Friday, August 7, 2009

refuse to listen silently to racist remarks

This is a guest post by Filthy Grandeur, who writes of herself, "I'm a writer still trying to figure out what I'm doing, so I'm trying to do a lot of different things. I'm a daydreamer who hates being social. I'm afraid I fit the stereotype of angry, loner writer who enjoys sitting in the dark writing about things that piss me off."

No Safety for Racism

I work with one of those people who says racist things, but is clearly oblivious to her own racism. After all, she's perfectly comfortable speaking to other white people, nonchalantly exuding her ignorance with thoughtlessly racist remarks. She's referenced "the ghettos" with upturned nose, and in that non-thinking privileged manner, states that she stays clear of those places and those people who apparently choose to live there.

I've seen her jaw drop when I mention going home to the Detroit area, and seen her face twist into judgmental disgust at the mention that I listen to rap. I've heard that sneering accusation of, "Oh, so your brother thinks he's black."

But -- for whatever reason -- it seems her comfort level with me has increased, because today she insisted on telling me about how an obnoxious black girl (she made a point to specify) was acting "disgraceful" at a public pool, apparently ruining her and her boyfriend's good time. I interrupted her, and said that in no way is the girl's annoying behavior attributed to her skin color -- but she was hearing none of it. I don't think it really even registered in her mind that I, a fellow white woman, could be offended by what she was saying about an annoying young black woman. Despite my interruption, she continued: "I mean, don't black people know how to behave? Why do they act like that?"

Now, another co-worker was witness to this story, and he said nothing. We both sort of gave each other that awkward look before walking away into the next aisle. I figured interrupting her didn't work, so I'd try ignoring her. But that didn't work very well either, and she kept on with her racist rant until the subject was changed.

This exchange reminds me of something I read recently at Fugitivus:

Now anybody who’s been in a school setting knows that you do occasionally run into students who drive you up the fucking wall. But anybody who’s been one form of privileged class or another also knows (if you don’t, think on this some) that if that person who drives you up the fucking wall is black/gay/female/feminist/(insert minority label here), their otherness becomes one of the things that drives you up the wall. Instead of being a person who you thinks speaks uncomfortably loud, they become a loud black person, a shrill woman, an in-your-face gay person. Their minority status becomes an integral part of what they do that pisses you off. I’ve done this, you’ve done this; let’s not fuck about.

Why do we do this? Because it's easy.

As for the other co-worker who also heard her ignorance? I mentioned it to him later, when she wasn't around. I told him how uncomfortable she makes me, spouting her racism without thinking or caring that I might be offended. He told me he finds it offensive too, but just ignores it.

Well, that's too easy. I am normally quiet and reserved, but I've resolved that I might as well speak up -- she seems comfortable saying these things around lots of people at our workplace, even a couple managers, and no one says a damn thing (guess what? I work with a bunch of white people). If we're ever going to achieve this "post-racial" ideal, then we need to challenge racism -- point it out, expose it. We can't be afraid of confrontation. I think part of this silence is that since this is a majority white workplace, no one wants to be the "odd" or "sensitive" one by pointing out another white person's racism -- I mean, there's no POC around, so who's offended, right? But that shouldn't matter. People need to know that racism is not appropriate or acceptable anywhere at any time in any company. Ever.

I'm tired of this "safe" feeling white people get when they're in the company of other white people, where they whip out their racism and prejudices in a blinding example of their white privilege. I want white people to lose that safe feeling. I want them to stop and think about what they're planning to say, and then not say it because they know it won't be tolerated. Because they know it's ignorant and hateful and racist.

Ignoring it won't make it go away. Which is why I interrupted her, and why, when she decides to say something else racist (from her record, I know she will), I will confront her, and tell her I am offended, and what she's saying is racist and ignorant and I shouldn't have to deal with that when I'm at work. And I'll probably be accused of oversensitivity, but that's okay, because maybe I'll make her as uncomfortable as she makes me, and it'll eat at her until she realizes that she's wrong; and if not, at least she will know that I will not be party to her ignorance, despite what she thinks my skin-color represents.


  1. I feel grateful whenever I am present for someone calling another out on prejudiced words or behaviors (even, eventually, when I'm the offender), both when I hadn't noticed it myself and especially when I had but didn't have the nerve in that moment to be the one to bring it up. I also feel affirmed in my belief that the prejudices need to be confronted when this happens around me. When I'm in the company of others who are also willing to speak out I feel like less of a self-righteous agitator (safety in numbers, eh?).

    Here's what regularly gets me: what to do when I KNOW, from the flinch in my brain and clench in my gut, that I'm observing something disturbingly prejudiced and am uncomfortable about it but can't for the life of me think of how to articulate it. In the past, I've been rather unconvinced about the productiveness of trying to call someone/thing out and being stumped or half-assed with my answer to the inevitable "why?". It just leaves me frustrated and my companions confused or resentful. I wind up pretending everything is peachy and toss it about in my brain for a while having imaginary, I-should-have-said-this-and-this-and-this-too conversations with people while I wait to fall asleep.

  2. FG, Great piece, I think this is one of the most key parts (and there are many) to opening up and airing out racial, gender and preferential prejudices. Simply not allowing it and speaking up. Which, by the way, I am pretty certain you do all the time in probably many ways. I also think you may have to avoid too big of a confrontation because people become entrenched when confronted harshly and try and make it about you having a problem and their "normal" way of acting is as you put it oblivious to them. But thank you for this precious window in. As I said to macon, these post help me to know more about me than I ever imagined. I find myself both understanding others behavior and at many points checking my own.

    Seems like this story should end with to be continued, I want to hear the rest.

  3. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    This is a breath of fresh air to me. Many non-POC claim to care about racism/claim not to be racist. But what do you do when your really put to the test? You ACT!

    Actions speak louder then words.

  4. Good article. I wish I had concluded about the confrontation thing in my last job. The only problem with that is that some people would say you are being aggressive instead of assertive.

    When I confronted my ex-Manager, who seemed to think it was ok to shout at me and talk down to me at every opportunity, she was shocked and taken aback and wanted me to take days off to cool down.

    What I really should have done is confronted her in front of other people (witnesses) and reported her to Human Resources on each occasion she was out of line, so that they had a long record of her misdemeanours.

    I guess it's hard to know how you will react in situations like this, especially when you have never experienced it before in a working environment.

  5. I'm glad as a white person you are prepared and willimg to take that initiative. You should do a follow-up post and let us know how that confrontation went.

  6. I always thought that speaking up and confronting racism was the most productive thing to do. Sometimes I have the courage to do it, and other times I'm gutless. (I'm white.)

    A few years ago I was with a friend who is Puerto Rican and whose husband is black. She said that she and her husband heard racist things directed at them all the time. I asked her what she did and she said that she usually stayed quiet because she's decided that it's impossible to really change the mind of a truly racist person, and she's rather just know who they are rather than have them try to edit what they say in front of her.

    I'm not sure I completely agree with her, but I understand her point.

  7. Thank you- this is a very good post. As someone who is half Asian and half Caucasian, who also looks more Caucasian than Asian, I have been privy to lots of implicitly and explicitly racist comments.

    Asians are, to some people who categorize people racially, honorary whites. Unfortunately, I see more an more Asians buying into into the racist/racial paradigm, and I think it is in part because of this honorary racial status.

    I recently ended a friendship with someone from Taiwan because he has recently morphed into a very racist and sexist person. Now that he is a radiologist earning half a million dollars a year, he has decided he has a right to cheat on his Asian wife with a white woman. Our conversations started devolving into him talking about how he feels Asian woman and men are inferior physically from an aesthetic point of view and him waxing poetic while objectifying his white mistress.

    I initially stopped returning his calls and emails until finally I decided I needed to write him back both for my and his sake. In detail, I discussed everything I had issues with and why. He was royally pissed-off, but I feel much cleaner now.

    I had racist friends in high school who reveled in being "white". When I first met one of them, racist and homophobic terms littered her utterances. I was shocked and walked away the first time she did this around me. She never did it again while I was around. None of her other friends (all "white") ever said anything.

    I don't understand why people are so hesitant to confront others about these issues. Perhaps I am a confrontational person by nature, but I just can't understand how anyone could NOT say something and live with themselves.

    Kudos to you for taking the step forward to bring the unspoken out into the open!

  8. Thanks. This was timely. I am a person of color who works in a predominantly white independent day school and I see this all the time, especially when well meaning colleagues are using racist language to describe student behavior. I used to ignore it at first and now I just call them on it...this idea of "post racial" America is an interesting one. I see us moving toward a more hostile America, one that has yet to deal with the deep seated racism present in an ever-changing society.

  9. i appreciate all the positive feedback. i've had to challenge myself to not be afraid to speak up (i still have anxiety issues when speaking to people, which i'm working on).

    i've also been working on calling out racism with my own family. i know there's little i can do to change anyone's mind, especially when that mind's been set long ago, but if nothing else, calling it out will at least let them know that what they say is not acceptable to me. even if i don't completely blow their minds and make them realize their ignorance, or make them realize that racism in all forms is wrong, they at least learn that there are some places it's just not welcome--and the more people who illustrate this unwelcomeness, the less acceptable these attitudes become...

    and don't worry, there will certainly be a part two (i'm still on vacation, and will return to work next tuesday).

  10. This post is very timely. I agree with Grace as far as America moving towards hostility. Before, the trend used to be "It doesn't exist" but when one calls people out on it, they get accused of either playing the race card or being racist.

    Just the other day, I had a conversation with a male (white) about South Africa. Two of my friends went there and they said it was a beautiful place, but that it could be dangerous. This guy told me that it's dangerous because of "My sisters and brothers" and I replied "What do you mean by that?" He replied, "Blacks are in charge. I'll go when the white people are in charge again."

    At the moment it was said, I guess I chickened out because I was both surpised at the audacity of a seemingly intelligent person making such a sweeping generalization and it really bothered me. I'm only my late 20s and when I have encountered such remarks--when I used to live in Harlem, I usually got "Is it safe?", I'm usually caught off guard and don't quite know how to respond to it. I know that if I said the reverse then I would have been called a racist...

  11. My mother is an interracial woman with blond hair and green eyes. Although she has pictures of her family all around her cubicle and her co-workers have met me (she married a black man and I am very clearly black) she still has an issue with some of her coworkers making racist jokes and comments. When she speaks up they always seem to be shocked that she would be offended.
    It makes her crazy that even though there is ample evidence of her ethnicity and she is open about it, they KNOW that her father is black, her husband is black her daughter is black they STILL cannot see her as black because she does not fit into the idea of a black woman they have in their heads.
    I think it is actually easier for me at work because people see me as black and they watch themselves. They may still think things, but I don't have to hear it or deal with it as much.
    Of course, I have other issues that she doesn't we all do - but she works in a white "safe zone" and it makes her nutso sometimes.
    Luckily she works with many white coworkers who are just as annoyed and disgusted at the racism of the few as she is and so there are others to speak up or have her back.
    Still it's the kind of everyday bullshit that wears you down each and every day.
    It is a whole other job being a minority, but the job gets a little easier when others in the work place help carry the load.
    Please do speak up in the workplace and every where else. Just because you don't think there is a person of color around doesn't mean there isn't.
    And even if there isn't, do the right thing.
    My mom and I would appreciate it.

  12. I find it hilarious (in a sad way) that your co-worker had the nerve to say "I mean, don't black people know how to behave? Why do they act like that?" when she's the rude twit!

    People always seem to obtain a special kind of bravery when the people they want to insult aren't around - a bit like back stabbing. Although I have made it very clear to those who talk to me that I am very uncomfortable with prejudiced chatter, most either make fun of me being a bleeding heart or they just wait til I leave the area to begin their hate talks.

  13. Wow! Love this post! I am also enjoying hearing the stories from commenters.

    I am very fortunate to work in a place that is very diverse. You will most likely not find any predominant race. Not just white and black, but intensely diverse. Indians (both Hindus and Sikhs), Hispanics (American Latinos, South Americans, Central Americans), Asians (from Chinese, Japanese, Tawainese, Korean, etc), Persians and Arabs. You name it, we have it here. I feel very fortunate, but there is still racism, even here. A teammate and I (he a black man, me a white woman) would commiserate on how annoyed and uncomfortable we felt about a white man who would yak on the phone in his office near where we sit with his politics and his veiled racist remarks about our President. We both spend most of our time wearing headphones listening to music, so we don't have to hear him. After reading this post, I asked my teammate if he had heard him say anything lately because I hadn't. He said that a couple of weeks ago, he heard him tell someone about there being "sensitive democrats" around so he wasn't going to talk about something that was brought up. We don't care to change his mind. We are both just happy that he keeps his mouth shut. What's even more, I am glad that someone in authority took the time to let him know that his loud remarks were not appreciated in the workplace. I would like to think, that at least in this mid-sized corporation, we are moving towards a post-racial America. We only hope to do our part.

  14. I appreciate your intent to confront this woman who probably knows her words are bigoted, but says them aloud as a kind of challenge and also a poll. Nobody says anything? She knows she's supported in her racism.

    But I'd caution you one white woman to another (if I read you right), from experience: when you say that you're offended, it makes the event about you. It also lets the woman write you off the way you expected, as over-sensitive. There are maybe some better ways to make her deal with the racism of her remarks, not primarily with you, the co-worker.

    (1) Play dumb. "Where did you learn _________ about Black people? "Can you explain what you mean?" "How is that related to ____'s blackness?" Make her spell it out. If she's unconsciously racist, she'll probably start stumbling with this. If she keeps going:

    (2) Cut her off. "Wow. I didn't know anybody still thought like that." "Thanks for explaining, but what you said sounds really racist. Is that what you intended?" And finally, if you have this as a recourse, "Racist speech is inappropriate in the workplace. Please don't use it, or I'll have to write it up. Thanks."

    If you're not worried about keeping friendly relations with her, you have nothing to lose. And it frames her behavior as out of the mainstream and backwards, not yourself as reactionary.

  15. (i am also enjoying all the stories and experiences of others).


    thank you for the advice. i will certainly put it to good use.

  16. Great post--and I appreciate the comment thread as well.

    I also appreciate the advice that bluemorpho is giving you, because it can quickly turn personal which means it can get awkward/uncomfortable. is a very powerful thing to be a white ally and to say that you are offended--that you are someone who will not countenance racist remarks and that you don't want to be subject to a hostile environment in which you are hearing hate speech.

    I'm not sure you'd want to put it in those terms to your co-worker, but I think that certainly if you had black co-workers and this woman was saying these awful, racist things about black people it'd be evident that she is creating a hostile working environemnt.

    How progressive to take this a step further and show how she is making the working environment hostile for everyone--especially for her white co-workers who are actively pursuing anti-racism in their lives.

    Anyway, however you decide to confront her on her speech, I really appreciate you being a white ally. It's hard work, but it's better than that gut wrenching feeling in your stomach when you wish you had said something but didn't.

  17. Wow, I realize this post is about the comfort level of this woman with the author, based on the shared comfort of whiteness. However, black people do it to. I don't know how many coworkers, I have had in the past, who feel as if it is ok, to come close and complain. They say stuff like, "well you know how THEY are, and "you know they don't want us here. Lord knows don't have a personality conflict with someone because then it's, "that's what the white man wants you to do.
    Unfortunately, once I convey that I am offended, I am branded a sellout. Racism goes both ways. We can't cheer when someone white admits that their peers may be racist, if we can't cheer when our peers are, as well.

  18. Casual Observer regarding, "but black folks do it too!"

    Honestly I wish people would quit with this. Quit bringing it to every conversation dealing with whites & racism, because really you aren't experiencing what people of color do from their white peers. How many times is this going to have to be made clear before folks quit jumping on the "me toooo!" wagon? Sigh.

  19. thank you so much for this post and the associated comment thread. all the comments, except for "casual observer"s unnecessary devil's advocate crap, are really quite helpful and interesting.

    - I encounter this problem in my own workplace and have been attempting to confront my own very racist white co-worker on her frequent comments about aboriginals in my city.

    it's good to know there are other light-skinned and white people who have made the decision to do what they can to put a stop to the racist comments, especially when there's nothing but our own fear to hold us back.

  20. I agree with KissMyBlackAds and others. Great points. I think the best course of action is either:

    1. Awkward silence with look of disapproval, then stern, but polite admonishment.

    2. Immediate interjection making one's objection clear including reason's why.

    You have to call people out in a mature, non-confrontational manner. Show them, explain why their words are offensive, unacceptable, inappropriate, hurtful etc.

  21. Awesome post Macon.

    Brief background; I'm white, my wife is black.

    After we were married, my wife put a photo of us in her cubicle at work and within 3 months noticed that a few select whites in the office began "confiding" in her regarding employees of other races (not black or white) as if she had somehow been accepted into the Bigot Club because she married a white man.

    When I first started dating my wife, one of the first things she explained to me was the most exhausting thing about being black - being reminded of your skin color on a daily basis.

    I gotta say, being an "aware" white person, not a day passes where someone of my skin color doesn't make me embarrassed to be white.

  22. I try to correct racist remarks, but I always get attacked (I'm white). I remember once I was in a debate about inequality and several people "informed" me that inequality no longer exists! It's done. We're free from racism, sexism, classism! They called me a snob and self-righteous...they thought that by recognizing my privilege and saying that I would use my privilege for awesome and not evil, I was being judgemental of everyone else that thought being white (and mostly middle-class male) did not make life easier. They simply thought privilege didn't exist. I've been pretty hesitant to say anything, except for when my brothers friends were telling racist jokes...I just said something like "come on guys. That's not ok." Doesn't work. They just laugh at me.

  23. Great article! Good for you! I am a Black woman and I have a lot of respect for you. You are indeed an outstanding and courageous person. And you should be admired and commended. If everyone had an amirable attitude as yours, there would be no or little racism! Please continue to do the right thing!

  24. I fail to see the need to admire behavior/attitudes which ought to be a social norm by now. Nowadays I only seem to see caucasians who simply refrain from their usual damning words they can't help but to broadcast like they're addressing the public on a P.A. mic. To me most whites are defiantly racist even if they project they aren't, but whats more scary are the ones who delude themselves into thinking they're embracing and open minded. If you really truly are why do you try so hard at conveying and projecting it? Are you trying to fool others or yourself?


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code