What Does It Mean to Be a Black or Brown Person at Work?

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Culture & Conversation Economic Justice

What Does It Mean to Be a Black or Brown Person at Work?

Sarah Neilson

In Each of Us Killers, author Jenny Bhatt explores how gender, power, race, and class dynamics relate to the workplace through diverse characters that span the globe.

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, critic, podcast host, and translator who has lived and worked all over the world, from India to Europe to the United States. The stories in her debut short story collection, Each of Us Killers, which is scheduled to drop Tuesday, certainly benefit from Bhatt’s acute observational skills in the varied work and social environments she’s experienced.

Set in India, the United States, and England, the stories center a diverse array of characters with equally diverse relationships to work. An Indian man living and working in Michigan is killed, and his coworkers are interviewed by the police. A young woman from a lower caste begins work in a wealthy household where she feels inflated by hope for her future, only to find herself ensnared in the realities of class and misogyny. A divorcée makes the best baked goods around, and deflects the stigma of her marital status. A food stall operator suspects an employee of stealing, while excusing his own behavior and complicity. A young shop employee buys two mangoes and falls asleep dreaming.

Throughout these formally distinct stories, Bhatt explores gender, power, race, and class dynamics in vividly rendered settings with utterly human characters. It’s a quick, engaging, and stirring read. What is work, the book asks, and how do we make it? How does it make us?

Rewire.News spoke with Bhatt about language, power dynamics in the workplace, loneliness, and identity. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Rewire.News: The characters across these stories have such different relationships with work, and work is a vast category defined by the parameters of class, colorism, and gender. Can you talk about the intersections between labor, gender, and class in these stories? How do power dynamics play out along those lines in the workplace?

Jenny Bhatt: As a woman of color working in what were mostly male-dominated fields, I’ve obviously found certain issues and challenges. For the most part I would just try to power through them. I would take it all on myself. I left my full-time corporate job in 2012 to try to become a full-time writer, at least until my savings ran out. But the transition between going from this full-time working professional to becoming a writer—there’s a whole fallow period where you’re trying to figure out what it is you’re doing. In that time, my own sense of identity, which was very much tied to my work, was all up in the air. That’s when I started to sit down and really interrogate for myself what being a woman, being a brown woman, being a woman in a male-dominated field, what all of those things meant to me.

I think that we bring so many of our personal biases and prejudices to our work interactions, and more than half the time we’re not even aware of them or thinking of them. Through these stories, I was trying to really understand and explore, trying to understand how those forces had shaped me and people I knew into who they had become.

Rewire.News: How do you decide whose perspective you’re going to write from in order to navigate the lines of class, racism, power, and voice?

JB: The first story, [“Return to India”], was actually influenced by a real-life incident that happened in Olathe, Kansas. There was an Indian techie engineer who worked at [a tech company]. He had gone into a bar on a Friday night with a friend and gotten shot and killed by this white guy who thought he was Middle Eastern. I was in India at the time, but I remember the shock of this news. I followed it obsessively as it played out across CNN, BBC, and all the news outlets.

And what I noticed was that people were going and getting these statements from his coworkers. The coworkers were very well-meaning people, and they were genuinely distressed about what had happened to him. But I felt like, OK, you don’t realize that you are in this position of power right now, because you are shaping the narrative of this person who is not here to speak about what his work life was like for him. All I could see was his white coworkers talking.

It felt like this community spectacle, where you had all these people observing this tragedy and giving their take on it, well-meaning takes on it, and not realizing that the field was never a level playing field for him. They would never have known what it was like for him to be tenuously working there on a work permit, trying to figure out whether he was going to get to stay after the work permit would run out, and trying to figure out whether his wife and him would be able to make a life there.

So I wanted to understand that for myself. And so I wrote it from the perspective of his coworkers. That was one reason why I chose to tell the story from those points of view, as opposed to the wife, or as opposed to even the dead engineer.

Rewire.News: There’s a thread of loneliness in the characters, which seems very connected to capitalism. Are loneliness and capitalism tied together in your mind, and if so, what was the process like of rendering this connection on the page?

JB: There is a connection for sure. I don’t think it was a very explicit connection in my mind when I was writing. But I was writing about work-related challenges and conflict that people were encountering, and part of the challenge was that they had to deal with certain difficulties without much help from the society around them, or from their own coworkers. They became lone rangers in a way, having to figure things out on their own. That is a function of capitalism because it’s very much a dog-eat-dog world. You have to try to stay afloat or get to the top. I put [the characters] in situations where they reached a point of no return, because that’s when things get interesting.

Rewire.News: As the title of the book implies, violence shows up in these stories in many different forms. Capitalism, assimilation, misogyny are all violences, but sometimes the violence is even tied up with pleasure. How did you approach writing violence into these stories, and what was important for you to get across with its use?

JB: I felt that I had always been killing my own instincts and desires, because the overriding thing for me in my working life was I had to make sure that I kept my work permit. I had to make sure that I got my citizenship so that I wouldn’t worry about having to suddenly leave or lose my job. That sense of hanging on by a thread. I think because of that I had always been squashing just any other need or desire because that came at the very top. It meant taking on opportunities or jobs that I didn’t really care for, that I knew were not my thing, but I’m going to have to power through them and just take them because that’s what’s on offer right now.

So I thought, we’re always killing our finer instincts and our desires, because we have to have that security and stability in our lives. So many of us, right? We kill our own instincts sometimes in pursuit of what we think we need. And it’s not just what we think we need, of course; I needed that job if I was going to stay afloat.

It’s not just the overt physical violence but also the daily violences that occur in the web of interactions that we have in our workplaces. We can have one negative interaction and walk away and feel like we may have just killed something, some small hopeful thing in the other person without realizing it. I saw [that] a lot.

Correction: Bhatt’s short story about an Indian man’s murder is set in Michigan.