceived as smart and hard-working gave me good habits to build a career. Did this happen because of how I’m wired as a person, or did it happen because my internalized oppression drove me to fulfill these societal expectations of being “smart” and “hard-working”?  On top of navigating this question, I’m still also working on releasing the expectation that I should not complain and that I should behave non-threateningly.

Meg: When I entered the education workforce as an adult, my immediate workspaces were staffed with mostly people of color. The population of the schools that I taught in were predominately Latinx and Black. I felt at home in these positions, as my colleagues and students reflected parts of my own identity. However, the overarching frameworks that governed the schools were formed and dictated by white culture. This was observed in the expectations for how staff should discipline students, in the expectations for students to “behave,” in the required curriculum and in the feedback mechanisms. I learned quickly that one must accept and assimilate to the expectations of the dominant culture to navigate the professional environment successfully.

As a queer person of color, navigating in predominantly white institutions (PWIs), the professional landscape can often be daunting. PWIs do not always provide a space that fully acknowledges or considers the unique experiences of queer people of color. For me, this often leads to feelings of anxiety and pressure to perform exceptionally well, as I sometimes feel responsible for representing my entire community. The burden of representation can be overwhelming, as it places additional expectations and scrutiny on the marginalized individual, which exacerbates the challenges I already face. This makes it difficult to navigate the professional realm with authenticity and without compromising on my well-being, mental and emotional health included.

Thandi: I’ll explain this through three different identities: my ethnicity, my gender and my ability.

One quality I’ve inherited from my ethnic identity is my work ethic. My ancestors’ experiences of surviving famine, and political and religious persecution have instilled in me an occasionally toxic relationship with labor and assimilation. I am grateful and proud of this history. But even though I don’t share those traumatic experiences directly, I grew up in the aftermath: a culture that upholds sacrificing one’s health and happiness to provide basic needs for us and loved ones. This is a balance that I’m constantly striving for in my work.

To me, gender is an exploration of expression that is ever-expanding and fluid. My gender identity invites me to be curious, compassionate and accepting of the depths of myself and of others around me. I am sensitive to the ways spaces and cultures are gendered and how I fit (or don’t fit). In my daily workplace, I weigh my capacity to confront or acknowledge gender bias in work settings.

As for my ability, I have been in and out of diagnosis for mood disorders for several years. In the workplace, I try to prioritize patience with myself especially when I miss a detail or make mistakes in general. I disclose this information about my health with my supervisor, but there can be some apprehension in explaining to my co-workers that I am experiencing symptoms like brain fog or chronic pain.

Office and Administration Coordinator Meg Schroeder. On the left is a photo of Meg as a child, on the right is a photo of Meg as an adult.
Meg Schroeder [they/them], Office & Administation Coordinator.

Do you think others understand that you live with these intersections of your identities? How do you understand/extend compassion to others who may have multiple intersections of identity?

Anh: For me, the pace and circumstances of life determine how well I remember or forget that there are all these things going on underneath the surface – the intersectionality of all our identities.

I have a SCUBA analogy. We are all scuba diving, and some of us have full scuba gear and scuba tanks. Others of us do not have a tank. Some of us have neither tanks nor fins.  Some of us do not have the benefit of diving with a team to serve as an extra safety precaution. Some of us swim alone, attempting to keep up or to survive.

At times, I am too preoccupied with the tasks of swimming and surviving to empathize with how others are coping with their portion of gear and support. As a result, I do not anticipate the intersectional identities of others. The circumstances of this scarcity mindset challenge me to reflect on my own and others’ intersectional identities, and when I do it can feel like I’m hit with a brick. It’s overwhelming. My work is to show up with love, compassion and patience for all who I come into contact with.

Meg:. It takes a lot of personal reflection and often connecting with others, to realize the role that intersectionality plays and how impactful (positive/negative/neutral) it can be. I love learning about the different aspects of a person’s identity. Personally, I think it is amazing how we are shaped and molded by our intersectionality, and I believe that is what makes us human. It is what allows us to identify with one another, it helps us tell our stories and it empowers us to build connections and develop empathy.

Most of my Alford Group colleagues have been open to learning and have tough conversations to work towards creating a more inclusive work environment.

Thandi: It’s difficult for us to grasp the nuances and mental gymnastics that different intersectional identities signify. I do feel that at Alford Group, there is a desire to learn further and at the very least, respect for one another. I am working on cultivating this awareness in myself. I’m a fair-skinned East-Asian presenting person. This gives me privileges in the dynamics of colorism in the Asian community, as well as privileges in a world that is largely Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous.

I also benefit from my gender presentation. While I identify as queer and nonbinary, in professional spaces I am often granted privileges because I present and am accepted as femme.  When I am feeling reluctant to address inequities, I remind myself that being accepted into fundraising and nonprofit spaces is a privilege and each of us has a unique power and responsibility to speak, to educate and to protest.

Marketing Associate Thandi Cai. On the left is a photo of Thandi as a young child on the right is a photo of Thandi as an adult.
Thandi Cai [they/them], Marketing Associate

What would you want others, our colleagues and our clients to know about you and the intersectional identities that you carry?

Anh: Belonging is extremely important to me because I don’t always feel that I belong.  I’m the outsider looking in, hoping to fit in.  And though socio-economically and relationally, I might appear to fit in, on the inside I’m always questioning and observing to see if we really do have deep similarities.  Do we connect on a heart –“I see you”–level?  I feel elated, blessed and joyful when I can make those honest deep connections where we truly see each other. That’s when I can see, feel and know the intersectional identities of others and the joy and struggles that come with them.

Meg: As someone who came into this world as a biracial queer person, I have yet to find a place where I feel like I belong or am accepted, just as I am, without having to drop or erase a part of my identity. I don’t fit into the nice, linear world that our culture wants so desperately to exist.

We are all made up of so much more than the eye can see. As humans, we like to have simple answers, easy definitions, placements and clear categories for people and things to fit into. However, we are not meant to be placed in boxes and do not have to shrink ourselves to fit into societal expectations. We can all live and exist outside the binaries that society has created, both in the workplace and in our personal lives. It is each of our jobs to acknowledge this truth and use our power and voice to cultivate spaces that uphold equity and inclusion.

Thandi: We all carry intersectionality that requires effort and energy to navigate on top of our projects alone. Many of us experience marginalization of our identities daily and systematically, which affects our performance in the workplace. When I think about the future of nonprofits, I want to see a shared understanding that our gender, race, ability, economic status, and everything that makes us whole are inherently at odds with our work culture. White professionalism is the norm of capitalism and capitalism’s greatest enemy is public health. I invite my colleagues to imagine a version of our world in which this is not the reality and to let that new vision guide the choices we make and the projects we build.

Read more about how we are exploring themes of diversity, equity and inclusion here.