We Need to Talk About the Constant Stress of Representation Burnout

The first time one of Krystal Jagoo’s white colleagues, a psychologist at the mental health clinic where they both worked, emailed her to ask if she had seen a book he was missing, she thought nothing of it

Photo: Unsplash/@yrss

Photo: Unsplash/@yrss

The first time one of Krystal Jagoo’s white colleagues, a psychologist at the mental health clinic where they both worked, emailed her to ask if she had seen a book he was missing, she thought nothing of it. She responded that no, she hadn’t seen it, and moved on with her day. The second and third time, she assumed he was just a naturally scatterbrained, disorganized person. She soon realized that wasn’t the case. 

“I realized more and more that these emails became quite frequent, and that they weren’t going to everyone in the office – they were just coming to me,” she tells HipLatina. “I went to a meeting and he said, ‘Oh, Krystal you won’t believe that it was Bev who had that book.’”

“I was like, ‘Of course I can, because every time you’ve emailed me about a book you cannot find, I’ve never had it in my possession,’” she recalls. Then he told her that there had been times when she was not in her office that he had gone in there and looked for the book himself.

“I clarified for him that it was the equivalent of driving while black – except here it was his assumption that the only racialized staff member was stealing his books,” she says. Although the experience frustrated her, she knew she ultimately had to rely on this colleague for a reference if she ever wanted to move on to another job. Making things harder was that they worked in North Bay – a small Canadian town not known for its diversity.

Krystal’s experience and the accompanying stress, fatigue, frayed nerves, and cognitive dissonance is one that almost anyone who’s used to “being the only one” at work will understand intimately.

Until now, there hasn’t necessarily been an official term for it. But in early 2019, Martha Tesema at Shine Text wrote a powerful piece arguing that “It’s time to call that feeling of exhaustion that comes from being the only person of a particular identity in an environment what it is: ‘representation burnout.’”

It will look and feel a little different to everyone, and it doesn’t just apply to people of color, but there’s one common thread that weaves through almost everyone’s experiences: the slow, sinking feeling that no matter who you are or what you do, you have to deal with the ramifications on your own. It’s a lonely place to be, no matter where you work. 

And it’s an extremely common occurrence. Over at the Muse, Natasha Nurse detailed the experience of walking by the same coworker’s office every morning, only to see her coworker not-so-subtly check the clock – every time. In 2018, Maura Cheeks described in Lenny Letter what it felt like to be mistaken by one colleague for “another black woman who worked in a different department in a city.” When I put a call-out for stories online, I received dozens of responses.

“I felt like I could never be fully accepted or understood,” Erika Del Pozo, an occupational therapist and the founder of Joy Energy Time, which is dedicated to helping healthcare professionals recover from work-related burnout, tells HipLatina.

At one of her last jobs, Erika was one of the only Latinas on staff – something that her bosses and coworkers seized on pointing out. They would tease her about her accent, her hand gestures, and the way she moved. “My boss would imitate hip movements and hand gestures resembling flamenco-style dance and make light jokes about me having the Latina moves,” she tells HipLatina

Some of her patients did the same. “One patient even asked me, ‘Why would you want to keep up your Spanish? You’re in the United States,’” she says. “I was mortified. I felt ashamed of my accent. All I wanted to do was blend in, but my voice made me stand out.”

Erika describes the experience as “trying to be a square peg forcing myself into a round hole,” saying that it was “exhausting.” Krystal echoes her statements, saying that she had to develop an extreme level of cognitive dissonance in order to get through the workdays. 

However, cognitive dissonance can come with a cost.

In a world where employees are increasingly expected to be “on” all the time, it takes an enormous amount of energy just to navigate regular deadlines and office politics. Throw weekly microaggressions or discrimination into the mix, along with the churning suspicion that it’s all in your head (“Did Becca keep looking at me when she said some team members aren’t pulling their weight or did I just make that up?” “Why does Jen constantly ask me if I speak Spanish?” “Why did Michael seem so surprised when he said my client presentation was really  ‘well done’ and ‘articulate’”? “I’m not the only one who thought that joke was racist, am I?”) and the overwhelming feeling that there’s nothing you can do about it, and you’ve got a potent cocktail of stress, fear, and anxiety that can lead to severe impacts on your health. Multiple studies have found links between dealing with this kind of persistent discrimination and all kinds of health problems, including heart disease, as NPR and other outlets have well documented.  

The persistence is partly what makes it so insidious – how do you deal with something that happens monthly, weekly, maybe even every day, when you have little recourse? The obvious solution: change jobs, if you can, though there’s no guarantee that you won’t encounter that behavior again. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Krystal: she finally moved from North Bay, the small town in Canada where she had been working, to a different mental health clinic, only to find the discrimination there was worse – so bad, in fact, that she ended up taking medical leave from that role. She never returned. 

It was only when she started her current job at the University of Toronto that she finally started to feel more comfortable speaking out about the injustices she saw and experienced in the workplace. One of the things that changed: the clientele. Now, instead of serving a mostly white population, she’s working with a much more diverse range of patients.

“I have a greater responsibility to address issues like this given the impact it’s likely to have on the very students we are supposed to serve,” she says.

Another important factor that changed: her current role is unionized – meaning that Krystal has some protection from employer retaliation, something that not everyone has. Plus, changing jobs isn’t always a workable answer, and even if you do change jobs, it doesn’t mean you’ll have more power to speak up. 

In contrast, lingerie brand Lively founder Michelle Cordeiro Grant found herself working harder to stay optimistic. Having grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania near Amish country, she was used to being one of a very few Indian families in the community. That experience followed her through high school, college, and work. “I [still look] at the world with optimism… I focused on leaving a mark and making an impact so that when I left there would be a need for people like me,” she says. 

Whenever Michelle was reminded that she was an “other,” she told herself, “I am not like others – and that’s a powerful thing.” For her, it paid off: as soon as she could, she started her own business and tried to pay it forward: Lively is an all-woman team.

But while her approach is admirable – and it was what worked for her to stay healthy and sane – it’s not a long-term solution to widespread representation burnout. Not everyone can stay optimistic in the face of unrelenting discrimination or microaggressions, nor should they have to. More importantly, as Krystal points out, “by definition, representation burnout means you don’t have peers you can go to for help in understanding and addressing the problem.”

Ultimately, lasting change has to start from the top-down – from the people in power. But that requires that they listen to their employees – and so often, they, as Krystal says, “have such a willful ignorance to critically consider what you’re saying to them that you end up doubting your own reality.” 

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