How do I deal with racially insensitive comments at work?
November 28, 2010 11:33 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with racially insensitive comments at work?

I am an Asian male working in a white collar environment in Toronto. My coworkers are mostly white, but there are a fair amount of Asians, mostly first-gens who came for university. I was born and raised in a small town in the US. Unlike the Asians in my current city, who grew up around a lot of other Asians, I was pretty much the only one in my town, so I don't identify at all with being Asian (I don't even speak my parents' native language). For all intents and purposes, I act like a geeky white guy.

My problem is with one specific group I work with (who are in a support role to my group). On the whole they are professional and helpful when I interact with them, but they occasionally drop these comments that irritate me. The guys in question are typical 'masculine' white guys who are big fans of hockey and did Commerce degrees in undergrad.

For example, on a team night out, we were discussing what sports we played, and I mentioned that I never played any sports as a kid. The boss of that group then joked that surely I must have played ping pong. This pissed me off but I didn't say anything. Ping pong is very popular among Chinese people and I assumed that was a reference to this. At the same time, I'm not sure if he meant to link it to my ethnicity or if it was just a reference to typical 'nerdy' sports.

The other time, I happened to get Chinese food for lunch (not that it matters, but I rarely get Chinese food for lunch). I was carrying it in, and one of the guys asks me what I got for lunch. I told him it was Chinese food, then he says "Chinese food...fulfilling the stereotype, eh?" and chuckles at his own comment. I didn't respond to it and just kept walking back to my desk. I was so taken off guard by the comment that I didn't get pissed off about it until later.

Part of what pisses me off so much about these comments is that they presume some "Asianness" about me and point out my ethnicity (which I forget about most of the time). At the same time, it's difficult to call them out on it, because it's so easy for them to deny any offensive intent and accuse me of being oversensitive. Sometimes I wonder if despite my native English and my American ways, they just see me as a walking stereotype.

I'm not sure how to interpret these comments. Are they intended to be funny? Do they expect me to happily grin and joke about the stereotypes? Are they trying to take me down a notch? The guy in the second example once mentioned that my group is paid much more than his, so I wonder if it's resentment. On the other hand, I wonder if it's just "male bonding" and they are trying to rib me with the only thing they know about me. What am I supposed to do, rib them back for being stereotypically white (which obviously doesn't have the same effect)?

What is the best way to deal with these comments and make it clear I'm not OK with it, while at the same time not appearing oversensitive? Their group is in a support role to mine, so we need to keep good relations. Other than that group, I've never encountered any race-related comments at my workplace.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
and they are trying to rib me with the only thing they know about me. What am I supposed to do, rib them back for being stereotypically white (which obviously doesn't have the same effect)?

We have a winner.

I wouldn't encourage you to do it if by doing so you would perpetuate a workplace activity you'd rather extinguish, but theoretically yes, you could talk about white guy stereotypes, and it would probably have the effect on these guys that they probably intend to have on you - to provide some sort of workplace watercooler discussion to needle each other with.

I'm a white guy. A southern white guy. When I travel to the midwest, or to the north, or to the Washington, DC area, wherever you call that, guess what they needle me about?

If you want to extinguish the behavior, the best thing to do is ignore it. It may be helpful to believe they don't really mean anything truly awful by it, provided you haven't seen any signs of bias, exclusion, meanness, etc.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:51 AM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

to clarify - are they idiots? Yes, they sound like it, at least in this area.
posted by randomkeystrike at 11:52 AM on November 28, 2010

These guys sound kind of dull-witted, in the sense that they try to seem funny but all their jokes are just dumb and lame. They do sound like they're trying to cultivate a kind of "hard teasing" style of relating to coworkers or at least to you, and appearance is kind of the lowest hanging fruit to make jokes about when you do that. So they go for that, because they're not very witty. And because, assuming they've had the same background at you where they're from small town Canada without a lot of Asian people around, the fact that you're Asian is probably still the first thing about your appearance that they notice, so that's what they talk about.

Assuming it's just that they're kind of boorish and dumb and trying to be funny, not deliberately trying to make you feel uncomfortable/like some kind of outsider, I would just respond to their "jokes" in a confused and literal way. "Ping-pong?? No, why would I have played that?" "Haha, you know..." "Um... you've got me confused, man."

If their goal is to be funny and they have to explain their jokes to you, they're going to fall flat. And if their jokes fall flat, they're going to feel like their balloon has been deflated and look for other things to joke about.

Also, along the lines of the possibility that they're fixating on you being Asian because they haven't been around a lot of Asian people, I think the more they get to know you, the more they will fixate on your own individual traits when they want to make these jokes. That's assuming, again, they're not trying to be overtly racist/racially harrassing and are just clueless about how inappropriate they're being.

You could also just say in a tired tone, "Come on man, can we lay off the Asian stuff?" I would only do this though if you think they are clueless, not if they're getting a kick out of bothering you with it, because if the latter is the case, this comment will just make it worse.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:52 AM on November 28, 2010 [17 favorites]

The next time it happens say something like, "Damn, dude: 1970 called -- they want their sense of humor back."
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:57 AM on November 28, 2010 [23 favorites]

No one can say with any certainty whether these two remarks were intended to be racist or not, but they sure sound pretty racist to me. If they do to you too, you should call these guys out. There's a good chance that you'll hear some crap about how you need to get a sense of humor (the call of the asshole), but if you don't complain to them today, you can't complain to HR next week.
posted by Gilbert at 11:59 AM on November 28, 2010

Caveat: white woman chiming in. I do however check a couple of minority boxes as does my partner, so take this for however much or little it is worth to you.

The first one would probably bother me more. The second one sounds like it could be a dorky attempt at bonding by teasing. You don't mention what flavour of Asian you are, but I think my response to the first would be to stoneface them and say "Why? Because I am Chinese?" if I was or "Are you thinking of the Chinese?" if I weren't.

The second one I would probably have assumed some measure of goodwill, grinned and answered ironically, raised a fist and said something about "doing my part", "keeping it real", "gotta balance up your lilywhite ass" or something bullshitty like that.

The examples you give aren't (to me) clearcut cases of inapropriate commentary, but that's me. I would rather the odd comment relating to my "otherness" than to have it entirely ignored. For things that don't quite rank "That's an inappropraite comment and I don't appreciate having to hear things like that in the workplace" you can sometimes get sufficient mileage out of "that's a pretty weird thing to say", "hmm, and awkward silence..." or playing dumb with "I don't understand what you mean?". The playing dumb tactic can work really well to force people to clarify their buttstupid comments, when they try to break it down or even repeat it, it becomes really obvious even to them that it's a fairly dodgy statement.
posted by Iteki at 12:02 PM on November 28, 2010

This sort of thing happened to the one Asian guy at an office where I've recently worked.

It was unusual since there are a lot of Asian people here in the DC area and everywhere else I've worked or attended school has had so many people of different backgrounds and.. these kinds of comments just didn't happen.

However, what is also remarkable is this particular office culture: it is still a culture of white males whose general way of interaction is to constantly make fun of each other for whatever reason they can. I personally think the office culture sucks. (And the jokes are not funny. I don't mean they're offensive to me, I mean they're lame! "Fulfilling the stereotype"? That's just dumb and unfunny.)

I think they are socially kind of stunted and the problem is, 1) only know how to interact with people by constant ribbing, 2) went to big schools with big sports programs that encouraged this kind of behavior, 3) are in a workplace where this is the norm and 4) don't know what to make fun of you for, but have to find something for purposes of social interaction.

Also LOL at Canadians making comments about "fulfilling stereotypes" and ending them with "eh?"
posted by citron at 12:04 PM on November 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

I have asian friends that will make jokes themselves about their backgrounds. One group jokingly referred to themselves as the asian invasion. Since you say that there are a lot of asians at your workplace, the white guys may have heard them making similar jokes, and think that it's ok to join in. Since Toronto has so many people from different parts of the world, people can be pretty casual about the way we talk about it. That doesn't mean, of course, that it's ok for those guys to rib you about it if it pisses you off, so let them know that they're being jerks. Rib them back - bitteroldpunk's line is good, or try "you forgrt that I grew up in the states, you've proabaly eaten more chinese food than I have."
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:28 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The other thing you can do is a kind of misdirection. I had to do this as a kid with an older family member who teased me about things that really bothered me and was actually trying to get to me with it. Give them something that you wouldn't mind being teased about, and give them the reaction they're looking for when they tease you about that, not about the thing that bothers you.

Maybe look and see what they tease each other about - I'm betting it's stuff along the lines of being a fan of a sports team they hate or one that is losing, being from a town known to be full of yokels or something like that. Find an aspect like that about yourself and make it known to them. When they start teasing you about it, that's when you find something to tease them back about and play the game together (that's assuming the reaction they're looking for from you is you playing the teasing game with them). If they mention the Asian stuff, don't give them the reaction they want at that time.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:30 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

The white guy stereotype you should retort with isn't "drinking beer and playing sports", it's "being an obnoxious white guy oblivious to how racist he is".
posted by Jairus at 12:31 PM on November 28, 2010

"Hey I know you're not trying to be a dick, but trying to joke about asian stereotypes really does get to me. Please chill out on that."

This is the tack I've taken with respect to making cracks about queer stereotypes, and it's generally worked well for me.
posted by kavasa at 12:34 PM on November 28, 2010 [12 favorites]

Well I grew up in the Toronto area and that's just shameful.

Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world.

I think it wasn't meant in a mean way but that's no excuse. Not in 2010.

Most of Toronto does NOT think that way. There is a huge emphasis on getting along with people of different cultures.

The interesting thing is that the ethnic population is exploding in Canada such that the 'white' folks will be the minority eventually.

Then a big test will be how the ethnic population treat the 'white' minorities.

I don't think the ethnic population is going to be any different with respect to those types of comments. Is there no 'ribbing' of the majority ('whites') today. If not in front of them, in private.

Its sad.

In the future I hope there is enough awareness to have respect for everyone.

But sadly each generation must learn proper behavior from scratch. This kind of behavior won't go away until the proper behavior is ingrained in society and the media/TV shows change too.


I think you should send an anonymous email to HR and tell them to send a reminder to all employees to be culturally aware.

That way you don't have to deal with things personally or with other people.

That's what I would do.
posted by simpleton at 12:39 PM on November 28, 2010

Ask them what's wrong with their necks, and then be like, oh wait, it's just the usual color, red. Ask them if they've been hit in the head with hockey sticks too many times. Ask them if their parents were cousins. But don't do it meanly, just in a jokey way. These people are dicks and bullies. Deal with them accordingly and don't involve HR. HR will probably just treat you like a troublemaker.
posted by anniecat at 12:50 PM on November 28, 2010

The white guy stereotype you should retort with isn't "drinking beer and playing sports", it's "being an obnoxious white guy oblivious to how racist he is".

I finally had to say this out loud and walk out of the lunchroom last week when the local joke har har'd in his irritating big white teeth grinning way with some mangled "indian" greeting (since we have about 22 official languages) for the 100th time since he'd just come back from deepest India. He went "wha...? tell me how " and I said I wouldn't know where to begin (was it when he said it was havala and wouldn't accept my offer of some local currency before travel or was it when he said that I might like one of the local guys he'd met who wasn't like all the others, just like me (different that is))

Has it worked? I don't know, lets see what happens next week...
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:55 PM on November 28, 2010

I'd make these people explain themselves by playing dumb about the stereotype they're trying to riff on.

"Surely you must have played ping pong!"

"No, never; why?"

"Oh, well, you know, that whole Chinese thing."

"What whole Chinese thing?"

* Queue fumbling stereotype of Chinese ping pong player *

Then look at him like he's insane and say, "Dude, you know I was born in Ohio, right?"
posted by DarlingBri at 12:56 PM on November 28, 2010 [21 favorites]

They sound dumb and uncreative but yes, they are just casually ribbing you. You would probably know it if they were genuinely trying to be intimidating or hurtful.
posted by tehloki at 1:15 PM on November 28, 2010

Tell them, "Next asshole who makes an Asian joke is going to find out about my enormous dick."
posted by humanfont at 1:20 PM on November 28, 2010 [12 favorites]

Rib them back about being Canadian. "Shouldn't you be drinking Blue and saying 'eh'?"

This does sound like male bonding, and I think if it were mean-spirited, you would know for sure. If they make jokes about you, they're probably expecting you to make jokes about them, and they don't think they're being jerks.

My guess is that they're having trouble relating to you because you're a geek and sensitive more than because you're Asian. I don't know exactly how that's useful, but it's something I'd keep in mind.
posted by J. Wilson at 1:32 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I usually respond to this sort of thing by saying, very flatly, "I'm from Pennsylvania. But don't worry, it's not funny there either."
posted by anildash at 2:35 PM on November 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

What is the best way to deal with these comments and make it clear I'm not OK with it, while at the same time not appearing oversensitive?

3rd Gen Chinese-American, here.

Here's the thing. It's exceedingly rare, no matter how nicely you put it, for people who tend to make those kind of jokes to go, "Oh, my bad." and never do it again. Usually, what you'll get is they get very defensive, even if they're otherwise, nice and reasonable people.

Because, well, a lot of white people seem unable to tell the difference between being told "Stop doing that because it annoys me" racism and "Oh, god, you burn crosses and lynch people" racism - at least as far as goes their reactions to it- instead of checking their behavior, saying that you're oversensitive is a pretty good sign that it's about their privilege and need to "put you in your place" even in little ways.

For me, I work in a place where I get to hear random stuff every so often and as much as it pisses me off, I need the paycheck and it's really not worth the hassle, because for most of these folks, they'll band together in pointing you out as the problem.

I work in Berkeley California, so it's not like any place is totally immune from the problems of white privilege.
posted by yeloson at 3:11 PM on November 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

Being sarcastic etc is just cementing that what's going on is part of a jokey dialogue. Just be honest, "Hey Gary [or whatever], I know you don't mean it, but I don't really like Asian jokes. If you could find something else to rib me about, that would be great."

Unless they are totally arseholes, they're probably completely unaware they're offending you and will apologise and desist immediately. No need to turn it into some kind of stereotype-dick-measuring contest. That's just bringing it down several levels.
posted by smoke at 3:13 PM on November 28, 2010

You're right, it in insensitive. And rude. But it's really not much different from any other kind of rude, insensitive comments that people like these guys would make. If you were fat, they'd zero in on that. Short? Tall? Buck teeth? You get the picture.

I'd say that this is just "their way" in this team. It's not something a lot of people would be comfortable with, but it's something you'll need to learn how to handle. I would not call them out on the Asian bit specifically - at least, not on the examples you've given above. That could go two ways - yes, they could stop but (more likely) they'd push it harder, or get nastier, or whatever.

I agree with some of the posters upthread - they are "ribbing" you, and probably expect you to do same. Give it right back to them! Play the game and let them see that it doesn't bother you. This kind of thing happens to me all the time - I am quite overweight - and I have learnt to not let it bother me too much. I have a stock set of phrases for replying to most insults. Think up a few of these in your spare time, and be ready with them. I know next to zero about Canadians, but perhaps you could make some disparaging remark about ice hockey?

I know it's hard when you're not used to this kind of thing. I know that people will tell you that you shouldn't need to put up with this sort of thing at work. And really you shouldn't. But learning to deal with dickheads is part of life!
posted by humpy at 4:04 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

This sounds like dumb, unthinking teasing rather than racism. I bet these guys ask someone tall how the weather is up there. They just don't realize how tiresome and unfunny this kind of "humour" is. There are many good suggestions in this thread about how to turn the laugh on these guys or clue them in to how dumb such jokes are, so you can arm yourself with them for any future remarks.
posted by orange swan at 4:08 PM on November 28, 2010

Sounds like they know they're tossing around stereotypes, so might you just assume the joke is that they are dumb North Americans with dumb stereotypes?

"Chinese food...fulfilling the stereotype, eh?"

"Yeah, I'm trying to get you guys to forget I was born in Ohio."

"Yep. You almost forgot one of my ancestors was born on a different continent, didn't you?"

"surely you must have played ping pong"

"Yeah, since I learned how to be Asian in Ohio, all I had to go on were a bunch of stereotypes..."

Or the recurring joke could be about you being from [Ohio].

"Chinese food...fulfilling the stereotype, eh?"

"Yeah, you know, gotta be true to my roots -- in Ohio. They truly love this stuff."

"surely you must have played ping pong"

"Yeah, how did you guess? Oh yeah, because I'm from Ohio!"

"Man, that is racist! You know, not everyone in Ohio plays ping pong. Just because some Buckeyes are good at it..."
posted by salvia at 4:54 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

"I'm from Pennsylvania. But don't worry, it's not funny there either."

I love anildash's response. It's not too serious and over-the-top but definitely gets the point across.
posted by amicamentis at 4:55 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm imagining you making some kind of speech like Mr Bergstrom made in that Simpsons episode: "suggested ways to make fun of my name include: 'Mr Boogerstrom'" etc.

By which I mean you could say "Dude, my middle name is 'Valentine'; I own a Michael Bolton CD and I once wet my pants on stage in my elementary school Christmas pageant. Make fun of me for any of those things, but the Chinese thing is a bit lame. I'm not really Chinese enough for it to work, you know?"
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:31 PM on November 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Me, I'd go with making 'white Canadian guy' jokes right back at 'em.

They're not trying to be cruel (or they'd just exclude you outright) they're ribbing you. Trust me, they do this to each other. It may seem weird, but the fact that they're willing to go there is a form of bonding.

It's like siblings. They'll give you shit, and expect to be given shit in return, but if anyone else gives you shit they'll have your back.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:54 PM on November 28, 2010

"You know, Parks and Rec already did, like, ten subplots on this, so it just feels kind of played out."
posted by klangklangston at 9:29 PM on November 28, 2010

You could always go with the completely neutral "I don't know how to respond to that." then pause to let it sink in that you're throwing it back on them. Then walk away.

It's so neutral that there's nothing overt for the jerk to get defensive about. And yet, he'll likely experience an unpleasant feeling.
Anyone who pushes back after that is clearly a bully and not just trying to be jokey and friendly.

Also--it's true. You really don't know how to respond to that.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:58 AM on November 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

There is a risk that jokey responses will just encourage them and chastising responses will cause a ridiculous amount of defensiveness to kick in. If it bothers you as much as it seems to, take it up with HR. That's what they're there for.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:17 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

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