Can Friendship Bridge Diversity … in the Office?

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Today’s Story is by Cheryl El-Amin about making friends with co-workers …

Cheryl was raised Presbyterian, then converted to Islam in 1976. Her lifelong pursuit of education led her to obtain a doctorate in 2009 in human services with a specialty in clinical social work. She is a school social worker and also is active in charitable and religous groups, including her mosque.

I am a quiet person. I grew up as an only child, without a lot of other children running around our home, but I have always enjoyed meeting new people—especially people from other faiths and ethnic backgrounds. After my years of training in social work, I’ve learned not to be judgmental of others. When I meet people, I try to relate to them just as they are. I always assume that people have an essence of good within them, and I always try to relate to someone’s best essence.

I have a longtime friend whom I met back in the late 1980s; I remember that she was the first Caucasian person with whom I developed a close friendship. We were both social workers at a hospital. When I was hired, I was assigned to share an office with her—and it was not a big office, so we got to know each other right away.

We shared several things: We both had a Presbyterian background; we both had grown up as an only child; and we both now had children of our own. We talked honestly as colleagues—and, as we got to know each other, we also talked just as girlfriends. We would joke sometimes as we found ourselves discussing people’s assumptions about race and ethnicity. We encountered some of those stereotypes we discussed right there at the hospital. She is about 10 years older than me, and I’m African-American. We shared a small office space. So, occasionally, when she was out of the office, I’d find people sticking their head in our doorway and giving me messages for her. It was obvious that they took one look at me and just assumed I was her secretary. I didn’t get angry at such things, but I did correct people. I’d say: “I am not her secretary. But I will tell her when I see her.”

There are a lot of assumptions people carry around with them that are difficult to get rid of, because people often feel awkward talking about them. I remember one woman calling me on the telephone because she wanted to clear up a few things in her head about this “black thing.” I remember she asked me, “Are you enraged?” She said, “I’ve heard that because of all the years of oppression in African-American history, there’s this underlying anger.” I guess she thought we all automatically shared this kind of free-floating anger and that we were all enraged. She called me with this question because she was concerned about a relationship with another African-American person. She thought she would double-check her assumptions about this “black thing” with someone who might explain it to her honestly.

I explained that there’s a lot of diversity among people. I do feel strongly about many things, but the idea that we all carry around the same free-floating feelings? Well, speaking for myself, I’ve never felt the kind of rage she described. I have been militant about some issues over the years that have mattered to me, but I don’t carry a permanent rage. The real point here is that people are diverse.

I also discovered that I, myself, had assumptions about race. As my work continued at the hospital and I became better friends with this woman in the office, I began to realize that I had been making some assumptions about white people. I realized that there were far more Caucasian ethnicities and backgrounds than I had realized before. I had tended to mentally lump white people into one group without many distinctions, and my friend was happy to talk about this, especially when we’d encounter some new person. She might say: Oh, well, this person comes from a particular ethnic background and there are a lot of distinctive cultural issues here. Or, we might talk about social distinctions. She might say: Now, that person is what we’d call “old money,” and people from that background tend to have these kinds of experiences.

I enjoyed our conversations. It’s so easy to misunderstand other people if you don’t have an opportunity to talk honestly. We were good friends for a while, and then we went through years when we didn’t see each other. I took a job in school social work and she moved to a different hospital. We kept in touch occasionally by email until one day, about a year ago, when she remembered that my husband enjoys golf and picked up the telephone to tell me about a golf tournament near her home. She had tickets to the tournament and thought my husband might enjoy seeing it. I stopped by her new hospital to pick up the tickets and, after that, our friendship picked up again. Some time after that, my husband and I renewed our wedding vows after 31 years of marriage and she came to that. It was wonderful. She got to see my children again, all grown up now.

As a Muslim woman, I know how many misperceptions there are about us. People assume that, since I cover my hair now, I’m forced to do that. And that’s just not true. It’s a choice I’ve made. I didn’t always cover my hair; I choose to do that now. No one is forcing me. Here’s another example: People will say, “Oh, you’re Muslim, so you don’t believe in Jesus.” And I say, “What? That’s not true. I believe in Jesus. I don’t believe he was God, but Jesus is a very important part of Islam.”

I’ve come to see that working on relationships with other people is a lifelong process. It really is. There’s a verse in the Quran from Surah 94 that reads:

When thou art free (from thine immediate task), still labour hard,
And to thy Lord turn (all) thy attention.

What it means is: You’re never really finished with anything. When you’re free from your immediate task, keep working hard, because there’s still more to be done. The passage says “with every difficulty, there is relief.” So, there is encouragement along the way, but we’re not supposed to fall into contentment and inactivity. In our relationships, especially, we need to keep working. You never really “arrive” in life. You’re always arriving—G’d willing.

(Originally published in

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