The Etiquette Guide for Surviving the Workplace for Autistic People of Colour
August 30, 2015
[title in image: The Etiquette Guide for Surviving the Workplace for Autistic People of Colour]
This guide was borne out of a recent exchange with another autistic person of colour and wondering how to deal with racism (and other oppressive stuff) at work because, for both of us, our usual method of treating the person like they no longer exist isn’t really a feasible strategy for keeping your job.
The guide, of course, comes with certain caveats and limitations. Since it assumes that you’ve managed to accomplish an already difficult task: getting a job as an autistic person of colour. This isn’t really an easy thing to do. There are a lot of barriers. If you have a job, great and congrats. If you cannot get one, I understand and you’re still worthy.
There are a lot of steps involved in actually getting a job. Steps that I can’t really discuss because I’m terrible at getting jobs. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably terrible at getting them too.
That’s part of why I’m writing this guide, its a guide for what to do after you get a job. There is a lot of information and resources out there for finding work (writing cover letters, resumes, job searching, what to wear to an interview, etc.).
However… there isn’t quite as much for how to behave in the workplace such that you keep your job. One of my autism things is not being able to transfer social skills from one domain to another and it took me years of trial and error to perfect my professional demeanor. I hope this guide helps you reduce the time it takes to figure out your workplace self and helps you keep that hard-won job.
Also? While I realize that some people believe that we should be ideologically pure in order to be super real radicals or whatever, this guide is about survival. The recommendations and discussion here is about keeping your job. That’s it. It isn’t about making you feel righteous or principled. Everyone will have a different stopping point, a boundary of compromises and bargains with power that they will not make. This is fine. What I really suggest is learning what that boundary is and applying as much of the guide as you can within that boundary. Do what you can live with.
Some of this stuff will be familiar to allistics. Sure. I’m spelling this out in detail for autistic people of colour because many of us cannot ‘intuit’ these rules just from being around or observing how others behave. These aren’t comprehensive, nor complete, but I hope that other autistic poc can avoid some of the problems I’ve had.
(note: this is under a cut because the complete essay is 3000 words)
Figuring out the boundaries of what is acceptable information to share and what is not, in the workplace, can be difficult. It’s something that still creates problems for me.
Honesty is not the best policy.
Yes. You’ve probably learned in your ‘how to fake being allistic’ etiquette class that a lot of people do not actually want your honest opinion. They say they do, but they really really do not.
This rule should be followed even more stringently in the workplace. Do not be honest with the people you work with. It doesn’t really matter what question people ask. They usually do not want an honest answer.
This includes really innocuous questions like “how are you?” to more serious ones like “what do you think of debbie’s idea?”.
For the general social questions (how are you? what did you do last weekend?), basically questions that aren’t actually about your job or the work you do. Personal life stuff. Be positive.
Being positive is key, don’t give out personal details that can be used against you (which is most of them), don’t ever tell anyone what you really think about anything, put a positive spin on any criticism or negative thing you might have to say, and smile while doing all of this.
Disclosure and accommodation
This is inclusive of your disability. Disclose only as much as you need to actually work. Yes. Aim for the bare minimum and no higher. Yes, yes, in many jurisdictions there are laws and whatever governing your employers obligation to accommodate your access needs.
But we all know better, right? That making even the smallest of accommodation requests is often met with hostile resistance. I mean… look at what’s happening in academia. Students are asking for trigger warnings on course content and… the pushback from professors is massive. As far as accommodations go, this is a no-cost, low impact one that is easy to implement. And professors are apparently willing to fight students to the death over this.
So aim for the bare minimum. It fucking sucks… but it’ll hopeful prevent your employer from seeing you as a demanding, costly burden. Very likely, this will mean that your life is kind of a constant, unrelenting hell where you struggle every time you are at work to do your job. Unfortunately… basically no one but you and your loved ones will care. Capitalism doesn’t. And neither do your employers (no matter how nice and accommodating they appears or claim to be).
Also, don’t disclose any self-diagnosed disabilities. Self-diagnosis is totally fine and legitimate but most workplaces won’t lift a finger to accommodate you without some kind of documentation. Sure, sure, technically you don’t even have to disclose your disability at all to ask for accommodations but… as disabled people of colour, we already know that we aren’t actually entitled to the amount of privacy usually guaranteed by law.
In a world where people, including medical personnel, think Black people experience less pain than white people and white people feel less empathy for people of colour, we know that our oppressors do not care. This is true of your employer. They don’t care. You are nothing but an easily replaced cog in the capitalist machine. This holds true regardless of what formal policies your employer has developed and any relevant laws in your jurisdiction.
Notes on race related disclosures
One thing that won’t serve you well is… disclosing or sharing any information that underscores how very white you are not. Yes. Obviously they can perceive you so there is a limit to this. But I mean things as innocuous seeming as eating your ‘ethnic’ food in the lunch room.
Recall that white people hate spice and flavour. Invariably, anything you heat in the microwave will be ‘bad’ smelling or otherwise suspicious if it appears too ethnic. Many of us will already be familiar with this from grade school… where a lot of white kids teased or bullied us for having ~ethnic~ food. This applies to your workplace… consider the fact that you are working with your ‘peers’ and those kids that teased you in grade school are now your collegues, bosses, and supervisors.
Basically, you want to appear as white assimilated as you can get while at work.
Last… accents. This is one of the most obvious ways that you signal that you’re Other. Speak accentless, standard English and nothing else. This includes “speaking too Black”. I know that the language thing can be a particular problem for autistic people (and other disabled ppl) but… Do your best.
(Of course… I should mention that there is a double burden here. Because you also need to sound non-disabled – as in you don’t exhibit or produce any of the types of speech that are stereotypically associated with disability. I mean… you probably already know this but. Yeah.)
Oh. And if you have an ‘ethnic’ (read: non-white) sounding name, find a white, anglo nickname that you can live with. Its either that or listen to white people desecrate your name every fucking day (or, just as bad, they might come up with their own nickname without your consent and just use that instead of your name).
Become ‘friends’ with your coworkers
This is the most contradictory piece of advice, I know. But I literally didn’t realize until this year that people socialize and make friends at work. That not only is this something people do, but they expect you to do it too.
I did place this last, because the sort of ‘friends’ you make with white/abled coworkers has to fit in the above guidelines: no honesty, do not disclose things, try not to be ethnic. Clearly this is a very constrained and restricted notion of ‘friendship’. That’s kind of the point. At work, no one really cares about you as a individual. What they do care about is the overall mood and vibe at work, a sense of accordance and harmony.
Here is a list of behaviours/types of colleagues to watch out for:
- The ‘I don’t like office politics’ person. This is the grown up version of ‘I don’t like drama’. In both cases the person will usually be in the thick of office politics.
- The friendly and ‘attentive’ person. This person is usually a concern troll in disguise. They’ll appear to be genuinely interested in you and your life and will usually use this information against you in some way (via concern trolling, gossiping, etc.).
- The Gossiper. Reasonably easy to spot because they’ll give you unsolicited details about other people’s lives. This person can often combine with type 2 to be more of a hidden danger.
- The social butterfly. This is the generally affable and friendly person who appears to get along with everyone. The problem? They can often be more subtle types of 2 or 3.
- The intimate friend. This person will usually lull you into a false sense of security via disclosing personal details about their lives. Remember: we are not supposed to actually disclose any real or meaningful details. This person is also most likely to demand emotional labour without reciprocation.See also 2, 3, and 4.
- The smiling deceiver. See 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Some of the above are… not really behaviours that the person ‘intends’ to harm. But this person is knowingly engaging in these behaviours to use it against you in some way.
I know in type 6 I mention that some of this and some of the people engaging in this behaviour aren’t intending to harm you. This is true. But intention doesn’t count for a lot if you end up fired and unemployed. The real issue is that if you’re disabled and a person of colour almost any detail or information about your life has the potential to be weaponized against you. The other other problem is that you/we already have a lot of targets.
Pretty much all the time. Basically train your body into responding to pretty much any situation with a smile. A customer is yelling at you? Smile. A colleague just broke your concentration to tell you about their cat? Smile.
Neutral face is unacceptable. For example, if you’re Asian this will be perceived as ‘inscrutable’, cold, and unfriendly. If you’re autistic and Asian… well. Just fucking smile.
White people have a hard time reading poc facial expressions. So.. smile.
Ah… body language. The bane of many autistic people. I basically, while anyone is talking to me at work, list off the active listening skills I can remember and try to do them all.
Read through them and pick a couple that you feasibly think you can incorporate into your scripts. I don’t remember a lot of these each time.
(I just realized the linked resource doesn’t mention body language. This stuff like face the person who is speaking, trying to make eye contact, not having your arms crossed, blah blah blah.)
(Remember through all of this: smile!)
You will be expected to shoulder an unfair amount of emotional labour in your workplace. This is compounded if you’re femme.
Coworkers will approach you and begin to dump their problems on your lap, this is a good way to manage the situation. Try to sympathize when you can. Do NOT get lulled into offering advice of any kind.
But this isn’t the end of it, unfortunately. Not only will you be expected to listen and comfort their problems, but you’ll be expected to notice if they are somehow different or whatever than they usually are.
This can cover anything from haircuts to noticing if they are ill to noticing if they are ‘down’. You will be expected to notice and to say something about it. To either ask about their health, complement their haicut, whatever.
Don’t expect people to notice any of these things about you. Don’t really expect (or look for) reciprical acts of emotional labour. This is a oneway street. Of course… it is a delicate balancing act to appear to care enough so that people think you are ‘warm’ ‘friendly’ and a ‘team player’ but not so much that they and you both think you are actually friends.
Don’t call anything out.
Microaggressions? Pfft. Ignore all of them. Indeed, learn how you can maintain a smile when these come out (and they will).
Covert racism/ableism? Pretend like such a thing could never ever possibly exist. (If you do decide to report oppressive behaviour, they’ll expect documentation and something overt.)
Overt racism/ableism? Again, ignore as much as you can. Don’t report it to HR or anyone else. Don’t even complain about it to your white/abled colleagues.
If it is really bad and toxic and abusive….
- Try to get witnesses.
- Document things in some way.
- Start looking for another job as soon as possible.
Point three is normally what I’d do… but as noted earlier, it can be really really hard to find another job. On top of being a great deal of work and stressful. The key here, though, is to try and exit the workplace in a graceful manner so that you can keep them as a reference. Something that will not happen if you get a reputation for being angry, confrontational, difficult, whatever.
And remember, if your disabled and a poc? You are starting in the negative here. By default racial stereotyping will mean your white/abled colleagues start with a negative impression of you. A lot of what’s in this guide is strategies for getting in the positive and staying there to keep your job.
Knowing your limits
A lot of this is really fucking hard to do. Like… overt oppression? Yeah, I can sit and smile while people do it when it is about me. I feel more pressure and obligation to speak out for people who say/do oppressive things to people I don’t belong to. And… yes. There is even some of this that I absolutely do ignore. I do have my limits, though. None of this makes me proud, by the way. But I am surviving.
A lot of people may not be able to do everything in this non-exhaustive list. There are other things I’m missing (bc I don’t know all of this and still fuck up). As with the comment in the active listening section, try to focus on the aspects that you can feasibly do.
Also? Remember that this guide is about survival. This includes doing these and anything else in a sustainable way. As with the accommodations section… if any of this is harmful to you do what you can minimally establish in order to keep your job. Again, even if you can (within your abilities) do all of this, you probably shouldn’t.
Above all… be kind to yourself if you do this and it hurts. Learn to forgive yourself. Understand that this is about survival and fuck ideological purity.
(Note: This essay is an abridged version of the original. Which you can buy at this link. Or get my writing as it comes by being a patron.)