Mixed Identity in the Workplace - A Multi Panel on Professionalism

by Tessa Hannigan

On Tuesday, October 31st,  students gathered in the evening for a panel discussion on navigating multiracial and multicultural identities in professional environments. The panel was organized by Multi, the only student group on campus that offers a space exclusively for individuals with mixed identities.

Clarissa Phillips, ‘19, Vice-President of Multi and one of the primary organizers of the event, moderated the panel. “I thought [professionalism] was a subject area that was extremely relevant given the current political climate, but could also evoke a variety of different stories and perspectives, especially when conflated with a Multi identity,” Phillip says about what drew her to this topic. Her and current President of Multi, Dakota Gibbs, were the primary organizers of the event.

To begin, Phillips  asked the four panelists to introduce themselves, their identity and pronouns, role on campus, and professional interests. The four panelists came from a wide variety of interests and backgrounds, including Professor Kathryn Riley, Shayla Smith ‘20, Ray Sheldon ‘18, and Cooper Kidd.


from left: Clarissa Phillips ‘19, Shayla Smith ‘20, Cooper Kidd, Ray Sheldon ‘18, and Professor Kathryn Riley

from left: Clarissa Phillips ‘19, Shayla Smith ‘20, Cooper Kidd, Ray Sheldon ‘18, and Professor Kathryn Riley

Introductions were followed by the first question, posed by Phillips,  “What is one thing from your work experience that has shaped how you view yourself or your identity?”

Professor Kathryn Riley was the first to respond. Riley is a visiting assistant professor and CFD Postdoctoral Fellow in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department as well as a Swarthmore alum. Identifying as both white and black, Riley stated that “How people perceive me professionally had to do more with gender than with race.” After her first foray into working professionally in STEM, she stated that “I may have a certain perspective on my skills and abilities as a scientist but someone could look at me and have a different perspective. This was an in-your-face realization for me. How that has shaped me going forward is it has motivated me to be myself and to use the body of work that I accomplish to change the narratives.”

Ray Sheldon ‘18, who is looking to go into economic consulting, spoke to a moment he experienced as the only person of color interning at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He said he felt a lot of pressure to produce quality work. “In a way it lifts you up,” he said, “but it can bring you down as well.”

Our third panelist, Cooper Kidd, LGBTQ+ Fellow at Swarthmore, spoke about a time when they were working in the Library of Congress and the woman they were working for was surprised they didn’t grow up in Asia. “I thought you were Asian!” Kidd remembers her exclaiming, “like really Asian, because you were submissive.” Kidd found a way to exit the premises. “The uncomfortability that I felt during that situation made me realize that there are parts of my identity that I am not obligated to bring up and share with everyone.”

Shayla Smith ‘20, our fourth panelist, spoke about feeling stereotyped as the ‘angry black woman’ in a class at Swarthmore because of her identity as both black and white. This stereotype, she said, played a role in people subtley attempting to delegitimize her contributions.

The second question offered the panelists a platform for a thorough conversation about voice and privilege in the workplace. “Has your mixed identity/positionality influenced any of your professional decisions? Has it influenced how you interact with your boss or co-workers?”

Riley, who work hard to support students with marginalized identities in STEM, responded that “There are certain things I can’t always vocalize because it would be perceived as coming from a deeply personal place. I have to look to white co-workers to amplify and legitimize a comment because it would not be legitimate if I said it, even here.” She offered that “it is important to know who your allies are in a workspace. It can be a burden. Another part of this burden can sometimes be educating the people around you and making suggestions so they can help to make the space yours.”

Cooper Kidd agreed with Riley and added that “finding people who can and will step up and say something can be really valuable because if I say it, they will not listen.”

Sheldon pointed out that “being low on the totem pole in a job or new to the company you may not feel comfortable calling people out or making a scene, it can be really important to be able to pull people aside to make suggestions or offer a correction” and that ultimately, “you have to set boundaries.”

When Phillips asked the panelists to compare their experiences in the professional realm at Swarthmore to experiences elsewhere, they agreed that the culture of professionalism at Swarthmore generally engages respectfully and consciously with varying identities of faculty and staff. Sheldon offers that “working here is way different because faculty is on board with Swat culture. The corporate world, on the other hand, is very unapologetic and knows its unapologetic; this seeps into how they engage with identity. It can be pretty brutal and you’re just expected to accept it because you have opted into that world.” Riley spread light on the comparison in saying, “The people you meet in the workforce may not have been pushed to think about their identity and diverse identities. They might be looking at you through some lens of what they expect from you.”

In response to this culture, both Kidd and Smith offer that they, sometimes inadvertently, seek out people who are interested in engaging with topics of diversity, inclusion, and identity both in conversation and in professional spaces.

Riley responded on the topic of how identity can shift if one’s environment shifts. “I realize that the way I speak could be perceived as either being too white or too black,” she says.

“Now I am at a level of comfort with my identity that I don't consider code-switching much anymore but science,” she adds, “has its own type of dialogue, so I don’t have much of choice.”

Phillips proceeded to ask the panelists if they had experienced microaggressions in the workplace and if they had any advice on how to handle them, especially if it is your boss who commits it. Sheldon spoke first: “I think it’s important to accurately calculate how important a relationship is for you and how to make it workable for both parties.” Riley offered a personal experience in which she felt herself to be too angry to constructively address the microaggression at the time it was committed. “You have to assess where you are in the moment. What is the value of that relationship professionally and personally? Are you in a position to address it right now and nip it in the bud.” She suggests waiting for your emotions to settle a little so you can find a time when “you can describe, in a coherent way, what was inappropriate and where the person crossed some boundaries.”

At this point in the panel, Phillips opened it up for questions from the audience and then any closing advice from the panelists. Smith offered advice first: focus on staying true to yourself. In the face of issues such as tokenization, she says she has to remember that, “It’s not just about the way that I look: I have merits.”

Sheldon had similar advice, “Be honest with whoever is looking to give you some sort of opportunity. They want to know who you are.”

Offering advice from very personal experience, Kidd says that, for them, it was crucial to move past the stereotype of ‘submissive’ by challenging themselves to be assertive. By challenging yourself, they say, you “challenge the way others see you.”

At the close of the evening, Riley expressed gratitude for the opportunity to speak. “it is meaningful,” she said, to “use my identity to help other students to navigate their own.” Her final advice to all present: “When you have the chance to make a change in the work environment you are in, do it.”

photography by Min Cheng

STORIESTessa Hanniganmulti