Pause for a moment to consider what comes to mind when you hear someone say “the holiday season”: Perhaps a Menorah? The communal feast of Karamu? A Christmas tree? A time when others celebrate and you do not? November is now in the rearview, but it’s never too late to reflect back and consider—did you wish all colleagues a “Happy Thanksgiving?” Everyone celebrates Thanksgiving…right?

Well, no. For many people the fourth Thursday in November is the National Day of Mourning, an occasion to remember the millions of Indigenous people killed as white settlers entered and claimed the continent as their own. The holiday that some people celebrate as a festive day of gratitude to be spent with family and friends is, for others, a painful reminder of how Indigenous genocide has historically been ignored and whitewashed.

We know that holiday celebrations don’t exist in a vacuum. So let’s also orient ourselves to time and place and consider what it means to be truly inclusive over these few weeks in particular, as we interact with colleagues who hold both different religious identities and different levels of financial security—a discrepancy that can feel especially fraught in an economic downturn during a time in the year often characterized by spending.

The past few years have also introduced another consideration to the mix, as Covid has disproportionately impacted low-income families, people of color, and Indigenous folks. Millions of people worldwide are now trying to navigate the festive “holiday season” against a backdrop of grief.

Taken together, the above factors define a season ripe for identity-related aggressions (IRAs), a term we coined to take the “micro” out of “microaggressions” and shift focus away from the aggressor and toward a deeper understanding of the impact and harm caused by these incidents. IRAs are slights, actions, statements, or intended compliments that come from stereotypes or assumptions, and harm people with marginalized identities. Much like the financial tool that shares its acronym, IRAs have a compounding emotional impact over time.

Here are common IRAs that occur during the holiday season (and, yes, we’ve all made at least one of them):

  • Asking, “Where are you traveling for the holidays?” (Assumes that all can afford to travel, and that all consider these times “holidays.”)
  • Asking, “What did you get for Christmas?” (Assumes that all are comfortable enough financially to have gifts they’d be proud sharing, and that all celebrate Christmas.)
  • Placing Christmas wreaths and decorations and/or and playing Christmas music in common spaces. (Assumes that all celebrate Christmas, and/or feel comfortable with this privileged religious faith being on public display.)
  • Wishing all a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Thanksgiving.” (Assumes that all celebrate the events celebrated by the privileged group in power.)
  • Complaining to people who have lower-paying jobs about the cost of gifts and/or travel. (Assumes all manage the same level of financial stress.)

In the year ahead, we recommend the following:

  • Resolve to be more mindful of the assumptions we make regarding the socioeconomic status of our colleagues, especially during this period of economic downturn. Recognize that downturns affect us differently, and some always endure high levels of financial stress, regardless of the state of the economy.
  • Resolve to be more mindful of the varying religious, cultural, and spiritual orientations of our colleagues and what events coincide with, or are adjacent to, events celebrated by the dominant/privileged culture. Recognize that we might not know how each colleague identifies.
  • Resolve to be more mindful of how Covid has disproportionately devastated certain communities and colleagues, and that the grieving of these losses persists for many, regardless of the season.
  • Commit to learning something new about the religious and cultural celebrations with which we are less familiar.

If we could each resolve to be more mindful, respectful and inclusive of the beautiful tapestry of identities we bring to the workplace, just imagine what 2023 could bring.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Lauren Wadsworth are Harvard-affiliated licensed clinical psychologists and authors of the top-rated human-resources and business book, Did That Just Happen?! Beyond Diversity-Creating Sustainable and Inclusive Organizations. They co-founded Twin Star Diversity Intersectional Trainers, through which they consult globally to organizations seeking practical solutions to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.