I’m blond and fair-skinned—and I’m a proud Chickasaw Indian. You can imagine the collision of assumptions I’ve encountered throughout my life. And truth be told, I’ve also grappled with my own.

At a time when unwarranted assumptions about others seem as ingrained in our culture as ever, the workplace is ground zero for having difficult conversations. But instead of avoiding uncomfortable topics, why not invite them and reframe them as learning opportunities? The more we share and listen, the more we realize how much we are alike, and the areas where we discover differences can be fascinating, educating and even bonding. 

Looking the Part

Growing up in Oklahoma, where one out of 10 residents is an American Indian, my dad frequently took me to the library to research our ancestors.  He used to think he was comforting me when he’d say, “It’s OK that your skin is pale. You’re still Chickasaw.” I’ve always loved that he encouraged me to explore and embrace my heritage.

Aside from frequent sunburn, my light skin rarely bothered me. But it has often created confusion. In school, people would joke, “Who did you pay to get on ‘the rolls’?” That’s an Oklahoma dig: When Oklahoma transformed from an Indian Territory into a state, Indians had to sign up for federal tribal recognition. Looking like an “ordinary” American was sometimes to my advantage, yet Oklahomans take great pride in their Indian heritage. While I took the comments as good-natured, embedded in the dig was the question of whether I really was a Chickasaw.

A Front-Row Seat on Assumptions

My experience has given me a front-row seat for the kinds of snap judgments that are so easy for all of us to make. Here are four lessons I’ve learned over the years for dealing productively with assumptions.  

  • Lesson 1: Listen to others’ stories and backgrounds. The workplace is made up of people with unique perspectives, and their stories can serve as the ice breakers we need to dispel stereotypes. Because I don’t look Indian, people are often surprised to hear that my grandfather was refused service in restaurants for being Indian. My family history and Chickasaw heritage is almost always unexpected. Shortly after I started my first job on Capitol Hill, I overheard a nearby co-worker ask, “What ever happened to that Indian who applied for a position?” “That’s me!” I said. “I’m the Indian.” She was quite surprised, and it provided an opening to share more with my colleagues.
  • Lesson 2: Try to avoid personalizing differences of opinion. Differences make for more engaging, productive conversations. They can also be incredibly hard to navigate. An important first step is to avoid taking other people’s opinions personally. It takes the perceived sting out of comments and helps us view the situation through a different lens. We can more easily sharpen and defend (or sometimes refine or modify) our own perspectives if we resist feeling provoked by different, or even inappropriate, views.

    One semester in law school, I took a class in Indian law. At times, the other students spoke freely, and not always politely, about issues related to Indian culture and traditions. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. But I’d say I surprised them by pushing back with fuller context on native history. My classmates weren’t speaking out of animosity or malice, and by not reacting as if I thought they had been, we were able to discuss topics without either side shutting down. Workplace assumptions benefit from the same airing of ideas and spirit of debate.  

  • Lesson 3: Be aware of your assumptions about how others view you. Assumptions go both ways. They’re the judgments we make about others, and those we anticipate others will make about us. When Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch invited me to serve as his law clerk, the experience launched me on a journey that brought me far greater acceptance than I assumed I’d find. I was the first enrolled citizen of an American Indian tribe to clerk at the high court, and the Chickasaws shared the news in a press release, which caught the attention of the legal media. I wondered whether I’d be viewed as staking claim to a heritage I shouldn’t. Instead, the reception was uniformly supportive and even celebratory inside and outside of the Court.

    A short time later, the Chickasaws asked to feature my government service in a tribal commercial. It was a big moment for me: Someone other than me and my family was acknowledging that I was Indian. It underscored that I can be Indian and not look it. The upshot? We may find greater understanding among others than we bargain for.

  • Lesson 4: Know when to stand your ground. During a job interview early in my career, the interviewer asked me, “Does your husband mind your working outside the home?” His question was blatantly sexist, of course. Yet sometimes it’s the everyday assumptions about suitability for roles and tasks that are the most insidious. I was completely unprepared for the question after working so hard in law school. I knew the interviewer’s preconceived notion crossed a line, and that I wouldn’t work with him even if offered the job. So I told him my husband was counting on it, and that I had learned enough in law school to know his question was out of bounds.

    During my time at the Supreme Court, I had the opportunity to share that experience with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had spent a lifetime defying assumptions. After hearing the story, the Justice offered her shy, knowing smile. It just shows there are times when we all need to remember to neither shrink nor puff up but to calmly stand our ground.

Assumptions will always be part of the workplace because they’re part of being human. But by becoming more aware of this tendency, we can expand our own understanding of people and ourselves. It’s time to make a new assumption: that we can never know a person’s story until we listen to them share it.

November is Native American Heritage Month.

Tobi Young

Tobi Young

Tobi Young is Vice President of Government Affairs & Legal at Cognizant. She has served in all three branches of federal government.... Read more