Racism at work that is not intentional
December 7, 2017 8:38 PM   Subscribe

So I experienced a racist incident at work today where I could potentially be at fault but I didn’t intentionally try to be racist and I thought it was harmless. I am wondering if there are any people who are of African American descent or who work in Human Resources who can provide some insight, because it just caused a lot of worry for me.

I am basically trying to find someone for my friend since she is single, and so I thought I could ask my work friends if they know anyone else who is also single.

So, me and my work friend were just chatting in the coffee room until he told me that someone we both know is single down the hall… so then we go to his cubicle and tell him that I know someone who is single and that she is trying to find someone, and of course I asked if he is interested and he said yes, and he asked for a picture. Then I showed him a picture of the woman who I am trying to find a match for.

First of all, this guy is African American. And my friend is also African American. So then he asks that since he is black if that is the reason why I asked him if he is interested in my friend, who is also black. Of course not. I was shocked by his question and just got silent. The reason why I asked if he is interested is obviously because I heard he was single, that is all. I had no idea this would become an issue of racism. His assumption seems to be that I think that black people should only date other black people, which is not true since I asked my other friends of other different ethnic backgrounds.

And now I am worried because this happened in a corporate work environment and HR of course has a zero tolerance policy for racism.

From an Human Resources point of view, if this guy decides to complain, what kind of trouble will I get into? Could I get fired?
posted by pieceofcake to Work & Money (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What you did was odd and this guy reacted to your odd behavior with a perfectly reasonable response.

You had a conversation about fixing up your friend with your work colleagues and then you marched down to this guy's desk and ambushed him. This is strange behavior during the work day when people are supposed to be working.

And normally when people try to fix two people up it is for a reason. The only reason you approached him was because he is single. That is odd. It wasn't as if you knew both of them well and thought they were a good match or that they had common interest.

So he responded to your odd behavior - trying to fix him (a stranger to you) up with your friend - by asking what you saw as the match. And given that you know nothing of him, he guessed race.

Did your friend ask you to set her up? If not, stop.

And stop bringing this sort of personal stuff into the workplace.

Look into your company policies on this sort of thing. I'd guess that it is more problematic that you're not working for this much of the work day rather than being odd.
posted by k8t at 8:48 PM on December 7, 2017 [46 favorites]

I think you should stop playing matchmaker with random co-workers, because nothing good is going to come of that. He probably isn’t going to report you, but don’t try to set your coworkers up with random single people you know, because that has all sorts of potential to be awkward.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:49 PM on December 7, 2017 [28 favorites]

Your work friend is a witness to your actual intentions, if it ever comes to that, but misunderstandings happen to everyone. Don't make excuses, but don't fail to defend yourself.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:50 PM on December 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: He is not a random coworker, we hang out with each other from time to time. I have friends at work who I hang out with a lot, and they hang out with this guy a lot too and do activities outside of work together.
posted by pieceofcake at 8:53 PM on December 7, 2017

Of course not. I was shocked by his question and just got silent.

this is when it got weird (I will not speak to the question of whether it was appropriate to look to matchmake within the office in the first place because I have opinions but am not a policymaker.)

there is no "of course" about it unless you expected him to read deep within your soul, with magic. How would he know why you were doing it? and there is no reason to get silent or shocked when asked an easy question you know the answer to, which would have been "no, I just asked who here was single and was pointed to you." followed by an apology if it seemed like he was waiting for one or would have appreciated one, or if you felt like some awkwardness or disbelief persisted.

it is weird to react to a simple question about race as though a great taboo had been broken or as though it was rude of him to ask. it is exceptionally polite for him to have asked the question instead of just assuming the answer was Yes and forming an opinion of you accordingly. when you do something offensive that's unintentional, it is a great gift for someone to freely invite you to explain yourself and give you a chance to apologize or clarify before getting mad. not everybody would do that.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:01 PM on December 7, 2017 [62 favorites]

it also could have been a joke! kind of a tired joke, but hey. if you expected him to know you so well and think so highly of you that he would never suspect you of even accidental minor racism, maybe he really did. and maybe he expected you to in turn just laugh.

but if this seems possible, I would still just briefly apologize for coming across the wrong way. better to seem humorless than to make him think he accidentally touched a nerve.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:26 PM on December 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Actually, forget the part about me going silent... I think I said the right thing by saying no, it's just that right now I am drawing a blank because of the amount of worry and anxiety that I am feeling. But I remember talking about other things about this girl with him right after.
posted by pieceofcake at 9:32 PM on December 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Black man (non US) and ex HR here.

Yes, the assumptions you made (unconsciously?) make you appear racist. But nobody got hurt so stop beating yourself up. And certainly don’t go back to the guy to apologise.

Also, please stop trying to fix your friend up when obviously you’re not very good at it. Matchmaking is much more subtle that that.
posted by Kwadeng at 9:40 PM on December 7, 2017 [25 favorites]

I say this as someone who is totally awkward myself: You are not socially adept enough to be having these conversations, and you are almost certainly making other people uncomfortable, and the way to fix this is to stick to topics that don't require navigating this kind of thing. Stick to safe small talk until you actually *know* how a person is going to react to you bringing up people you think they should go out with, or how attractive your girlfriend is, or making jokes about them dying. These are personal things, and the fact that you hang out with someone occasionally is not enough to assure you that things like this will go over fine. You've got an ongoing habit of getting overly personal with people you aren't actually that close to, and you keep winding up in these incredibly awkward situations because of it. You're going to keep shoving your foot in your mouth if you don't set up better boundary lines for your behavior than this. If you have trouble with sufficient impulse control to not actually start these conversations, maybe consider talking to a professional about that.

These things aren't a problem if you stick to talking to coworkers about sports or popular video games or weather or whatever. And as often as you're having this problem, I'd say, however you've calibrated how close you think is enough for personal topics, you need to dial it back. Way back.
posted by Sequence at 10:07 PM on December 7, 2017 [65 favorites]

There are good and sufficient reasons for avoiding romantic entanglements at work as a matter of personal policy. You've just now had an experience that should help you understand why there are even better and more sufficient reasons for avoiding second-hand involvement with them. Matchmaking at work is an even worse idea than dating a colleague. So much downside, so little up.

Don't make a bigger deal of this than other people make it for you, but in future, let your workplace be your workplace and let that be all it is.
posted by flabdablet at 12:50 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is like zero chance of you being fired for this particular incident. However, constantly putting your foot in your mouth at work is not good for your continued employment. Find yourself a work role model--someone at your job who really seems to have it together--and before you start a conversation, ask yourself if your role model would do the same. If there isn't someone like that at your work, find a TV character who fits the bill--Stanley from The Office is pretty safe.
posted by chaiminda at 6:24 AM on December 8, 2017

"You're/Are you just saying (or doing) that because I'm black(?)" is kind of a set piece/cliche in conversations between african-americans and others, at least in my experience in the US. I'm a white guy who lives in the south and have also seen it/heard it in other regions. I'd rather not do a lot of speculating which could turn into "white-splaining" about the intentions when it's said, and of course it could (and should be) said in complete earnest if someone feels that an action really is overtly racist, but I'll put it this way and leave it here:

90% of the time when I've heard the phrase I felt it was somewhere between an out-and-out joke and a *gentle* nudge in the direction of "hey, I know you didn't mean to, but that kind of seemed awkward to me..." i.e. designed to be passed off as humor, but maybe get the point next time?

I think your coworker is 99% likely to not say anything, and if you did wind up talking to HR I'd expect it to be an informal conversation, as much or more around the issue of not talking about dating or setting people up with coworkers as anything.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:32 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your job is safe. I agree with others that it was an inappropriate workplace activity; I also agree it was all-around awkward and the awkwardness was all on you.

I also think you should (privately, honestly) interrogate if there was maybe an unconscious reason you linked the guy with your friend, why you were so unquestioningly keen to march to the guy's office, pic in hand, which is not an everyday workplace activity. This self-interrogation is a healthy thing to do, somewhat uncomfortable, but we could all stand to question the "of course not" certainty. This doesn't make you a nazi or anything but we live in a racist society so it would be odd if you hadn't absorbed a bit of it.
posted by kapers at 6:43 AM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think it is apparent, from this and past questions, that you are not as good as you think you are at social skills. The situation, and your question, is based off a lot of assumptions that are either strange or unusual or not true.

-You assume that this is a racist incident that happened to you. In reality, this is an incident that you did to someone else.
-You assume you know this coworker well enough to try and set him up with someone. His response points to the contrary. he asked your reasoning to assume they're a good match, because from his point of view there is no reason.
-You assume it's obvious that the coworker should know the reason you're suggesting this friend. There is absolutely no evidence to support that.

I agree with other answers that you need to curtail your social behavior in order to avoid these kinds of situations, for the benefit of everyone involved.
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:14 AM on December 8, 2017 [8 favorites]

I know I said earlier that I thought your job was safe, but could you clarify if your coworker has indicated he'd report this? That changes my answer slightly.

As a manager, if this were reported to me: I would take it extremely seriously if your coworker felt singled out for his race, and I would also have a major problem with my staff showing pictures of women to coworkers to evaluate their "dateability." There would be a formal talking-to for both issues, and I'd report it up the chain to HR and my manager, and no more strikes allowed.

If this were part of a pattern, that changes my answer too-- if this were the first incident I'd be more lenient than if it were a pattern.

It might be helpful for you to know that in general, no one is going to get into an argument with you about your intent. Singling out someone based on race is racist whether there was ill intent. For example, if you've been keeping up with the news, sexual harassers often see themselves as fun and harmless and huge fans of women, whereas the women feared for their bodies and careers.

If you find yourself consistently stepping in it, you need to find a way to dial it way back-- either develop more social sensibility, or when in doubt, know when to keep quiet.
posted by kapers at 9:28 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

To be blunt, you are attempting to solve AP Calculus problems with a 1st grade grasp of arithmetic.

Take a big step back and work on making small talk without putting your foot in your mouth.

Also, work is clearly not the right place for you to practice your social skills.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:35 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

“You're/Are you just saying (or doing) that because I'm black(?)" is kind of a set piece/cliche in conversations between african-americans and others, at least in my experience in the US. I'm a white guy who lives in the south and have also seen it/heard it in other regions.

90% of the time when I've heard the phrase I felt it was somewhere between an out-and-out joke and a *gentle* nudge in the direction of "hey, I know you didn't mean to, but that kind of seemed awkward to me..." i.e. designed to be passed off as humor, but maybe get the point next time?

This has also been my experience, here in the frozen wastelands of New York. The other person usually starts laughing first.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:02 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't think your job is on the line here, but I have to agree that you'd be best off setting appropriate boundaries for yourself at work. That means not getting yourself involved in your co-workers personal lives (and not getting them involved in yours). I feel like any efforts you'd make to clear up this "misunderstanding" would only dig you in a deeper hole, so just let it go and back off.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:59 AM on December 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think you probably already have a reputation for saying weird, overly personal things and crossing lines/boundaries at work.
Whatever you are hoping for with your workplace interactions (emotional connections, good feelings) stop, please. Look for it somewhere else.
Because you are making a reputation for yourself as unprofessional, and someone difficult to work with and someone people will start wanting to avoid. It‘s not just that your co-workers will avoid you, you‘re also endangering your job/career.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:50 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Well, this being AskMe and all, I'm going to give you a sideways answer.

A fair amount of your questions have to do with racism, racism at work, interpersonal problems at work, not understanding conversations and social cues, and making a lot of mistakes at work.

So I can't help but wonder what's going on, actually. Why are you so often struggling with behaving with people and knowing appropriate behavior?

Your anecdote seems like you would be safe, except it seems like you've had more than a few problems getting along with coworkers. I would have a serious think about all of that and figure out why that's happening.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:01 PM on December 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

Also, please don't refer to her as a "girl." If she's working in your office she is a woman.
posted by eglenner at 1:26 AM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah, don't matchmake at work. Just, NO.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:54 AM on December 9, 2017

Just so you know OP, its clear to me that you meant you had inadvertently been racist at work, and not that you felt racism had been diected at you. Not sure why so many people had trouble understanding that, it may have caused them to answer you a little harshly.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 7:19 PM on December 9, 2017

You didn’t experience a racist event. You caused an uncomfortable situation. It didn’t happen to you.

You probably won’t be fired for this. You definitely should examine your own mindset, but away from work and not by asking your coworkers.
posted by RainyJay at 4:00 PM on December 10, 2017

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