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You Will Be Assimilated
There are plenty of sci-fi stories about imperialism and cultural violence—they can help us recognize and change norms at work.
This is the 4th installment in Strange New Work, a series that uses speculative fiction to imagine how work can be better. Find the whole series here!
In 2021, Future Forum found that just 3% of Black knowledge workers were interested in returning to the office full-time.
Compare that to 21% of white knowledge workers who wanted to return to in-person work.
Black knowledge workers, reports the LA Times' Samantha Masunaga, have enjoyed the break from office politics, discrimination, and microaggressions—and few have any interest in returning to pre-pandemic norms. Disabled, queer, and neurodivergent people report similar feelings. It's easier to do your work when you're not also navigating the intricacies of a workplace and work culture that weren't created with you in mind.
Few people would admit to expressing bias at work. Few would see their business-as-usual behavior as hoops others have to jump through to be included.
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The workplace is a site of cultural assimilation.
Our idea of what's appropriate or acceptable in public life is a product of imperial conquest. Norms are political. Those with more power—white, non-disabled, heterosexual, cisgender people with straight-sized bodies—establish them, and everyone else has to conform to them. The trappings of the dominant culture are presumed to be "normal" (or, in this case, professional). People from the dominant culture don't have to adapt to be accepted in the workplace. While people from non-dominant cultures must adapt to be taken seriously and belong.
"Dominant" here is a keyword.
I don't simply mean the majority culture or a culture most people in the office identify with. I mean the culture that dominates and, by extension, subjugates other cultures.
In the world of Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, humans have expanded into hundreds of different solar systems and developed unique cultures, governments, and languages. Over thousands of years, the Radchaai empire expanded to dominate a huge segment of human-occupied worlds. The Radchaai "annexed" and colonized these worlds one by one, turning many of their inhabitants into embodied versions of the artificial intelligences that run their ships—literally dehumanizing them.
The word radchaai is the word for "civilized" in the Radchaai language. The empire claims a monopoly on appropriate etiquette, religion, art, and economy. They believe their culture is the only civilized human culture. Conversations about the people from annexed worlds drip with arrogance and contempt.1
Radchaai public life is highly ritualized. Gloves are a necessity—bare hands are considered obscene. People dress plainly but use jewelry as symbols of their house and relations. Speaking to anyone of a higher rank requires asking permission and using a particular form of address. The quality of tea one offers a guest and the dishware meals are served on is a display of power or a tool for insult.
Leckie uses the intricacy of customs and etiquette in Radchaai culture to demonstrate the stark divide between colonizers and the colonized, as well as the strict hierarchy that polite society ruthlessly observes. The reader really gets the sense that, without growing up in the upper classes of the Radchaai empire, one would have a really hard time learning what was necessary to rise up the ranks. And full assimilation is the only way to have even a chance in public life.
The books are narrated by an AI that was once the mind of a huge spaceship. The ship, Justice of Toren, was thousands of years old and participated in many annexations. But the ship itself was destroyed, leaving the AI in the body of just one of its human hosts.
In the second book, Ancillary Sword, the narrator has become a high-ranking military officer thanks to some internal politics that are much too complicated to get into here. In her position as fleet captain, the narrator offers an unusual perspective. She knows Radchaai culture and customs inside and out. She has no problem whatsoever passing for a civilized human being. But having been on the ground for many annexations, she's also witnessed the destruction of countless cultures and the enslavement of millions of people. She knows their customs and sings their songs. The narrator still has more in common with the colonizers than the colonized, but she's a powerful person who has more perspective than most in her position.
Empire and etiquette are two sides of the same coin in the world Leckie built, as they are in our own world.
We can contrast the imperialism of Leckie's stories with the emerging expression of Indigenous futurism, which borrows its name from Afrofuturism. Coined by Grace Dillon, an Indigenous studies scholar of Anishinaabe and European descent, Indigenous futurism is a category of art, literature, and music that centers indigeneity and Indigenous people to reimagine the past, present, and future. These artworks connect science and thought experimentation to the values and ethics of Indigenous cultures. Dillon explains that story and science are interwoven throughout Indigenous cultures.
Indigenous futurism is unique for not only centering Indigenous people but also for communicating a worldview that encompasses varied relations to time, space, and reality. Instead of assuming binary, linear, and empirical ways of knowing, Indigenous futurism transmits a "cultural experience of reality." In fact, Indigenous futurism often directly confronts the hegemony of "taxonomic western systems of thought." These stories give us science without the trappings of empiricism or the scientific method.
Chelsea Vowel, a Métis storyteller and scholar, writes that her project is to make "space for Métis to exist across time, refusing our annihilation as envisioned by the process of ongoing colonialism, and questioning the ways we are thought to have existed in the past." In her short story "Unsettled," she imagines a near-future energy crisis that requires the vast majority of the human population to go into a 150-year hibernation. But someone needs to watch over the equipment and sleeping people. The world governments come up with a plan. They enlist Native volunteers to work in shifts, going in and out of hibernation, and in exchange, they'll receive at least some of their land back.
We see volunteers from one shift wake up, meet each other, and wrestle with their own identities and relations in the process. They use different forms of address, come from different cultural backgrounds, and introduce themselves with different pronouns. If the settler reader requires a reminder that "native" or "Indigenous" is not a singular identity, there's plenty to jar the memory. There is plenty of tension to work through as they set about the work they volunteered for.
Some volunteers have ulterior motives. What if they could sabotage the hibernation and rid their land of the colonizers? It's not spoiling the story to say that at least one person succeeds.
Vowel writes in her commentary on the story that sometimes "imagining otherwise" means imagining terrible things:
That’s the thing about fiction: it allows us to imagine otherwise, and sometimes what we are imagining isn’t pretty, or even something we’d ever want to see happen in real life. We can write things that seem really negative, but that contain so much hope, it cannot be contained.
Both Leckie and Vowel imagine the horror of colonization and subjugation. Leckie imagines it through a settler mindset—one that wrestles with its impact on the humans it colonized, but a settler mindset nonetheless. Vowel imagines it through the perspective of someone whose own culture and kinscape face the persistent and ongoing destruction wrought by colonialism. It's notable that both works use etiquette and propriety as tools for exploring the two positions.
It's notable. But not surprising—since etiquette and propriety are key tools for colonization and domination. Groups can be and are subjugated by physical violence—but they can also be subjugated through cultural, emotional, and social violence.2
In the workplace, we call this "professionalism."
And professionalism is better understood as white supremacy culture. Tema Okun originally offered her description of white supremacy culture characteristics in 1999, and it's evolved some as other activists and thinkers engage with the work. Some of the characteristics are perfectionism, right to comfort, either/or thinking, belief in one right way, and individualism—plus 9 more.
More recently, she wrote this about the work:
...our institutions not only value these characteristics, they to some extent require them and constantly reproduce them in order to benefit from them (thank you for this clarity Alexis Pauline-Gumbs), which is why they are so prevalent in our culture and institutions ...
White middle- and owning-class power brokers embody these characteristics as a way of defining what is "normal" and even "aspirational" or desired—the way we should all want to be. We know this because of how those who do not belong to the white middle and owning classes are required to adopt these characteristics in order to assimilate into this desired norm (when such assimilation is allowed).
When you read a novel like one from the Imperial Radch trilogy, or you watch an episode of Foundation, or you screen a film like Dune, supremacy culture whacks you over the head. It's hard not to see how Radchaai etiquette, or the customs of Trantor, or the politicking of House Harkonen and House Atriedes are meant to reinforce hierarchy. These systems exist to define who is better or more important than others.
But in the office? Well, it's harder to see there. Especially if you come from white settler heritage, professionalism seems to be so normal and uncontested that you don’t even notice it. But the rules of professionalism, really a system for regulating conduct, are as contrived as the rules of any fictional culture.
"Systems are enduring and self-correcting."
I spoke with, author of Team Habits, about how fostering belonging at work is part of a larger systematic project that challenges all sorts of assumptions about how we work together. "Systems are enduring and self-correcting," says Charlie. That means that challenging assumptions, dismantling systems, or making any kind of change at work will always require a committed, long-term approach. This applies to both equitable systems and inequitable systems, just systems and unjust systems.
In Team Habits, Charlie writes, "Belonging is created—or destroyed—by the daily habits of a team." Team habits implicitly communicate the real values of the team. A team might espouse lofty ideas like inclusion, accessibility, equity, or "bringing your whole self to work," but those ideas don't mean anything if the team habits effectively reinforce hierarchy, power-hoarding, or one right way.
When a leader or team starts to question those workplace norms and actively works to push back on them, "it opens up space for contributions for people." But Charlie says, "It's incredibly uncomfortable." In effect, questioning workplace norms and the rules of professionalism calls into question the training most workers receive in the education system. "They've had two decades," he explains, "of being socialized that the teacher's right; when the bell goes off, you get in line; here's the right answer to this."
That socialization, in American work culture, is an extension of the centuries-long Western imperialist project. It's a process of assimilation into a particular way of thinking, acting, and working. Charlie shared a story about a client he was working with recently who was frustrated that their team members didn't understand that there can be multiple ways to do something and multiple correct answers. He explained to his client that for their team members, "Their entire life, there's been one right answer. And now you're telling them that when it comes to their livelihood ... there is no one right answer to the test. And this may be the first time they've confronted that reality."
Charlie says this is especially common among recent graduates who are newer to the workforce. But he also sees it with workers who have loads of experience and, nonetheless, are used to "falling back on an existing playbook, and an existing way of doing things, and executing within those constraints." Those workers can struggle in a new situation where they need to think on their feet or work within team habits that challenge more business-as-usual rules.
"When you do team habits work," explains Charlie, "you really are unpacking a lot of the implicit workways, and team habits, and ways of thinking deeply rooted in our society." Building better team habits—including those that foster belonging and allow all members of a team to contribute effectively—requires systematically breaking down existing ideas about "how things are done." Otherwise, he says, "The system is going to win and replicate itself. That's what systems do."
The system is going to win.
I see this regularly with small business owners and independent workers. Unless they've broken down the different components of their businesses and the daily habits of their work to figure out the inner workings of the system, they inevitably reproduce systems as they are. That means marketing, sales, operational, and product systems—but it also includes the social and cultural systems that govern work.
This is why I'm so passionate about getting to the root of these systems in the context of the future of work. If we understand the systems currently at play, we can dismantle them and make something better.
Of course, most of the people you work with—heck, probably you, too—aren't quite as interested as I am in the minute details of the broader systems that dictate how we work and what we expect from work.
That's fine! That said, I think all of us would prefer working conditions that are supportive of our best, most remarkable work. At a basic level, that requires us to acknowledge that friction and frustration are signs that there's an opportunity to do things differently, to solve a problem, or, in Charlie's words, to fix a broken printer.
"We all want to hit the easy button," Charlie explains.
We want to look for the seemingly safe and convenient options—but those options draw on existing systems and assumptions and usually end up creating "chaos, disorganization, and malperformance" along the way. When we hit the easy button, we avoid difficult conversations and go complain to the boss (reproducing hierarchy). Hitting the easy button is going with industry best practices instead of taking the time to decolonize those practices.
But when we build habits around pausing, communicating, and sharing power, it helps to remove some of the often unacknowledged "emotional and social overhead of working with each other." And this is why Charlie focuses on the team unit. These habits might not "scale up" to a whole organization, but for a team of four to eight people, it's very doable. We can stop spending that emotional and social overhead on "[figuring] out if we're okay with each other," and trust that "we can do this together."
Charlie wants us to remember that forging better team habits, like those around belonging and communication, isn't "extra work." For those of us steeped in professionalism and masculine ways of working, there's a tendency to believe that "there's the real work, and then there's this other stuff." But that "other stuff" is part of the work, too. And including the "touchy-feely work" in our accounting of the work we do makes our work lives so much better.
"When you work in a team," explains Charlie, "some of the worst things about working in a team are all of the uncomfortable, hard conversations that you either have or don't have." But he says that intentionally working on those conversations makes them easier to manage over time and makes the need for them much rarer.
"What are you gonna do to create belonging team habits in meetings so that you learn who your people are and reinsert the humanity into your coordination team habits?" asks Charlie. "The way that you cover for each other and how you help each other when you fall down—those are your vectors."
"The way that you cover for each other and how you help each other
when you fall down—those are your vectors."
Imagining a Work World Where Assimilation Isn't Required
In Becky Chambers's novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a ragtag bunch of spacers crew the Wayfarer, a deep space tunneling ship. A segment of the crew is human—descendants of a fleet of ships that fled Earth's climate collapse. The rest of the crew are from a variety of species from around the Galactic Commons.
If you think navigating human multiculturalism is tough, imagine what working on a multispecies team would be like!
The story, in many ways, is a treatise on belonging. First, our protagonist Rosemary joins the crew as a newcomer. Even though she's human, having been born and raised on Mars, her culture is markedly different from the other humans on board. Plus, she's taking on a new role with a ship family that's had many years to develop their habits and patterns. The crew, for the most part, works hard to help Rosemary feel like she belongs—even when things sometimes get awkward.
Chambers also explores how the crew supports each species' unique needs. The pilot, Sissix, is from a species who have scales covering their bodies. She goes through a painful molting period at one point in the story. She's comforted by Dr. Chef, a nearly extinct species who is—you guessed it—both doctor and chef for the crew. While he treats her itchy skin, she asks him:
Do you ever get tired of humans?
He replies that he does and that it's probably normal for anyone who is living with people from different species.
I'm tired of their fleshy faces. I'm tired of their smooth fingertips. I'm tired of how they pronounce their Rs. I'm tired of their inability to smell anything. I'm tired of how clingy they get around kids that don't even belong to them. I'm tired of how neurotic they are about being naked. I want to smack every single one of them around until they realize how needlessly complicated they make their families and their social lives and their—their everything.
She loves the crew, but the differences can easily get old—especially when she's stressed out about other things. Like molting.
The crew doesn't always see eye to eye. They don't always understand each other's needs. But they've developed solid habits around communication and belonging. If one member of the crew is hurt or angered by something another said, they talk about it. They assume there are going to be interspecies misunderstandings, so they are open and honest about cultural (and biological) differences. Conflict doesn't signal irreparable harm. Conflict is temporary.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is the novel that gave me the idea for this series in the first place. Even before I had a copy of Charlie's book, I recognized the thoughtful team habits that Chambers wrote into the story. The crew of the Wayfarer offers a clear-eyed vision of what it might be like to be part of a truly inclusive work family. One in which belonging was a top priority among coworkers. One in which care was part of daily operations.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is part of a subgenre of speculative fiction called Solarpunk. Solarpunk stories throw off the common sci-fi device that pits good guys against bad guys in a battle for the soul of the universe. Instead, Solarpunk stories imagine a world that's more or less in balance. Instead of galactic enemies, there are interpersonal conflicts. Instead of killer asteroids, there are journeys of self-actualization.
Solarpunk has a quiet, revolutionary energy. It asks: what if things were better for everyone? What if there was more justice in the world? What if we cared more for each other and the worlds around us?
It's questions like these that can help us shed some of the imperialist and supremacist conditioning we absorb from the wider culture and forge a culture of belonging at work and beyond.
During a rewatch of Battlestar Galactica a couple of years ago, I was blown away by the overt supremacist and colonialist construction of the last few scenes in the series. So much of that show holds up… but not the series finale.
One of the ways this type of violence plays out is with relegation or destruction of knowledge systems. Called epistemicide, here’s howdescribes this violence in her brilliant book, You Belong:
Epistemicide is the killing of knowledge. It refers to the wiping out of ancient ways of knowing. There was a rationalist/scientific paradigm within European Enlightenment that spread from the hard sciences to the social sciences and into the humanities. This worldview rendered nonscientific knowledge systems invalid. I believe epistemicide is a primary reason we as moderns have lost our sense of belonging.