Freaked out by workplace anti-Semitism
August 25, 2017 10:51 AM   Subscribe

My coworker offered to tell me an anti-Semitic joke. I am ethnically Jewish. Can you help me move on?

On Friday, I was having a casual conversation at work with a co-worker when they asked me “You’re not Jewish, are you?” I replied that I sort of am, and they said “Never mind, I was going to tell you a joke.” This led to a short awkward conversation where I questioned why he would tell a joke that he couldn’t tell to a person of a particular ethnic background, they told me they like to tell “all kinds of jokes,” and I told him I think anti-Semitism is hurtful, dangerous, and not funny. This happened 6 days after the most public and violent Neo-Nazi demonstration in my lifetime. I present as a bog-standard white woman and there is no reason to think this person knows I have Jewish heritage.

I went on a planned vacation that afternoon, today is my first day back, and returning to work, I feel shaken and do not want to be in the same room with this person. We don’t work on projects together, but I attend one weekly meeting with them and I see them daily in the break room and work areas.

My question is twofold:
1.) How should I frame this incident so I feel less uncomfortable and more able to focus at work?
2.) Should I do anything other than work on my own reaction to it? I feel confident that I made it clear to my coworker that I’m not interested in hearing this junk in the future. I am unsure whether it is appropriate to talk to my manager (who is not his manager) or HR about it.

I work in a white-collar setting in a liberal city in the upper Midwest, in an industry where non-Asian racial minorities are underrepresented. I’ve been here about 1.5 years and I have heard a half-dozen other racially/ethnically questionable remarks in the workplace since I’ve been here, ranging from glib jokes about historic genocide to questions about whether individuals were hired because of their race, and I generally push back on this stuff gently when it’s said to me. This is the first time I’ve heard something that targeted my own ethnicity. I like my job.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You can probably comfort yourself some with the thought that this person may be a little shook and waiting for HR to come around. May they stew in their own juices at length.

I think, if you feel safe doing so, the next time you have a private conversation with your manager, you could say, "Hey, so I had a coworker offer to tell me an anti-semitic joke recently. Me saying this isn't a formal complaint right now, but would you be comfortable asking HR to maybe publicise any policies related to appropriate workplace behavior as a refresher?"

You could also have that conversation with HR yourself, if you are comfortable doing so. Like we always say here, HR is there to protect the company, not to protect you. But in this case, that behavior is opening the company up to liability, and if your coworker isn't capable of behaving professionally with a coworker they may not be capable of doing so with customers, stakeholders, vendors etc. It could be a real problem.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:58 AM on August 25, 2017 [20 favorites]

The way this guy phrased it, asking whether you were Jewish and sort of ostentatiously saying, "Oh never mind, I was going to tell you a joke," strikes me as all kinds of off. That's just a really weird way to bring something up, and in your place, I'd be worried that there was something a bit more sinister than just wanting to tell a hateful joke. (I'm Jewish but have a very traditionally Irish last name, so I've been in the position of people making anti-Semitic remarks because they think there are no Jewish people in the room.)

For that reason, I would very definitely report it to HR. If one of their employees is running around the office using hate speech when he thinks he's "safe," this is something they should know about. Just report it the way you told us.
posted by holborne at 10:59 AM on August 25, 2017 [19 favorites]

yeah, let the discomfort be his.

HR should know about this--and you can notify them in a matter of fact manner.
I think your initial response to him was spot-on; however, i challenge you to provide that response to all behavior of this type, not just when you are the target.
posted by calgirl at 11:10 AM on August 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

I’ve been here about 1.5 years and I have heard a half-dozen other racially/ethnically questionable remarks in the workplace since I’ve been here.

What this guy said is not OK, and I'm not defending him, but it does seem like there's an atmosphere at your workplace where this is considered acceptable. If you want to report him to HR, you should do so, but you could also bring this up as a general example (using his name or not) of something that, as Lyn Never points out, would definitely open them up to liability.
posted by FencingGal at 11:15 AM on August 25, 2017 [9 favorites]

Letting it slide vs opening yourself up to criticism for touchy-ness is always a tough call. Also, I do _not_ challenge you to challenge all bigotry.
posted by turkeybrain at 11:21 AM on August 25, 2017 [8 favorites]

It seems like a toxic workplace culture to me, with racist jokes flying freely. Good job standing up to them! You are so brave. In your shoes, I would look at the bigger picture of stomping out the overarching racism problem, rather than just this one incident. So have your superiors reiterate the relevant policies at Team meetings. Also encourage them to post a visual cue regarding diversity (like a poster). If they can't move on this I myself would seriously consider finding a new job. A one time incident is one thing ( just happened to me this week, and it was my boss : | ) but this sounds like a larger problem, and employers have to pick a side and be proactive.
posted by shalom at 11:22 AM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

As an ethnic Jew myself, I'm continually amazed at the casual anti-semitism I run into. The same friends falling all over themselves with "crush the Nazis" posts on facebook, are the same friends I've seen, many times, say something along the lines of "You're cheap, what are you Jewish" and the like. I've come to the conclusion that they honestly don't know what they're doing, via ignorance and unfamiliarity.

Chalk it up to human nature.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:53 AM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

One lower-voltage option is to talk to HR, decline to name names or open a formal complaint, but request diversity training for your team.

You feel bad about going to work. That's unacceptable. That's one of many reasons this sort of behavior is illegal. But. You know that you'll get attitude if you are IDed as the complainant, and you know you'll be IDed. Another option is to register an anonymous email account and email HR and/or the CEO. Bigotry at work is wrong. It's also expensive. You have the makings of a complaint that could cost money and PR damage. Smart companies know that bigotry at work isn't okay for that reason as well as the ethics.

Jokes are one of the ways people assess the level of racism, sexism, bigotry of others. Your co-worker now knows you don't think anti-Semitism is okay. You did stand up for yourself and against bigotry.

Write an email from work to home documenting the incident and any other incidents. Make it bland, unemotional and factual. Date, time, location, what was said, who was present. If things get difficult, that's a very good 'paper' trail. I know this from experience.

As far as how to manage the feelings of anger about still having to put up with this crap, deep breath, good music, and toughness is all I got, and it's nowhere near enough.
posted by theora55 at 11:55 AM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's appropriate to talk about this to your manager or to HR. If workplace culture is such that such comments fly around with some freedom, though, it may be risky. While it would be a brave thing to do, you shouldn't feel obliged to take on that risk as a baseline required for being a good person.

You are certainly justified in reducing any contact you have with this person at work to an absolute minimum.

Whatever you do, document it in writing.
posted by praemunire at 11:56 AM on August 25, 2017

Not to shame you for your perfectly natural reaction and wanting to get through an awkward exchange as quickly as possible, but this experience should rightfully be seen as a good reason you should have probably called out/reported/dealt better with the earlier instances that did not directly affect you or a group with whom you are affiliated.

Report it to HR and potentially your supervisor, though you can probably expect disappointment with the outcomes. In my previous role I reported my supervisors supervisor several times for flagrantly bigoted and unacceptable conduct only to be told that HR was aware of it (and, semi candidly that the agency as a whole was aware of the issue and that numerous good employees had left out of frustration with the apparently intractable bullshit dished out by this individual). Then again, I know someone who works at a very large financial institution who had two higher-ups canned after the election for making inappropriate/threatening comments to colleagues and subordinates after the election (which shocked me but it was a clear cut case that literally all the women in the office were not going to take more bs from two long-time problems, and the potential loss in productivity was too great to continue to ignore the problem).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:12 PM on August 25, 2017

I would report this to your boss and/or HR, personally. It has affected your ability to feel comfortable at work, and also this guy sounds like a dick. That said, if this is a toxic place where this would be accepted or swept under the rug, it may be uncomfortable for you if it is flagged to him that you reported it but he continues to be a presence in the office. Still, if HR doesn't know there are lots of racist jokes being told, they should and they should instruct everyone to cut that shit out or face consequences.

As for being ok working with this guy, I am not sure since I have fortunately never had to deal with working with a racist or misogynist or anything. But I have worked with co-workers I hated to my core and who hated me back, and my tactic was always to avoid them whenever possible and be perfectly cooperative when we did need to interact, especially in writing. If you decide you need to just get over this and focus on work, it might help to think about it as this guy is just a dick and he sucks, like any co-worker you might hate, and try to focus less on why he sucks and why you hate him. I'm sorry you are going through this though. I'm not Jewish and if someone tried to tell me a Jewish joke at work, I'd tell them to fuck off and report it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:21 PM on August 25, 2017

Not to shame you for your perfectly natural reaction and wanting to get through an awkward exchange as quickly as possible, but this experience should rightfully be seen as a good reason you should have probably called out/reported/dealt better with the earlier instances that did not directly affect you or a group with whom you are affiliated.

Let's not put other people's racism on the asker, please? They say that they did try to push back when they could, but it's really difficult to do so when you're the only one who ever does, plus it does NOT justify what the guy did.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:31 PM on August 25, 2017 [25 favorites]

I feel shaken and do not want to be in the same room with this person.

That is more than enough reason to go to your boss and HR.

(I have to respectfully question your "microagression" tag. This incident sounds like macroagression to me.)
posted by Perodicticus potto at 2:50 PM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

[A couple deleted. Ask Metafilter is not for chat/debate among answerers; please don't form your answer to the OP in a way that asks other commenters to respond to you. Also, please note that the point is to provide helpful suggestions to the poster, not just weigh in with your opinion about if you, personally, would be offended. That is not the question.]
posted by taz (staff) at 12:06 AM on August 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Agree that you should go to HR, but I also want to encourage you to plan for a worst case scenario. I agree this seems like a toxic workplace with a high tolerance for racism, and I agree the way this guy framed this was concerning (in addition to the shittiness of the antisemitism).

But I've had more than one Jewish friend who encountered casual and tolerated antisemitism in the workplace at midwestern owned or dominated companies and reporting it did not go well for them. Obviously this is anecdata, but it was discussed as like...a known thing to look out for when considering places to work. For reference, I'm in NYC, so that was the comparison.

Anyway. This company has tolerated this kind of environment for who knows how long. Reporting it to HR is certainly what's supposed to work, but we all know the world doesn't always work like it's supposed to. It sounds like for your own mental health you need to report this, but it's ok to also protect yourself in the event that doesn't go as it should. If it were me I'd be looking for other jobs, too.
posted by schadenfrau at 9:15 AM on August 26, 2017

This seems like a conversation to have with the HR rep or a manager. The individual who approached you obviously was aware that racist jokes are inappropriate, but seemed to be unaware why. You reacted appropriately by letting that person know you disapproved of racist humor. Let the appropriate level of management address the whole crew about appropriate behavior in the workplace.
posted by mule98J at 11:00 AM on August 26, 2017

This is such a tough situation. Certainly you've conducted yourself in the best possible way you can. Which is to remain professional but also to confront the person straight on which it sounds like you did. And that took guts. I too am of Jewish background. Though I do not practice structured religion. But I've certainly experienced my share of jokes aimed at Jews.

Here's the thing though and many may disagree...I don't necessarily believe that jokes aimed at certain religions, or races automatically makes the person telling the joke a racist. Some may disagree. A lot of people grow up in areas that just rip on everybody...every race, religion...even there own kind. It can be seen as sad, uneducated, and low class, but again I wouldn't necessarily say it makes that person racist. Of course it doesn't make these types of jokes right, and certainly they are not appropriate....especially in the work place.

The bottom line is what they said made you uncomfortable. And you are well within your right to feel uncomfortable and say something to management. But if I were in your shoes I might hesitate to say something to management or HR...for now. Why? Well, it's possible that it might bring on much more attention then wanted. You could decide for now to just let this one slide with the plan being that if this person makes ANY more comments like this you will go straight to management or HR. But right now this is something that happened between you and this other person. Maybe they mentioned it to other coworkers...maybe they didn't. If you go straight to a manager or HR it's possible that it could make your work environment more uncomfortable and awkward if others hear about the situation. Not saying it should...but unfortunately it could. Many of times in my life I've let Jew jokes slide simply because the reward for fighting it was worth little to nothing. I know this may not be what you wanna hear. And I also know some may view this as being a coward. But for me I never go to battle unless I really wanna deal with the harsh realities of being at war. I'm just giving you my viewpoint from someone who has been in your shoes. I hope this doesn't happen again to you. Make know mistake there will be other times in your life where the same issue arises. You seem like a brave, strong person. That's great. I wish you the best no matter what.
posted by ljs30 at 2:21 PM on August 26, 2017

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