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Social media is an extension of white privilege in the office

There was a time when certain topics were taboo at work. Now some feel emboldened to say whatever they want online. But who gets to speak their mind and at what cost?

Social media is an extension of white privilege in the office
[Photo: zubada/iStock]
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Most people have a vision of what being professional is, the attire, and the image that accompanies the designation. Once upon a time, it meant skirts only for women, and tailored suits and ties for men. Interoffice relations included the unspoken but enforced in-office rule was to always smile and be pleasant, and avoid any controversial topics like race, religion, and finances.

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As the workplace evolved, so did the definition of professional attire and image. Business casual was acceptable with a more relaxed dress code and more casual banter. But the definition of “professionalism” remained the same for people in marginalized groups. For Black women it meant making sure our hair was straight, no natural hair or protective styles. Our outfits had not one blemish or wrinkle, and personal topics were avoided. One slight misstep would render that “professional” label null and void. The norms of the workplace may have relaxed, but we could not.

There is nothing worse than being a token, except being seen as a token who is always harping about being a token.”

Then came the rise of tech, and the new mantra of “bring your whole self to work,” where seemingly anything goes. Jeans, t-shirts, and flip-flops replaced khakis and button downs with loafers. This casualness extended to conversations, both in office and online. For some, previously off limits topics were “teachable moments.” But these good intentions were disguising Pandora’s box. Those teachable moments often came at the expense of people in marginalized groups who had to do the teaching, often reluctantly, because there is nothing worse than being a token, except being seen as a token who is always harping about being a token.

There is an added layer of complexity when you add tech and social media to this mix. Now, you don’t just get to know your colleagues in the workplace, but also by their digital presence, and what they choose to comment on or avoid. While experts assert that one should always be professional on social media in order to get, and keep, a job, the once taboo topics in the workplace are laid bare by scrolling your coworkers Twitter page. Even LinkedIn isn’t safe anymore, with people posting more political and religious views on a professional site. The same people who feel comfortable being casual in their workplace dress and conversations feel free to speak their minds without worry of repercussions online, and it has a direct correlation to the level of privilege.

This has never been more evident than watching the insurrection and attempted coup on January 6, 2021, with the intention to negate the results of the November 2020 election. Being a member of two marginalized communities makes me hyperaware of how people perceive me, and what I do and don’t say, and what I do and don’t do. In some cases, it’s a lose-lose no matter the choice.

How do you handle something like the 2021 Insurgence  in the workplace? Who gets to have a publicly acceptable reaction to terrorism? Or in the case of Summer 2020, how do you navigate conversations around race, criminal justice reform, and police brutality? It would be easy to ignore, but considering watching incidents of extrajudicial murders and protests play out all summer, employers had to recognize this was impacting morale, mental health, and productivity of some of their workforce–particularly for Black employees.

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The inherent privilege in having an opinion on social media is bequeathed to white men.”

The news is enough on its own, but social media, and the happenstance that you may run across a colleague’s personal thoughts in a tweet, a Facebook post, a blog, or in a Clubhouse room, and you have to just swallow it, lest you be judged for having a reaction. The inherent privilege in having an opinion on social media is bequeathed to white men, and they are allowed to feel safe in saying whatever they want either on social media, with no regard to who sees it and how it makes them feel, as they know there will be little to no repercussions.

I saw one image of one of the 2021 Insurgence participants wearing his work ID while committing a terrorist attack at the Capitol. He ended up getting fired after the company got called out for it, but that’s what it took. Had his picture not circulated, and if he hadn’t been arrogant or flippant enough to siege the Capitol wearing his work ID, he likely would have returned to work as normal the following day on January 7.

But it’s not solely the fault those emboldened and blinded by their privilege. As the workplace has evolved into a culture of anything goes, most companies haven’t bothered to think about how their employees public and online behavior outside of work is an extension of that workplace culture. Most companies either don’t have a social media policy, or they have a vague social media policy that doesn’t have bright line rules. While there have been times that employees are fired for a social media post, it’s unclear what you can do and if it’s an extension of your professional self or not (and the baked in privilege to tweeting whatever you think and not worrying about if there will be any blow back).

Should I express myself and say how this 2021 Insurgence has moved me? If I do so, am I now labelled as angry?”

The larger issue is how it affects your colleagues. The company is worried about its personal brand, but there is no thought as to how this may damage interpersonal relationships with colleagues, the deterioration of inclusive environments (if there was a semblance of one to begin with), and the detrimental ramifications of collaboration.

Should I express myself and say how this 2021 Insurgence has moved me? If I do so, am I now labelled as angry and reactive or intolerant of other views–even if those views seek to negate my humanity and my ability to belong? If someone feels that re-interrupting a man who interrupted you, by simply saying, “I’m speaking,” is untoward, how do you navigate this? How does any woman navigate this and not be labelled as aggressive or too assertive? These are the questions we need to answer and soon.