Buck Up, It’s Only Racism at the Office

1 May, 2023


In 500 words or less, talk about racism you experienced at work, how it was resolved, and any lingering effects you may experience.


Laila Halaby


I began working for a large organization in the fall of 2000.

Months after I was hired, colleagues told me that the born-again, Mexican American woman who would go on to make my life a torment for five years had announced at a meeting prior to my arrival that she didn’t think she’d be able to work with a Muslim.

That first week, training with her at her cubicle, I told her that the caricature she had front and center of an Arab sitting on a camel was offensive. She looked at me, said nothing, folded it over, and pinned it back up.

Over the months and years to come, she was relentless: printing incendiary articles from right wing Israeli publications and leaving them in the shared printer, asking where my husband was from, what village? and then saying if Palestinians have to die for Jesus to return then so be it.  After 9/11 she didn’t speak to me for 6 weeks.  She handed out American flag pins to everyone but me.  She yelled at me in a staff meeting You are one Arab voice; we are six Christians.

She routinely asked clients if they had accepted our lord and savior Jesus Christ into their lives.  She and some of my co-workers engaged in group prayers.  At work. Bonkers shit given this was a social services organization with federal grants to serve the state in a city of nearly a million people.

Oh, and I’m not Muslim.

Over the five years of these incidents, I asked her to stop, telling her that I didn’t care what she believed but keep it out of the workplace.

I spoke to my manager (he was out of his depths and just wanted everyone to get along) and the manager’s manager (she agreed but felt her hands were tied).

I spoke with the person overseeing the whole program (she also agreed but didn’t know what she could do).

Finally, I spoke to the attorney connected to the larger organization.

It doesn’t qualify as harassment.



We were living under the shadow of 9/11 and war; America was not yet woke.

The jibes continued.  I left our office in tears more than once.

My friends thought I was exaggerating. No way that can be happening.

Our program was audited over a separate issue.

The person in charge asked me about my experience working there.

I told her.


The born-again woman who had yelled at me in meetings, had rallied coworkers against me, came up to me in the bathroom and apologized for behaving in a way that was “unchristian.”  And then she took early retirement.

And then she died.



I still work for this organization.

Every year we have to complete diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings.

My heart beats extra every single time.


Laila Halaby was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Jordanian father and an American mother.  She is the author of two novels, West of the Jordan (winner of a PEN Beyond Margins Award) and Once in a Promised Land. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her second collection of poetry, due out April 2022 from 2Leaf Press, why an author writes to a guy holding a fish [sic], is a story in verse chronicling the misadventures of a recently divorced woman dating in America.

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