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I work in a large data and analytics company. As a millennial, gay man, I welcome the use of identifying pronouns. Our leadership remains largely white, cis, straight and male — and seeing “he/him/his” in their signatures does nothing to change that — but it is a gesture toward inclusion.
Recently, however, I have been bothered by people who use pronouns to signal something other than their gender identities. No one in our company openly mocks pronouns, but a cis, straight Hispanic female colleague offers that her pronouns are “She/Her/Ella.”
“Offended” might be a strong word, but this bothers me. She is using pronouns to further her own personal branding as a multicultural marketer. This is an appropriation of a space that queer and trans people won so their most basic identity could be appropriately recognized at work. There are other venues in which to be proud of one’s cultural heritage. This colleague leverages identifying pronouns for her own benefit, diluting the concept for everyone else.
Ethically speaking, is it OK for her to use pronouns this way? Do I approach her about this? As a queer person of relative privilege (white, gay, male, senior in the organization), do I have a responsibility to raise the issue with her?
Using she/her/ella (“ella” means “her” in Spanish) is something some Hispanic or Latina women do to both communicate their pronouns and their cultural identity. Your colleague isn’t branding herself as anything but who she is. It is not appropriation. It is identification.
This is where doing some deep, thoughtful reading about intersectionality would benefit you greatly. No one is any one thing. Our identities do not exist in individual vacuums. Your colleague is not just a cis, straight woman. She also has an ethnic identity, a class background and many other identity markers.
So, yes, it is more than OK for your colleague to use her pronouns this way. No, you absolutely do not approach her. Your only responsibility here is to ask yourself why this bothers you, why you feel you should dictate how someone else uses their pronouns and why you assume that for queer and transgender people, their pronouns represent their most basic identity. We are not a monolithic community and among us, you will find a multitude of attitudes about how we see ourselves.
Some reading suggestions: “On Intersectionality: Essential Writings” by Kimberlé Crenshaw; “Feminism Is for Everybody” by bell hooks; “Women, Race & Class” by Angela Y. Davis; and “Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot” by Mikki Kendall.
Working With a Debbie Downer
My colleague at work is a real downer. It’s impossible to have a conversation with her without hearing about how the world is going to burn to a crisp in 20 years, how humans are essentially rotten to the core and how anyone who thinks otherwise is incredibly stupid. I can’t avoid this woman because twice a week, we work alone in our small office. She’s also my supervisor and 20 years my senior. I have tried bringing levity to conversations or steering away from dark topics, but she snorts with derision and cites her sources.
I am on medication for anxiety and find myself in a dark mood every time we work together. I have spent years in therapy and have a hopeful outlook on life and my role in trying to make the world a better place. I resent her implication that optimism is for the feebleminded. She responds poorly to boundaries and has a hair-trigger temper. How can I protect myself from her cynicism?
You are in a delicate position but you are still allowed to have boundaries. For whatever reason, this woman is mired in hopelessness. Some people are just like that. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism. Maybe it’s poor social skills. Maybe it’s a symptom of depression. Who knows? The next time she starts dragging you down the path of broken dreams, simply say that while she is entitled to her opinions, you’ve done a lot of personal work to develop a more positive outlook. Tell her that part of that work is avoiding conversations that won’t allow for the possibility of hope and that you’d rather not continue the discussion. She may respond poorly and lose her temper but you cannot spend this much of your work life listening to someone who affects your mood so much and you cannot suffer silently simply to avoid her lack of emotional self-control.
Won’t Fund Thee
As an emergency specialist, I communicate with my co-workers 24/7 using WhatsApp. Time-critical notifications such as unscheduled work absences are dealt with as soon as the sick staff member rings in.
However, our WhatsApp regularly morphs into a polarizing social forum. There are pleas for funds for birthdays, gossip about an abusive colleague who was not promoted to director after acting in that role and most recently a constantly complaining whiner bereaved of an elderly parent. I happen to not be enamored of the aforementioned group, due to interpersonal conflict.
The problem is, if I exit the conversation, I am easily identifiable as the person who leaves these chats. I would be viewed as the outsider who refuses to be the team player. But I do not want to be a hypocrite that transfers funds to work mates I do not like or respect. Your thoughts?
The social pressure to contribute financially to various colleague-related enterprises can be intense. I’m all for collective efforts in support of community, but these fund-raising requests assume quite a lot. Not everyone has the means or the inclination to contribute. While that may invite judgment, it’s not a crime. If you don’t want to be a hypocrite, don’t be a hypocrite. If you’re asked why you’ve left the conversation, simply say “I have nothing to contribute, financially or otherwise.” If you’re feeling congenial, you might add something polite acknowledging the birthday or untimely passing. Your colleagues may notice that you leave the group chats about these fund-raisers and they may judge your behavior, but you have every right to opt out. You just have to decide how much of their judgment you can tolerate.
Greetings From the Dungeon
I work for a large university in a major city. This university is considered one of the finest in the country and has a stellar reputation. Many of the buildings on the main campus are almost 100 years old. The buildings all seem to have issues you might expect due to their age: old pipes, drain issues, heating and cooling issues and on several occasions in my building/office: mold, floods and a visit by an opossum. I work on the lower level in one of these old buildings — the windows are below ground level and are often a source of leaks.
Just a few days ago the office flooded again. Last time this happened I was told there was no mold. The facilities team passes the buck to building management, who passes it back to facilities. No one, from my boss all the way up to the vice president of our department, will take these matters seriously. It is now the rainy season. There will be several more leaks and floods in my office soon and I am expected to continue working — no fresh air, a great deal of dampness and potential visits by rodents. I am at my wits end. Should I keep raising this issue?
I have had more than one teaching job where the English department was housed in a decrepit, vermin-infested building that was supposedly scheduled for a renovation that never happened. Sometimes, universities allow their facilities to fall into such disrepair because there is never enough money for infrastructure. Sometimes, they simply do not care.
Regardless, it is unpleasant, at best, to work in moldy, vermin-infested spaces, and it is not OK. You may have to take your complaints beyond the university. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, has guidelines about vermin control specifying that “a continuing and effective extermination program shall be instituted where their presence is detected.” The agency also has standards for mold, air quality and really everything that comprises a safe and healthy work environment. If the university wants to kick the can internally in perpetuity, it’s time for you to kick the can to a higher authority. I’d also note that campus newspapers usually do really good work with stories about facilities in disrepair and indifferent administrations. I hope there is some relief on the horizon.
Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at email@example.com.