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Reverse Racism at Work?
June 18, 2012 11:40 PM   Subscribe

While faxing at the front desk at my job, a few co-workers were sitting around chatting. An African American co-worker was telling few Hispanic co-workers a story about how her and her friends were overlooked while shopping at Coach, "because the clerk was only paying attention to the (mouths the word "white" while my back was turned) girls. She goes on the explain that they left the store and called to complain that they were ignored because of their race. I was the only white person there (and not part of the conversation) and I would never have been telling a story if the reverse was true, so was this racism in the workplace? I surely felt uncomfortable. What can/should I do?
posted by EquineProcine to Work & Money (49 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sounds to me that if she was telling a story that was factually accurate, she should have actually have said the word "white" as part of the story. Don't see any racism. What was making you uncomfortable, the word "white" or the fact that the clerks were ignoring her and her friends?

What can/should I do?

Stop shopping at Coach.
posted by AugustWest at 11:45 PM on June 18, 2012 [59 favorites]


I was the only white person standing there and wanted to know why she felt she had to mouth the word "white" just because I was standing there?
posted by EquineProcine at 11:47 PM on June 18, 2012


Because she didn't want to make you feel uncomfortable about another white person's racism, as she experienced it anyway?
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:49 PM on June 18, 2012 [73 favorites]


I dunno. As a white person who grew up around almost exclusively non-white people, this is not unusual...except in my experience, they just would have said "white." I think she was trying to be sensitive, not offensive but that's just speculation. I probably would have off-handedly said something like, "Wow, how messed up is that? Did you let her know she'd lost a commission for being racist!?"
posted by smirkette at 11:50 PM on June 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


You shouldn't do anything except avoid your local Coach store since it sounds like it's not a very equitable place to shop. The situation your coworker was describing was discrimination, and while it's sort of awkward that she would relate the scenario while at work, it sounds like she was troubled by the experience (and rightly so) and needed to talk about it. But she was not talking to you and she was not talking about you, because nothing in her story had anything to do with you at all. Her mouthing the word white was likely just because, like you said, you were the only white person there, you weren't part of the conversation, and she probably didn't want you to be part of the conversation because it's really none of your business. Nothing she said was racist against you as a white person. And you should feel uncomfortable; your coworker was discriminated against and that's not cool.

And not to be argumentative, how do you know she mouthed the word "white" in the first place if your back was turned? Did another coworker tell you? If so, that coworker is trying to stir up shit, and that's really not cool.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:50 PM on June 18, 2012 [15 favorites]


Race can be an uncomfortable topic, but your feelings of discomfort do not make you a victim of racism. I see no evidence of racism in your story, except in what happened to your coworkers at Coach.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:51 PM on June 18, 2012 [83 favorites]


I'd say it wasn't. Generally speaking, there's a difference between discriminating on the basis of race and mentioning race at all. The latter can make people uncomfortable, especially people in the racial power majority who generally don't have to deal with this sort of thing very often. I'd wager a large amount of money that for your coworkers, however, that story was about as routine as describing an uncomfortable visit to the dentist.

As near as I can tell from your recounting, however, there was no discrimination or exclusion demonstrated on the part of your coworkers. You may have felt uncomfortable joining the conversation, but that isn't an indication that you would have been barred from doing so. Unless your workplace has a policy against mentioning race casually in any form, I don't see it.
posted by Errant at 11:51 PM on June 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


There is a difference between talking about race and racism. If you can demonstrate that you are passed for raises or promotions because of your race, that is racism. If you are made to feel like you are lumped in with racist clerks at Coach day in and day out for years, and that as a result of this you experience hostility from your peers in the workplace, then that is racism. However, if you know people of color as friends and colleagues, you are going to learn about the ways in which their experiences of the world are different from yours. Rather than search for ways in which you are wronged, listen carefully to your colleagues and develop some empathy. In the long run, this will serve you much better than the sense of grievance that you seem to be cultivating right now.
posted by pickypicky at 11:52 PM on June 18, 2012 [35 favorites]


I don't think it was reverse racism so much as she just wasn't sure how a co-worker would react to her pointing out white privilege in action (especially if she was unsure if you owned Coach products). I think mouthing the word "white" was silly, but I suspect it was more of an issue of trying to minimize any racial tension that her relating the story might occur. If it was appropriate, I would say something to her like, "Hey, I didn't mean to eavesdrop the other day, but that story about Coach really made me think, and I won't be shopping there anytime soon." Only, if that's how you feel, of course.
posted by katemcd at 11:54 PM on June 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


On preview: ah, I see. It may help to know that, hopefully obviously wrongly, people of color have frequently been marginalized when attempting to relate their experiences of racism. It can hurt to feel like you're being tarred with a brush you don't deserve, for sure. It's likely, though by no means certain, that rather than subvocalizing a racial pejorative (which "white" isn't, although "cracker" for instance would be), your coworker was attempting to minimize any potential fallout. It may be beneficial for you to speak to your coworker about that situation and express your confusion over her actions, if that's something you feel comfortable doing.
posted by Errant at 12:05 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was the only white person standing there and wanted to know why she felt she had to mouth the word "white" just because I was standing there?

What can/should I do?

Next time just ask her. Or you can just say, "Hey, it's okay to say 'white' in front of me."

I grew up in this ultraliberal mostly white enclave, where a lot of the white people were afraid to describe others as being black, even in utterly benign situations. They would go through all of these gymnastics, like, "That's my friend Joe over there. The one in the blue shirt." (There would be like 20 guys in blue shirts.) "Umm, the tall one." Half of them were tall. Meanwhile Joe would be the only black dude in a mile radius. Eventually, black people ended up having to say, "It is okay to say that someone is black."

This is obviously a very fraught and often awkward comment. Sometimes people have the best of intentions and wind up doing weird and awkward things. There is no way for us to know if your co-worker was doing her best to be polite, or deliberately trying to make you uncomfortable, or what. Just don't approach it assuming the worst of her, and if you say something about it just do your best to act forthright and normal.
posted by cairdeas at 12:37 AM on June 19, 2012 [13 favorites]


While it was probably innapropriate as a workplace topic, there is no racism in your account. Racism means a bias based on race, and workplace racism generally means creating a situation where you are discriminated against, such as creating a hostile work environment. It sounds like this was a conversation with no slurs or claims about an entire race, much less anything that could negatively impact your work. It made you uncomfortable, but unless there are other things going on in your office, a clumsy attempt at skipping over mentioning a certain race in casual conversation doesn't count. But it might help to avoid topics like that all together, or help diffuse any awkwardness by becoming part of the conversation. It depends on your workplace culture.

Also, "Reverse racism" is a loaded term based on the idea that the racial majority is now facing systematic oppression, even though that would still be regular racism. Yes there are no doubt situations where a white person is discriminated against solely on skin color; it doesn't need a special term that serves as a dog whistle to those who are actively trying to hold on to white privilege. It should just be treated as another instance of racism.
posted by lychee at 12:42 AM on June 19, 2012 [15 favorites]


For some reason, it's a natural response in white people, on hearing accounts of racism, and men who hear about sexism, and so forth, to make it ALL ABOUT THEM. It's like it's not possible to discuss sexism or racism, without people who are nothing to do with the whole thing feeling defensive and slighted and wanting to discuss their feelings at great length.

In fact it's useful for women to discuss sexism, and I'm pretty sure it's also useful for non white folks to be able to discuss racism, and it doesn't help in any way if they can't do this without you jumping up and down going MENTIONING YOUR EXPERIENCES OF RACISM MAKES ME FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE. CAN WE TALK ABOUT ME NOW PLEASE?

Useful responses by uninvolved people hearing accounts of racism and sexism include

a) shutting up and listening
b) trying to make the world a less sexist and racist place
c) considering whether it is just possible that occasionally some of your actions are unintentionally racist or sexist, or appear to be so, and maybe you could do something about that.
posted by emilyw at 1:03 AM on June 19, 2012 [64 favorites]


At a job I had, two black women coworkers were talking about their visit to a mall to a white woman coworker - about how dirty it was, how messy the stores were, and "It was even a WHITE mall!" I was not part of the discussion but they knew I was right there and would hear it.

They were either comfortable enough to say it, that way, in front of me, or they didn't care that I was there. I don't know. It could have been some tease at me, but I did not take it as malicious. But I remember. We were friendly enough, had gone out after work with others a few times, etc.

Shrug. I don't work there anymore for other reasons. I don't know. Who knows. Racism occurs in all directions. I'm white and I have experienced it directly and clearly.

So, I don't think you experienced a racism incident. They did or they think they did, and they talk about such things normally, as normal people will or even should, and they may mouth "white" anytime in the workplace by habit in such discussions. Maybe.
posted by caclwmr4 at 1:28 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see any evidence of racism in the story you recount. Those women probably realised it was a little tactless to be having that conversation in front of you and that accounts for how they mouthed the word white. You're not responsible for the actions of all white people and those women do not blame you for every racist in the world.
posted by londonmark at 1:29 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


If she had said 'white' aloud what would your reaction have been?
posted by mleigh at 1:47 AM on June 19, 2012


If your back was turned, how do you know what her mouth was doing?
posted by spunweb at 2:09 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


One thing whites tend not to get is that they can often live their lives having only incidental contact with people of color, yet the reverse is almost never true. (Substitute "majority members" and "minority members" if you want a more general case than just for the US.) As well, many whites, when having a poor experience with a person of color, will still often be in a position of cultural power or dominance (and from your description, there seems to be an implication this was true in your case), while again, this is almost never true for people of color.

Put another way, for whites it can seem like minorities are bringing racism into a situation where it is not relevant and makes the whites feel uncomfortable, but minorities generally have no opportunity to live their lives without the experience of racism in large, medium, or small amounts on an almost daily basis.

Now try running that overheard conversation in your mind again.
posted by dhartung at 2:15 AM on June 19, 2012 [24 favorites]


My initial reaction was that the co-worker just didn't want you to infer that she was lumping you in with the store clerk and the "preferred" customers, so she was trying to be delicate about it.

And was it all in a casual tone, or playfully upset, or genuinely upset? Inflection and tone go a long way. And your relationship with these co-workers is another factor (although if you were comfortable I'm guessing you're not that close). And was it just coincidence that this came up while you were there, or did your presence presumably remind her of that experience?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:39 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


She mouthed the word "white", because

(a) she felt fearful that any reaction she got from you would be negative, and not empathic towards her experience.

(b) She didn't know if she was being racist or not.


This says nothing about you, and everything about the society you both live in.

Don't worry about it, try not to feel uncomfortable, and try and realise that even black people get confused about what is & is not racist.

If it happened to me, I'd probably try and say something along the lines of "It's OK to say white", but these sort of things can go wrong pretty easily. You don't want to be in the situation where you're perceived as giving her permission to speak about white people.
posted by zoo at 2:50 AM on June 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Bunch of people trying to find a space where they can talk freely about (real) discrimination (in the real world, and them being on the receiving end to boot) and not really finding one. So they end up with what perhaps could be seen a half-great solution.

But hey. Since the topic is discrimination, of course there's a we-them perspective included in their tale, just as it is in yours.

(Yes, and stop shopping there)
posted by Namlit at 4:34 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think that a lot of things can be going on at the same time here.

First, it's not racism directed at you, because you weren't actually discriminated against. Whether the girl was herself racist cannot be discerned from a single isolated story. (Nor, incidentally, can the actions of the store clerk, so I wouldn't advise you to suddenly stop shopping at Coach if you generally do so.) Perception of someone's motivations is not an actual discernment of their intentions.

However, you are quite correct that if you had told a similar story, about going into an establishment and being refused service by a black salesgirl, and mouthed that she served the black girls first only when you saw your only black coworker coming, you would undoubtedly have been considered racist by a lot of people both in your workplace and here.

So yes, there are different standards for acceptable behavior, and that is hard when you're the one on the receiving end. (Which is, I'm sure, what your co-worker felt in regards to shopping)

However, about this one incident itself, there is nothing you can do. There is no good way to complain about it. If it's an isolated incident, there's no point, and even if it's not an isolated incident, you have no way to complain without making it really obvious who complained.

Ironically, this is in fact the position many minority people find themselves in in workplaces where they do not dominate.
posted by corb at 4:41 AM on June 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was the only white person standing there and wanted to know why she felt she had to mouth the word "white" just because I was standing there?

She wasn't sure how you'd react if she said it out loud. And I hate to be thinking this way, but it seems that if you're reacting like this to her simply mouthing the word, she may have been justified in her concern.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:34 AM on June 19, 2012 [24 favorites]


was this racism in the workplace?

No. She went out of her way to *not* make you uncomfortable (based on your description). Why on earth would you impute negative motives to that?
posted by mediareport at 5:44 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


You seem to think that her awareness and acknowledgement of you being white is racism. It isn't.
posted by girlmightlive at 5:49 AM on June 19, 2012 [10 favorites]


No one was racist towards you. If you were telling the reverse of the story, a whole different set of societal issues would be at play. If you think someone experiencing actual racism is somehow about you, you need to check yourself.
posted by whitneyarner at 6:19 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was a conversation you normally wouldn't hear between what are presumably more entry-level employees (front desk.) The standard for those is fairly low unless your office has an unusually high standard of conduct for all employees as some banks, for example, do. It would be different if the person telling the story was a manager or if it was being told in the break room where everyone would be subjected to it.
posted by michaelh at 6:29 AM on June 19, 2012


I believe the advice you are getting here today would be different if you were black and the situation was reversed, so let me lend a different view.

In general, you have the right to a harrassment and discrimination free workplace, and you said you felt uncomfortable. If this is honestly the case and you still feel this is an issue, then you should bring this up to your manager and to your Human Resources leader. Your manager and HR are the only ones who can reconsile this issue for you in the workplace in accordance with company polices.

You need to decide if that is worth the noise, hassle and potential long term effects on your working relationships.
posted by lstanley at 6:29 AM on June 19, 2012


Many white folks think it's rude to even mention the fact of racism, because they feel that talking about racism is controversial or divisive. This is usually, IME, an indicator that the white folks in question - whether they themselves are consciously racist or not - haven't thought a lot about the realities of race - which is fine, a lot of us grow up in segregated places and start out ignorant. But the point is that it is time to start thinking.

In my experience, a lot of my friends and acquaintances of color....well, folks seem to prefer a level of trust and comfort with white people before they start talking about race and whiteness and racism, because white folks can flip out, and because we live in an unequal society, a white colleague or white boss or white neighbor who flips out can make a lot of trouble.

Racism! It's so depressing, eh?

When you start thinking, "Is this reverse-racism?" , think about this quote: ""The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." Sometimes you can treat two groups of people "equally" (as by saying that it is racist to distrust or dislike people of another race) but if you don't understand their different histories and lives, you are not dealing with reality.

I was once door-knocking for a perfectly good neighborhood energy-audit project with a pretty solid analysis of race. I was door-knocking in a heavily native area, and one older guy came to the door, looked at me and said "I don't like white people," then closed the door. Now, I felt bad - but I felt bad because that guy had seen so much racism that he was pretty much done dealing with people like me, not because I felt like he should have made nice. Judging from his age, that guy had probably been around through the famous cop-squads of the sixties and seventies that would roll and beat native men and then arrest them, for example. Native people still get treated like crap around here and there's a lot of bitterness at the wasted lives and unneeded suffering. And the folks who have historically been in charge of treating native people like crap have been white, whether they were the military who drove natives off their land or the teachers at the residential schools or just storekeepers treating people like their money wasn't any good. To get all fussed about the guy who "didn't like white people" would be basically to say "ignore your whole life experience with white people because I am a special snowflake and you need to make me feel good about myself". Which is just about the most horrible thing I can think of that doesn't involve physical or financial violence.

When white folks expect people of color not to speak about their experiences of racism in order to make us feel better, we are saying "our momentary and trivial comfort is way more important than your ability to speak about the injustice you experience". I would argue that this is not what many of us would say if we thought it through - it's just how we've grown up and what we assume.

In general, you have the right to a harrassment and discrimination free workplace, and you said you felt uncomfortable. If this is honestly the case and you still feel this is an issue, then you should bring this up to your manager and to your Human Resources leader. Your manager and HR are the only ones who can reconsile this issue for you in the workplace in accordance with company polices.

I would argue that going to HR because someone was talking about how she was treated in a racist manner is the very definition of white people flipping out and it's one of the reasons that POC often don't trust white people. Just mention that an incredibly common and well-documented kind of discrimination happened to you and whoa, you're up in front of HR for harassment.

Please do not do this.
posted by Frowner at 6:38 AM on June 19, 2012 [69 favorites]


you should bring this up to your manager and to your Human Resources leader

Please do not do this. It's such a non-issue. Really. The situation had nothing to do with you and the fact that you were offended by such an innocuous occurrence says more about you and your discomfort with racial tension. That's something that you need to address on your own. Don't bring this poor woman into it.
posted by chara at 6:40 AM on June 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


I don't think it's relevant to discuss whether or not the situation (and the subsequent AskMe answers) would be the same if the racial profiles were reversed, because the history and current systematic bias is against people of colour and in favour of Caucasian folks - hell, even POC with comparatively lighter skin will get treated better, on average. One of the reason that "-isms" are so pernicious is because they are based not only on prejudice, but also on collective power - socially, white people are more powerful than black people. It's not as simple saying "well if I had done the same thing to a black person she would've felt weird", because she likely would've had a lifetime of white people excluding her and talking around her and feeling like they couldn't trust her. Your interactions do not exist in a vacuum.
posted by Phire at 6:45 AM on June 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Friends, "history" doesn't matter, "systemic bias" doesn't matter, "collective power" doesn't matter, "discomfort with racial tension" "the very definition of white people flipping out" doesn't matter in the workplace. I am predicating my answer based on the fact that EquineProcine said she felt uncomfortable, and as such my Human Resources advise is perfectly legitimate and really a standard answer in a situation like this.....

Everyone has a right to work in a discrimination and harrassment free workplace. Unless the poster is from a country that doesn't have those general protections, if she wants the issues addressed the best way to address that issue is through her manager and through HR.

Discussions, including discussions with a racial bent that make other people uncomfotable, are generally frowned upon for a myriad of reasons by corporations both large and small. If these issues are not addressed by the company, the business could be liable in a discrimination lawsuit.

Just because the above is an option, it doesn't mean that is the option the poster will want to take. EquineProcine wanted advice, and I provide one fair and honest avenue and approach.
posted by lstanley at 6:56 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I believe the advice you are getting here today would be different if you were black and the situation was reversed, so let me lend a different view.

Of course it would be different, because that is not a fully analogous situation. The dynamics are not equivalent - one group of people has endured centuries of systematic oppression through institutions and the law, while the other has enjoyed centuries of privilege. It's too reductive to just flip the script and act like nothing else in the context has changed.

I do think the confusion/discomfort you feel and the ease with which you put your hand on the term "reverse racism" kind of suggest it would behoove you to learn more about race relations. The very concept of "reverse" discrimination and reverse racism has roots in a backlash to the civil rights movement, and tends to crop up only in situations in which a white person wishes to claim a victimization because of a supposed privilege to black people which disadvantages them. Note that that didn't happen here - there were no privileges granted to the women you overheard, just the opposite in fact; and that in almost all cases where this charge is laid, the agenda at play is not to promote total egalitarianism, but to prevent black people from gaining any advantage over whites in the relevant situation, or to allow white people to shift blame for a set of conditions they don't feel advantaged by (didn't get a job or scholarship, didn't make the team, etc) from themselves to someone else.

I hate the term also because where there's discrimination and racism, there's nothing "reverse" about it. The term "reverse" assumes that the natural flow of racism goes only in one direction, which ends up endorsing the dominance of the dominant class. Racism is racism. However, this isn't it. This is describing a real situation of categorical discrimination as it happened and does continue to happen regularly for people of color and others lacking in power and social status. But it has nothing to do with you, other than giving you an opportunity to observe and learn about the experiences of others.

Read on: Whites Believe They are Victims of Discrimination More Often Than Blacks.

Is Reverse Racism Real?

Does Reverse Racism Exist? (I like the wrap-up to this one in answer to the title question: "Not according to an anti-racist definition of racism").

A Look at the Myth of Reverse Racism
posted by Miko at 6:58 AM on June 19, 2012 [31 favorites]


I was once door-knocking for a perfectly good neighborhood energy-audit project with a pretty solid analysis of race. I was door-knocking in a heavily native area, and one older guy came to the door, looked at me and said "I don't like white people," then closed the door. Now, I felt bad - but I felt bad because that guy had seen so much racism that he was pretty much done dealing with people like me, not because I felt like he should have made nice.

At the same time, this would never be okay if a white person did the same thing. No matter how many black people ever mistreated a white person during the course of his life, he would never, never, be okay saying something like that. So, you may have felt that that experience was okay because you felt for his experiences, but that doesn't mean that his words weren't racist. Deciding to treat someone differently on the basis of their race is pretty much the definition of racism.

I would argue that going to HR because someone was talking about how she was treated in a racist manner is the very definition of white people flipping out and it's one of the reasons that POC often don't trust white people. Just mention that an incredibly common and well-documented kind of discrimination happened to you and whoa, you're up in front of HR for harassment.

Again, try to imagine if this were reversed - say, a white person were talking about being harassed by black people in a majority-black neighborhood or somesuch. And the sole black employee in the workplace decided she had had enough of it, and decided to go to HR, because she saw enough racism all the time and didn't need it at work too. Would anyone here say that she was flipping out? Would anyone attempt to be concerned for the feelings of the harasser?

OP, let me clarify that my advice not to go to HR is one of practicality, not legality. I think that you are perfectly within your rights to say that someone behaving one way towards their non-white co-workers and another way towards you is discriminatory and you want it to stop. I just don't think it would bring you any good outcomes.
posted by corb at 7:01 AM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Everyone has a right to work in a discrimination and harrassment free workplace. Unless the poster is from a country that doesn't have those general protections, if she wants the issues addressed the best way to address that issue is through her manager and through HR.

Just because someone "feels harassed" does not mean that they are "being harassed". Just because a white person hears a POC say that some other white person was racist toward the POC does not mean that the first white person is being discriminated against.

I have worked with people who feel "harassed" by the fact that I am an out queer person who sometimes, you know, mentions queer stuff. Not, like, sex...just being not-straight. It contradicts their values because they don't support the gays, you know - so by being visibly queer it's just like I'm totes insulting them as individuals. I'm sure that if mere discomfort at someone else's lived reality were enough to get me hauled in front of HR, every gay staff person in my organization would be in front of HR explaining ourselves once a week.
posted by Frowner at 7:02 AM on June 19, 2012 [20 favorites]


Everyone has a right to work in a discrimination and harrassment free workplace.

There is absolutely *nothing* in the poster's description of the incident that indicates discrimination or harrassment.

Nothing.

Taking this to Human Resources is a huge mistake, and bad advice.
posted by mediareport at 7:03 AM on June 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


At the same time, this would never be okay if a white person did the same thing. No matter how many black people ever mistreated a white person during the course of his life, he would never, never, be okay saying something like that.

Funnily, this was precisely my point! Because we live in a society where racist against people of color is pervasive, individual and structural, people of color have reasonable reasons for naming what they experience as racism.

No one discriminates against me for being white. There are no systems that neglect or exclude me because I am white. I do not have to worry about sounding "too white" at a job interview, or that the doctor will not believe me when I describe my symptoms because he feels like white people complain too much. I do not experience negative consequences - occasional or pervasive - because I am white. I mean, I'd totally get frozen out at the "Women of Color Supporting One Another" workshop, but that's about it. If I start whining about how terribly I am hurt and abused by people of color, I am delusional. Just because I believe that people of color are discriminating against me does not mean that there are provable acts of discrimination.

Seriously, people - let's not take the "4000-year-old-Earth" side when we discuss whether people of color face discrimination that whites don't. Because if we're going to leave it up to "feelings" instead of documentation, we might as well sign up to teach creationism in the schools - it's the same type of approach.
posted by Frowner at 7:07 AM on June 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


For some reason, it's a natural response in white people, on hearing accounts of racism, and men who hear about sexism, and so forth, to make it ALL ABOUT THEM. It's like it's not possible to discuss sexism or racism, without people who are nothing to do with the whole thing feeling defensive and slighted and wanting to discuss their feelings at great length.

In fact it's useful for women to discuss sexism, and I'm pretty sure it's also useful for non white folks to be able to discuss racism, and it doesn't help in any way if they can't do this without you jumping up and down going MENTIONING YOUR EXPERIENCES OF RACISM MAKES ME FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE. CAN WE TALK ABOUT ME NOW PLEASE?

Useful responses by uninvolved people hearing accounts of racism and sexism include

a) shutting up and listening
b) trying to make the world a less sexist and racist place
c) considering whether it is just possible that occasionally some of your actions are unintentionally racist or sexist, or appear to be so, and maybe you could do something about that.


A- This is good advice in any situation where other people are having a conversation that you aren't a party to. No matter what color/gender someone is.

B- If people are having a conversation in a public space, it is no longer a private conversation. You can't control who overhears it and what their reaction might be. If the group talking wants to avoid the intrusion of outsiders, they have to do it where they won't be intruded upon, or stop talking about that subject when

C- If a conversation is being had that involves talk about groups of people (whites, blacks, men, women) as cohorts, then you can't legitimately expect someone of that cohort to not want to pipe in.
posted by gjc at 7:11 AM on June 19, 2012


[Please answer the question being asked, please don't go down the hypothetical "If X and Y were reversed, MetaFilter would say THIS" path and please don't make this question about you. MeTa is an option.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:14 AM on June 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just because someone "feels harassed" does not mean that they are "being harassed". Just because a white person hears a POC say that some other white person was racist toward the POC does not mean that the first white person is being discriminated against.

Exactly. And the only people in the workplace who can make that legal determination are the poster's manager and HR leader, based on company policy and local laws. I am glad we are in agreement.

It is not fair to EquinePorcine to not receive advice from all sides, no matter that it makes other posters feel like The Corporation is talking. Too many people are giving life advice, when the poster is asking for advice on what to do in the workplace. It is perfectly legitimate for EquinePorcine to let it go and not worry about it, however should this be an issue where the poster was made honestly uncomfortable the only recourse that EquinePorcine has is to go through her manager and HR leader. Addressing this face to face with the woman telling the story is a classic recipe for workplace disaster.

Companies feel very strongly about potential workplace discrimination and providing a harassment free work environment. They feel strongly about eliminating workplace discrimination and providing a harassment free work environment because it limits their liability to lawsuits and helps maintain a comfortable office.

My advice is no better than just letting it go. Now it may fly in the face of many of your beliefs that white people should just grin and bear it because History, but my advice is not bad advice.

I'm trying to tread lightly but I hear mod footsteps...... EquinePorcine, I wish you the best in the decision you make. Whichever decision you make, my guess is that it will work out.
posted by lstanley at 7:24 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Answer this question without overgeneralizing about the races in hyperbolic ways, otherwise you are more than welcome to go to MetaTalk which is where good chunk of this conversation should have gone earlier. OP is not anon. Off-topic discussions from this point on need to go to MeMail.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:27 AM on June 19, 2012


What can/should I do?

Short answer: nothing. You were privy to a discussion of the common, casual racism present in our society today. It gave you something to think about and that's a gift.
posted by amanda at 8:06 AM on June 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


What can/should I do?
If it really bothers you, perhaps speak to HR about reminding people about appropriate workplace topics. But, no, this is not reverse racism. Your discomfort is understandable but your motivation to act seems misplaced.
posted by sm1tten at 8:28 AM on June 19, 2012


It seems pretty clear to me that she was just trying to make you feel comfortable, and went about it in a less than perfect way, and it ended up backfiring. My suggestion to you is to watch this hilarious Sealab 2021 clip and forget about it.

A story. I'm Jewish, and my girlfriend, who is not, is from Arkansas. When I met her father, he told a totally neutral story about some Jews in America in the nineteenth century. There was nothing negative or anti-semetic about the story - it was not offensive in any way. Still, when it was time for him to say the word "Jews," he switched at the last minute to "the people from Israel," even though he was talking about American Jews at a time that predates the formation of Israel. He even got the "J" sound out before he self-edited. Now, I could decide that this was offensive, if I wanted, but it's pretty clear that he was just trying to avoid making me feel uncomfortable, and did so in a clumsy and hilarious way. That's all that happened here.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:58 AM on June 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


She didn't say anything racist, about you or the Coach woman in the story. (Assuming she didn't actually mouth the words "one of those %#$@ white people, you know how they are.") I wonder if you're uncomfortable about this not because you feel insulted as a white person, but for a different, more subtle reason. Her mouthing the word "white" instead of saying it out loud could be interpreted as her assuming some things about you. That you would be offended and get defensive, maybe, or that you wouldn't understand, or that you'd take it wrong, or that you are secretly as racist as the Coach woman. Maybe you're offended that someone might think of you that way. Which is a valid thing to feel, but then again, that may not have been her intention and it may very well have had nothing to do with you. Maybe that group of people has an inside joke/reference to someone who mouths certain words, or maybe (since you weren't looking at her) it was something she did in that certain way in order to make some visual point to the people she was facing. It's almost impossible to know.

Also, do you even know these co-workers well enough to talk to them on a regular basis? Or were they discussing what they though of as a semi-private yet not too private topic, like so-and-so who they know and you don't just had a baby, and what did she name it, and blah blah? It sounds like you don't really know them as well as they know each other, and therefore you were just background to their conversation, like a part of the copier. If they really were concerned with keeping the things they said from being heard by white people, I can almost guarantee that the whole conversation would have been conducted in a place where you weren't standing.

Oh, and if it really bothers you, I'd go to the woman privately and say "Hey, I overheard you telling the story about what happened to you at Coach the other day. I hope that you didn't feel you had to censor yourself because I was standing there. I'd hate for you to think all white people are that way, or that you couldn't talk freely about your experiences just because a white person was there." (But personally I wouldn't do that, I'd just let it go. It's just a thing that happened, and it's hardly even a thing that happened. And anyway she'd probably say "Oh I didn't even notice you.")
posted by ocksay_uppetpay at 12:48 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's common or garden rudeness to allow people to be aware that you're having a conversation that excludes them. In this case it was sheer carelessness that made this occur. And what you're feeling upset about is this accidental rudeness.

But there is a race issue afoot here. Because ideally what you'd have seen from the situation is the careless use of gossip instead of an issue about racism. What the anecdote says to me is that it's mainly about a bunch of people bonding about a shared issue.

The story about the staff in Coach? Yeah, quite possible that the staff were racially prejudiced. Also likely that your colleague read more into their behaviour than was actually visible from what actually happened.

The specifics of all this aren't that important: it's all about a bit of shared bonding over people's experience, and the dynamics of the behaviour. Everyone else here's given you a lesson on how to handle white privilege, and I think that's the best thing to learn from this. Also, it's a good lesson on what can and can't be fixed. This is something where any possible remedy does more damage than what's already happened. That's common in human behaviour.
posted by ambrosen at 3:52 PM on June 19, 2012


I've read your question and your follow-up, and I'm still not clear on why you think this might be reverse racism, or something that you might need to respond to. From what you've written, in the most uncharitable interpretation of what this woman did, it sounds analogous to not letting you sit with her at lunch. (I actually think she was trying to spare your feelings by making sure that you didn't feel compared to the woman who had discriminated against her, but we can use the most uncharitable explanation.) I think you need to ask yourself what you think was done to you, why, and what your ideal resolution to the issue would be before you decide what else to do.

I think it's a very bad idea to take this any further at work. In the first place, and contrary to some of the comments here, you have no right, either legal or moral, to a workplace where you never feel uncomfortable. There are many many reasons you might feel uncomfortable at work that are allowed under the law and expected under any reasonable code of ethics (e.g., you feel uncomfortable speaking in front of groups, but you are expected to present your work or the work of your division). You do have the right not to be in a hostile work environment, but you have described nothing that even approximates the start of a pattern that might create a hostile environment over time.

There is a non-trivial chance that you will harm yourself by taking this further. One could certainly imagine an HR person, or a manager, being nonplussed if an employee brought forth what was essentially a trivial and specious complaint (based on what you've described here) that was nonetheless about a very touchy subject (race). Such an employee, with a demonstrated lack of understanding of the difference between serious issues and inconsequential mentions of race, might well be a liability in a multiracial workplace. An HR person or manager who wanted to not spend time dealing with frivolous complaints, which regardless of their lack of merit have the possibility for creating huge, costly, and political messes, might find themselves looking seriously at whether or not the kind of employee who couldn't tell the difference between feeling socially uncomfortable and being discriminated against was worth keeping on staff.

Good luck.
posted by OmieWise at 5:25 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Folks if you have issues with how MetaFilter treats an issue, take it to MetaTalk. Otherwise, just answer the question, please.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:23 AM on June 20, 2012


The most racism I'm seeing in this situation is the use of the term "reverse racism".

I don't think she meant anything by it; I certainly don't think it was meant to pinpoint you. She might have been afraid of this exact reaction, actually, and trying to avoid it.
posted by windykites at 5:05 AM on August 20, 2012


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