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Beyond “Happy Holidays”: Religious Inclusivity in the Workplace

Beyond “Happy Holidays”: Religious Inclusivity in the Workplace

Nov 22, 2021

By: Mikayla Branz

Years ago, I attended a Saturday morning holiday party hosted by my non-profit workplace for families who participated in our programs. The party was bursting with adorable children in red and green outfits playing games and happily dancing to Christmas songs blaring over the speakers. One of the moms I’d worked with for a year pulled me aside and confided in me, casi no venimos porque no celebramos la Navidad. “We almost didn’t come because we don’t celebrate Christmas.” As the only Jew in my workplace, I felt a wave of sadness roll over me. Yo tampoco, I told her, “Me neither. I’m glad you came, though, because I know you’ve been wanting to meet more parents with young children.” Inside, I couldn’t help but wonder if this experience made her feel less connected rather than more.

This wasn’t the first time I had worried about the inclusivity of our holiday event. “It’s called a “holiday” party,” I told my supervisor when we planned it, “but even the invitation is red and green. Not everyone celebrates Christmas.” She explained to me that she didn’t see this as a religious Christmas party, but instead as a fun celebration for everyone. “Besides,” she assured me, “our clients and staff all celebrate Christmas.” I couldn’t recall a time when we had asked clients or staff about their religious practices, but I left the issue alone, wondering if I was being self-centered for bringing it up.

At the end of the party, we took a staff picture in red Christmas sweaters, Santa hats, and reindeer antlers. My supervisor asked me to be the photographer. Feeling alone and invisible behind the camera, I wondered if she was trying to be kind to me because she knew how uncomfortable I felt, or if she just thought my purple sweater would mess up the photo.

Many years later, this experience feels both remarkable for the lessons I learned and unremarkable because so many of its components have repeated themselves in the workplaces I’ve encountered since. Each event is unique, but the feelings of isolation and disconnection that come with them are not.

In this article, I share some reflections on what we can do to improve religious inclusivity in the workplace. This is meant to be a conversation starter rather than a checklist. My brilliant colleague Darrie Matthew Burrage uses what he calls the AAA model to conceptualize allyship: attitude, association, and action. I’ll dig into attitudes and action here to reflect on some concrete ways that we can all work together to make our workplaces more sustainably inclusive when it comes to religion. 

Attitudes

According to Darrie, “Attitudes reflect a mentality and a lens that shape how one sees and moves in the world.” When it comes to inclusion, awareness is a foundation for shaping attitude.

We all hold assumptions, but our assumptions do a lot less harm when we are aware of and challenge them. Unless someone tells you what religion or spirituality mean to them, you don’t know! In the experience I shared above, my supervisor made an assumption that all of the Latina women I worked with were Christian. Clearly, this wasn’t the case. I grew up thinking that all Jews were white, despite the fact that about 15% of Jews are people of color. Even though there were Jews of color in my community, I marginalized them mentally because they didn’t fit into my schema of what Jews looked like. Think about what racial, ethnic, national, and linguistic backgrounds you associate with particular religions, including your own. Doing some research can help us challenge our biases and learn more about the diversity within different religious groups.

Speaking of learning, Google can be great, but take it with a grain of salt because everyone’s experiences and beliefs are different. You can ask permission to ask someone a question about their religion, but don’t assume they’re always available to be your personal Google or that they speak for a whole group. It is important to recognize that two people with the “same” religious identity may experience it vastly differently. Their traditions, beliefs, and practices could vary. The intersecting identities that they hold, such as race, gender, national origin, and class, can also influence their religious identity and experience. Even the importance they ascribe to different holidays could be different. For example, some of my Jewish friends would have felt awful working that Saturday morning holiday party because it was Shabbat, while I didn’t mind. Even the same person might practice their religion differently from year to year. For example, last year I fasted and took the day off for Yom Kippur because it felt meaningful. This year I ate and worked because I forgot to check the calendar ahead of time and didn’t want to cancel my commitments.

Let me clarify that I talk about the dominant religion in the United States as Christianity. Like any other religion, Christianity is not monolithic. I am not referring individual Christian beliefs or practices, but rather the systematic ways that dominant Christian values and institutions influence our social, economic, political, education, health, and legal systems, which in turn influences the people within these systems. Sometimes we are so immersed in a dominant culture that it becomes invisible, but it still impacts us. For example, because of the history of Christian dominance in our society, many cultural elements with Christian roots hide under the guise of an imaginary “American” culture. However, Easter egg hunts, Christmas trees, and even New Year’s all have Christian undertones that are glaringly obvious to many of us who have different religious practices and beliefs. These holidays are no less Christian just because some people from other backgrounds have assimilated to celebrate them.

If you celebrate holidays that are part of the dominant culture, it is important to recognize that they may not have the same positive associations with tradition, celebration, or family for everyone. In contrast, these holidays may be associated with feelings of marginalization and historical or intergenerational trauma. An example of this is Thanksgiving, when many celebrate a myth of “friendship” that has been used to erase from mainstream consciousness the true history of violent European genocide against Native people. For me, Christmas represents a time when I often feel more marginalized at work, and it brings up memories of not being viewed as a “team player” for choosing not to participate in office decoration contests or Secret Santa gift exchanges. I’m not asking anyone to stop enjoying Christmas. I am suggesting that we can build awareness and empathy around the variety of experiences with dominant holidays, especially as we make choices about whether and how we celebrate them in the workplace.

As we become aware of patterns of religious dominance, we develop a more inclusive attitude, and we can work to decolonize the holidays that we do continue to celebrate.

Action

Inclusivity isn’t just about attitude, it’s also about action. Darrie defines action as “How we invest our most valuable human resources: our time, money, relationships, and opinions.”

I’m a big believer that we can all go beyond substituting the word “holiday” for the word “Christmas,” in greetings and party invitations. Have you ever been greeted with “happy holidays” outside of November, December, or January (the main Christian holiday season)? I often feel worse when I see a red and green Christmas party invitation masquerading as an inclusive “holiday party.” To me, it either points to a workplace where individuals are so immersed in the dominant culture that they don’t recognize the exclusion that this symbolism perpetuates, or, worse, they thought about being inclusive and then chose to center Christian holidays anyway.

Instead, we can all start by finding out what holidays our colleagues celebrate and sharing our own. Holidays can be religious, cultural, spiritual, and more. Ask which holidays are the most important and acknowledge holidays at the appropriate time of year. It’s okay to ask if there’s an appropriate way to acknowledge a holiday because “happy holidays” isn’t right for all holidays (they might be somber, reflective, or commemorative). Next, put those holidays in your own calendar! Take it upon yourself to not schedule meetings on key holidays. Even better, get them on everyone’s calendar.

From an institutional policy perspective, floating holidays allow staff to choose when they take their religious days off. While many of us have Christmas off, we then have to use our precious vacation time to enjoy our most cherished family holidays. Jewish holidays begin at sundown the night before and may require an extra day for travel and/or cooking. The more holidays that can float, the better!

Action works better when we jointly take responsibility for making the workplace more inclusive. Advocacy can take social capital as well as mental and emotional energy. If you’re part of a dominant religious group, you have the opportunity to take on some of the burden of making the workplace inclusive so your religious minority colleagues don’t have to. You don’t need to tell me about your “Jewish friend” as a way to assure me you’re an ally. I’ll know you’re an ally when you educate yourself and advocate for religious inclusivity in the workplace! If you’re part of a minority religious group, it may help to find connection and community to ground yourself or to escape assimilationist pressures.

Religious inclusivity is good for everyone, not just for people in minority religious groups. Holidays are a time that can remind people of lost loved ones, past trauma, and difficult family relationships. This means that even those who grew up celebrating the Christian holidays may feel uncomfortable or have mixed emotions about them now. Further, we all have much to learn about each other and so many stereotypes to break. While I’m very aware of my own experience as a white American Jew in the workplace, I could stand to learn a whole lot about my South Asian Muslim coworkers’ experiences. Learning about others and challenging assumptions and stereotypes makes us all kinder and allows us to build solidarity in the face of exclusion, discrimination, and violence. 

As we get into the practice of expanding our awareness, changing our attitudes, and taking action to change our workplace cultures, I believe we can create workplaces that are inclusive of people of all religious backgrounds. When we have an inclusive workplace, we connect more authentically, build belonging, and set a stronger foundation for working together.