How do you deal with racists you are in a position of power over?
January 3, 2014 12:19 PM   Subscribe

In a professional capacity, I have to deal occasionally with racists that I am in a serious position of power over. I would like some ways that I can show that I do not approve of racist behavior, without treating these vulnerable people badly or reinforcing their racism. Please help!

These racists are people who are dependent on me for my help, which makes me really uncomfortable about being harsh to them. They also are already in difficult straits, which means I don't want to make or seem to be making their lives harder. Sometimes this is really blatant racism, sometimes pretty subtle. I do not know how to handle this - I'm fine when calling people who are in charge of me about this stuff, but not when I'm the person in a position of power. What to do?
posted by corb to Human Relations (37 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Are these employees of yours? Or people you're providing a service to?

And are you talking about racist statements or actions of theirs?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:22 PM on January 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Do you have an HR group who can reiterate company policy on such behavior to everyone? And from there personal from you reminders if still necessary of company policy and to keep it out of the workplace?
posted by tilde at 12:23 PM on January 3, 2014

If they are actively saying or doing something racist in front of you, I would talk to them individually and say, "I find it extremely uncomfortable when you use language/do X like that, and I would prefer it if you didn't do that/say that in front of me."

That way, it's behavior that is tied to you and your sensibilities more than exerting your power over them.
posted by xingcat at 12:24 PM on January 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can't change the way they think, but you can change the way they talk around you.

"That language is not acceptable here. If it's repeated you'll have to reschedule your appointment."

They won't like it, but you can't change that either.
posted by kavasa at 12:31 PM on January 3, 2014 [14 favorites]

People I'm providing a service to, which makes it more awkward for me - the employees are all pretty solid. Racist statements, usually about other people, but occasionally broadly racist statements like "I am X race, not like those Y race losers." Statements have thus far only been said in front of staff, but that's not great for staff either, even people other than me, and would be really awful for other people receiving services to hear.
posted by corb at 12:35 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you are in a serious position of power over these people, I would argue that it's not appropriate to be communicating your approval/disapproval of any part of their behaviour, positive or negative.

I think that all you can do is try to separate that racism from the facts of the situation, and direct them back to the tasks at hand.

"That's not relevant to what we're talking about."

"I can't comment on that because your feelings about X aren't going to have any bearing on Y. We have to focus on Y and leave X out of it."
posted by cranberrymonger at 12:36 PM on January 3, 2014 [13 favorites]

Seconding kavasa.
posted by Jairus at 12:36 PM on January 3, 2014

I think your only workable choices are either deflect ("Okay, so, getting back to your issue with the thing...") or to make it about your comfort/sensibilities, but the latter may not work all the time, and it may not be something that falls under what's considered okay behavior with clients - can you check with a supervisor or co-worker with more seniority?
posted by rtha at 12:39 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing it's your job to provide a service to people. In that case, this is really dicey- consult your superior before you get in trouble. This may be interpreted as blackmail or refusing services, or simply being difficult and not doing your job.

I would almost certainly make it about you and NOT speak on behalf of your company/boss/job.
posted by quincunx at 12:43 PM on January 3, 2014

Yeah, definitely make sure you'll be backed by your superiors on this.
posted by kavasa at 12:46 PM on January 3, 2014

I'm making some broad assumptions about corb's work, but I really don't think it would be appropriate to force people to reschedule their appointments if they are applying for services being provided for low-income populations, for example.

I would definitely have a discussion with senior staff about how to best handle this as an officewide policy, but deflection seems to be the best bet.
posted by elizardbits at 12:46 PM on January 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

The fact that you are aware of the way your power to affect the lives of those you serve puts you in a delicate position is good; however, I don't think it should paralyze you, nor should it mean you or your staff should have to just sit there and absorb abusive or discriminatory conduct.

Your organization may - and if it does not, should have - a policy or statement that guarantees you, as a service provider, as well as those you serve the right to an environment free from discrimination or other abusive behaviour. Ask about this, and if it doesn't exist, ask that one be created. You should be able to refer clients acting inappropriately around your staff to a clear, general statement of acceptable conduct with regard to discrimination. If they violate it, there should be some consequences (e.g., you may not be able to deny services, but you may be able to ask them to leave and come back again).
posted by onshi at 12:46 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

These are statements and not actions.
These are people you are providing a service to, and not your employees.

I think you say nothing, and definitely not threaten to force them to make new appointments. Making pained facial expressions or saying something along the lines of "I don't know about that" or "I don't feel that way" is as strong as I would suggest.
posted by pseudonick at 12:48 PM on January 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Say nothing. Keep to the task at hand.

Their beliefs are none of your business, and do not reflect badly upon you. You are not employed to change their beliefs on this subject, either, so don't.

Alternatively, and with your superior's approval....

"We serve people from many different backgrounds here, please refrain from comments that may be interpreted as threatening those of a different background than your own. Thank you."

But really, just ignore it and do your job.
posted by jbenben at 12:55 PM on January 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

I run into this a fair amount with teenagers. Sometimes, if I want to give the person a chance to save face, I say something like, "I know you didn't mean to be offensive just then, but that kind of comment sounds pretty offensive." It's a soft touch, and not always appropriate, but usually (again, in my experience, and specifically with high school students) it's enough to get the person to think about what they just said.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:57 PM on January 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Or, just stare at them for a moment, put up your finger as if you remembered something you need to do right now, and walk away, and go do that thing. And then after an appropriate interlude come back, and continue as if nothing happened.

They'll get it.

I don't think there's anything wrong with racists learning that racism hurts them with people whose help they need. That's called "society."
posted by musofire at 1:12 PM on January 3, 2014 [10 favorites]

Personally, I'm uneasy with the amount you're getting the suggestion to say nothing. I'm in the UK so maybe things work differently here.. (at least sometimes) but I would hope your organisation would back you up in not being expected to tolerate abuse.

It sounds like you need to get more at ease in holding your own authority (at the same time I don't mean you are 'above' others in terms of value).. I have worked with the public for years and struggled with how to deal with their crap too.. would it be possible to see these particular people with someone else?.. or would they interpret this as weakness? (if you choose another professional wisely it could feel easier to contain the behaviour maybe??) I'm guessing handing a leaflet on equality issues (whilst keeping a neutral/friendly voice that may not feel totally authentic) might not work so well? Or pointing out a sign.. "Can I just draw your attention to this" (abuse will not be tolerated or whatever... how about revisiting/drawing up some kind of boundaries/contractt if possible?

I'm sure you've figured out it's really them projecting their own shame onto you... but it p's me off people in helping roles are at times expected to take crap no other professions would tolerate.

It sounds like they are not experiencing any consequence to their bratty inappropriate prejudice and behaviour... not good for anyone. I'm with you though, it's a tough call to pitch it right...
posted by tanktop at 1:17 PM on January 3, 2014

I don't know how to answer your question, but I want to thank you for asking it, and for wanting to do something about it.

I disagree strongly with those who say to do nothing because it's inappropriate in the workplace or some such. Because you know what's inappropriate in life? Racism. Silence just maintains that status quo.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 1:18 PM on January 3, 2014 [12 favorites]

One more thought.. any skills you can transfer over from the situations you do feel comfier in challenging? If you figure that out please let me know how to do it ;)
posted by tanktop at 1:19 PM on January 3, 2014

Hmm... I'm curious if your employers have an obligation to do something about it, or if it constitutes a hostile work environment?
posted by gryftir at 1:20 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Please don't say things like that around me, it makes me uncomfortable. Ok, on to your next issue..."
posted by rmless at 1:32 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another important thing to clarify: Are these people being hostile and racist TO you? Are you a visible minority? (Or are your coworkers?) That might change things vis a vis your boss.
posted by quincunx at 1:36 PM on January 3, 2014

For more clarification:

These people are being hostile/racist generally to or about myself or to or about my coworkers. The office (as are I and my boss) is predominantly women of color, of different types - which seems to cause particular problems with chauvinists and supremacists who do not like having to go to people they consider inferior for help. At the same time, these are actually people genuinely in need of help, and we all do have real power over their lives.
posted by corb at 1:45 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have previously tried: "X staffer is extremely professional and will take care of you to the best of his/her ability." (ignoring the 'X staffer is a racial slur and will not help me' tirade, but it seems to a. not stop the tirade, b. leaves the slurs/tirade unchallenged, c. leaves me feeling kind of shitty that I didn't stick up more for myself/my coworker)
posted by corb at 1:47 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hmm, these two updates paint the racism in a different light. I assumed from your earlier comment, corb, that these were offhand racist comments and that's what my "ignore/redirect" advice was based on. But now you're saying they are specifically targeted towards staff and are abusive.

I agree with onshi that you should push for a clear policy for all staff to follow. I'm sure that management has an obligation to protect their staff from discrimination.

I work in a public-facing job and I deal some of the most disadvantaged and desperate people you could find... and even our office has 'service restrictions' on clients. They range in severity depending on the individual:

-"Do not communicate with client about certain topics."
-"Client should only deal with male staff (or managers)."
-"Call police if client attends the office."

If you're dealing with hostile/abusive people as part of the day-to-day operations, there really needs to be some kind of escalating policy culminating in that person not being allowed on the premises.
posted by cranberrymonger at 2:10 PM on January 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

Broad strokes: Allow be guided by wisdom; they are ignorant.
Do not be harsh. You are not going address/terminate another person's ignorance with a club.
If you feel to act, do so, but do not react.
Any intervention on your part should be positive, not negative.

I'm remembering that I was once with someone who said to me, without a trace of humor or irony, that all illegal immigrants in the USA should be "round up and left at the bottom of the Grand Canyon". After taking a moment that I needed to recover, I said "you know, we have the opportunity to make choices in our lives, and I have found that kindness is always a better choice than harshness". And I left it at that :-)

I remember that moment fondly. They were the right words for that particular person at that moment. There was nothing in what I said for him to react against. And to my surprise, the look on his face indicated that perhaps he took in what I said, at least to the degree he was capable.
posted by elf27 at 2:26 PM on January 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

There are studies that prove confronting people with bigoted beliefs and challenging their hateful or racist speech does nothing but deepen those beliefs.

Saying nothing directly contradictory is, therefore, a perfectly reasonable response.
posted by jbenben at 2:45 PM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hmm, these two updates paint the racism in a different light. I assumed from your earlier comment, corb, that these were offhand racist comments and that's what my "ignore/redirect" advice was based on. But now you're saying they are specifically targeted towards staff and are abusive.

Ditto. I retract my "deflect" advice, and nth that your office needs to get together to hash out an actual policy.

Are your other co-workers/supervisors also veterans? You could always try "She's not a [slur]; she's a Marine [sailor/airman/soldier/veteran as appropriate]." Finding some way of making it clear that you all don't need them to not be racist (though that would be nice, of course!), they just need to not express that when they're in for services, would be ideal.
posted by rtha at 3:19 PM on January 3, 2014

Your attitude is commendable. I guess it would be helpful to try to discern between the appropriate response and the incisive riposte. I'm pretty sure the clever riposte, while satisfying on some level, won't do anything to address the origins of the remark that inspired it. So, I guess the appropriate response would have to conform to a guideline set down by your supervisors. I'm with the crew that suggests a inter-office meeting, along with some folks in upper echelons, to work out an official response.

As you have noticed, this isn't a cut-and-dried situation. Your job asks you to help these folks, not to like them. If their bigotry doesn't disqualify them from your services, then it's not in your purview to deal with it. I don't see anything that indicates that your work qualifies you to lead these clients through a self-awareness process. The tender part here is that you care more about them than they do about others, so in terms of interaction, you will always be at a disadvantage.

Inter-office bull sessions, if directed by a decent facilitator, can help your whole crew work out ways to support one another without having to focus on the ignorant behavior of your clientele. I guess you can inquire among your co-workers in a manner similar to the way you framed your post, and to someone up the chain of command. I would be searching for a group-think idea, a way that would keep these clients' ignorance from souring you folks on the goal of your office, which is to help them.
posted by mule98J at 3:57 PM on January 3, 2014

I share your distaste for those kinds of comments, but if you want to actually do some good (and it sounds to me like you do) then the very best reaction is for you and your coworkers to continue to be compassionate and caring to these people. I am related to people who have been known to make comments like that and any attempt to straighten them out (while heck yes they need straightening out) makes them cling even tighter to their ignorant opinions. Meanwhile they do notice and soften if they feel they have been treated fairly by someone who happens to belong to a minority group. Believe it or not.

I know it doesn't seem fair and right, (and it isn't fair, I agree) and I am sorry you have to hear any of this stuff, but it is a mindset so ingrained it can only really be attacked indirectly. However if all you want is for them to shut their pie hole and not say offensive things in your hearing, then you may want a more direct solution. And I don't blame you one bit if that is good enough.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:11 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

kavasa: You can't change the way they think, but you can change the way they talk around you. "That language is not acceptable here. If it's repeated you'll have to reschedule your appointment."

My suggestion comes from a similar thought, but I would not hold their scheduled appointment over their head given the power imbalance; it's too much like a threat compelling them to pretend to agree with you.

I would instead say things like "that's an ugly way to talk about people" and "that kind of thing is hurtful/painful/offensive for me to hear" (passive/indirect phrasing is intentional) followed by "please don't" or possibly "cut it out." Keep your tone of voice serious but calm, not sharp. To more egregious attacks, I'd cut them off with a more brisk "stop" or "no, and please stop."

Move right along and don't allow the topic to continue. Any pushback or backpedaling or baiting can be met with "that's all I have to say about it and I'm focusing on helping you with [service] right now."

jbenben: "We serve people from many different backgrounds here, please refrain from comments that may be interpreted as threatening those of a different background than your own. Thank you."

I'm sorry, but I strongly disagree with this advice. It leaves already-vulnerable people with basically no agency, with authority held by undefined groups of people. I think that invoking a monolithic "we" on behalf of the agency is touchy enough, though possibly as a last resort or a diplomatic deflection depending on the context. But I honestly think it would be disastrous to expect a mouthy client to talk based on how he imagines he could be judged if overheard by random "people of other backgrounds." Especially if being interpreted as making personal threats is raised as an option.
posted by desuetude at 9:06 PM on January 3, 2014

These people are being hostile/racist generally to or about myself or to or about my coworkers.
IANAL Your agency is required to provide a non-hostile environment to staff. If your clients are allowed to engage in harassing behavior, the agency may be liable.

Mrs. Smith, here at XYZ Agency, we have a strict policy about discrimination. I'm required to give you our agency's policy on discrimination whenever the issue of race is discussed. We are legally obligated to provide services without regard to race/ religion/age/ sex/ handicap status/ sexual orientation (in enlightened states)/ etc. If your agency does not have a policy on discrimination, it needs one asap. The requirement to distribute the policy can be a policy for you, your group, or the agency. Ii recommend the latter. Consider printing and framing the discrimination policy and putting it up at your desk. Making it a policy removes the personal aspect. It's not okay for people to behave in race-/ sex-/ age/ etc.- ist ways. Complying with federal law on non-discrimination is, well, the law.
posted by theora55 at 9:27 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Well that's pretty racist. You were saying?"
posted by oceanjesse at 9:59 PM on January 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think your office needs an actual policy about this issue. I don't think there is anything wrong with saying to your clients in a neutral voice that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and moving on with the discussion, but any verbiage should probably be agreed on in your team as a group so the message is consistent.

But I do think, strongly, that it is a terrible idea to say nothing as others have suggested. It's commendable to be concerned about the feelings of the people for whom you are working, but you all working there have the right to have your feelings considered, too. Even for people who are not directly being slandered by the racist references, it's corrosive to the soul to have to hear that kind of thing with no recourse. I've worked in places where I had to hear customers making racist comments about my coworkers day in and day out and it was terrible and hurtful even when I was not one of the people being targeted, let alone when I was.

I'm sorry about all this. It sounds very stressful.
posted by winna at 11:01 PM on January 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

"That language is inappropriate, please don't use it here."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:50 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the people saying your office ought to have a policy on this are absolutely right, but is it possible that your office already has a policy on this? I don't know the exact nature of the work, but certainly any federal agency and most incorporated nonprofits will have a policy about harassment of their staff, and in most cases that policy will include statements or assertions denigrating them on the grounds of race, or making them feel unsafe in the performance of their duties. Racist comments fall reasonably squarely into that set of things.

(Depending on circumstance and local law, the impression that racism is being tolerated by the officers of this organization may also provide grounds in future for constructive dismissal suits, but that's another question.)

What people say to their racist relatives is not really relevant here. You are not spending Thanksgiving with these people, nor seeking to change their attitudes. You are interacting with them in a professional environment. If somebody lit a cigarette or took their pants off, I imagine they would be asked to stop disrupting that environment.

So, yes. Talk to your line manager, definitely.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:50 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you suggest to your boss that your office implement a diversity program? There are turnkey programs available for just this sort of issue, and they are designed to be sensitive and non-shaming.
posted by Rainflower at 7:42 AM on January 4, 2014

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