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Roxane Gay: Seeing beyond the workplace

January 22, 2015, 12:30 PM UTC
Roxane Gay
Jay Grabiec

2014 was a year of intense social upheaval. In truth, the same could be said for most every year. There is no standstill in a world filled with so many people, scrambling for so much.

In Ferguson, Missouri and New York City and Cleveland, Ohio, unarmed black men were killed by police officers with little accountability. Billionaire Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, revealed himself as a racist when he told his girlfriend not to bring black people to Clippers games. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” he is recorded as saying, when he did not know there would be consequences for revealing his true colors. We were reminded that race is a fraught issue in so many ways and that the consequences of racism can be far-reaching and fatal.

Women came forward with stories of sexual violence. Public figures like Bill Cosby faced more than 20 accusers whose charges he continues to vehemently deny. On college campuses across the country young women shared their stories of the rape and sexual assault they experienced at the hands of their peers. Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz began carrying the mattress on which she was raped as part of her thesis project, “Carry That Weight.” She vowed to do so until her rapist was expelled. She continues to carry the mattress.

These biases and injustices rarely check themselves at the office door.

Whitney Wolfe, a former executive at Tinder, a dating app, filed a sexual harassment suit against the company in late June, citing the ways in which she faced repeated discrimination for being a woman, for not being part of the boy’s club of Silicon Valley. Apple (APPL) released diversity statistics and revealed what had long been assumed—the majority of the company’s employees are white men. That lack of diversity was also seen at companies like Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), and Google (GOOG). Executives at each company have said they are aware of the problems, that they are not satisfied with the status quo and that they will work for change.

The how of creating this change, of creating any kind of social change in professional environments, continues to elude.

I’m bringing my words to Fortune to talk about some of the ways in which the workplace can answer this question of how.

It sometimes feels like the workplace is immune from social upheaval. We go to work and do the best we can and at the end of the day, we return to our lives. We don’t abandon who we are, however, when we begin and end our workday. Who we are shapes how we are perceived in the workplace and in turn, how we perform in the workplace.

On Tuesday night, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address. Pundits noted several words used in the address for the first time, including lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

Those moments allowed people, who are part of the union to which President Obama was speaking, to feel seen and acknowledged. It brought some of their concerns to the forefront of a discussion about national priorities.

So much of the necessary change we need can begin in the workplace, creating professional environments that acknowledge, accommodate, and account for who people are both at and beyond work.

Roxane Gay is an English professor at Purdue University and a New York Times best-selling author. She’s written Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and the forthcoming Hunger. She is also editor of The Butter. Roxane’s column for Fortune, “Beyond the Workplace,” will delve into why corporate America should care about the social issues happening outside of the office. Follow her at @rgay.