How do you deal with racism in the workplace?
May 21, 2004 4:28 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with racism in the workplace? A little more inside...

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out a computer at work, one that was really filthy with dust, etc., and I commented on how dirty it was (dust inside like cotton candy, etc.)

The company has an office attached to a warehouse, so it’s a pretty dusty kinda place (it’s also in New Jersey, so I’m sure you understand), and all of the engineers are Indian immigrants.

My boss then proceeded to shrug and say, “what do you expect? It’s all Indians who work there.” He then said that he didn’t mean to sound so culturally insensitive, but that they are *really dirty*.

I work in a small outfit, and my boss is the owner. I don't exactly have an HR department to talk to. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I’m really pissed, and have lost a great deal of respect for him.

Please hope me!
posted by adampsyche to Work & Money (25 answers total)
If his behaviour isn't racist, only his attitudes, there is probably little you can do except disagree with him. As the moment for that seems to have passed on this occasion, there doesn't seem to be much you can do except look out for examples of racist behaviour in future. I'm not familiar with New Jersey law (or any other law for that matter), but I doubt that it's illegal to hold a negative opinion about an ethnic minority (or other type of group), as long as one's actions don't break the law. In other words: speech is free, actions are not.

I feel for you, but there's probably not much you can do to change your boss's prejudices, even you confront him directly, which as his employee you may not wish to do. If you feel that his attitude is compromising yours or the company's objectives, then take it to his manager, if he has one.
posted by cbrody at 4:53 PM on May 21, 2004

One question: How much do you value your current position?
posted by mischief at 4:54 PM on May 21, 2004

Get another job and quit. You can't solve this problem. You can make sure that you don't work for someone you don't respect. If you feel it's important, then let your boss know what you think of him after you get a new job. Understand that your boss is not likely to change because you point out that he a racist. Instead of acknowledging your complaint about his behavior he's more likely to want to argue about whether he is or is not a racist. He's also not likely to give you a good reccomendation. The world is full of assholes some of whom are racists.
posted by rdr at 4:56 PM on May 21, 2004


I think it all depends on how close you are to your boss. If you two hang out outside of work, or at least have a great rapport, I think you should talk to him and mention your feelings on the subject.

On the other hand, if you don't trust that he'll react well to your confrontation, I suggest ignoring it or find another boss.

From the sound of it though, he's probably not racist so much as he is extremely insensitive.
posted by BlueTrain at 4:56 PM on May 21, 2004

Oops scratch my last sentence - I missed the fact that your boss is the owner. Maybe it's time for you to move on...

However in your boss's defense I think sometimes the nicest, most intelligent people are just sometimes blind to the fact that they have prejudices at all. I would point his mistake out gently to him next time something similar happens, and try to gauge his reaction.
posted by cbrody at 5:01 PM on May 21, 2004

That's not the kind of loss of respect that can be re-earned. Find a new job asap. People who are looking for like-minded folks usually make what they consider to be "mild" comments at first, to see what your reaction will be. If you didn't set him straight in the beginning, you're sure to hear what he *really* thinks in the near future.
posted by vignettist at 5:03 PM on May 21, 2004

adam, if you do find a new job and leave this one, I'd encourage to let your boss know exactly why, either in person, via e-mail, or just a written letter. It won't make him think twice otherwise. It may do no good, but it's probably about all you can do. Good luck.
posted by Ufez Jones at 5:12 PM on May 21, 2004

does it make you want to leave? if so, then go.

if you think you can justify/tolerate it (and you belive it's harmless) than go with the flow.

don't get overly caught up in modern PC/grass roots conflict unless you want to.
posted by Frasermoo at 5:38 PM on May 21, 2004

Thanks, all. I am not too sure what to do. I completely agree that I won't change his mind, and that's why I didn't say anything.

True, speech is free, and I can honestly say that I have no idea how the anti-discrimination laws come into play. I guess it wasn't directed at me, but it is still enough to make one feel pretty damned uncomfortable.

Right after I started, we were driving to a client in Newark, and he looked at the truck next to us and exclaimed, "Isn't that great! A couple of Arabs in a truck with tinted windows. That's just what we need!" I was there like a week at the time. I tried to brush it off, saying that besides that he's a nice guy, but chicobangs was helpful enough to ask, "So, Mrs. Kennedy, how did you enjoy your trip to Dallas? How was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"

posted by adampsyche at 5:40 PM on May 21, 2004

adampsyche: I guess it wasn't directed at me

What are you truely uncomfortable with?

a)He objectified humans.


b)A particular opinion he holds.
posted by Gyan at 5:10 AM on May 22, 2004

If this is your worst complaint about your job, adam, perhaps your best option is to just suck it up and quit being so sensitive.
posted by mischief at 5:37 AM on May 22, 2004

have you tried giving him a frown when he does it? (it could be dangerous, but he might get the message after you do it once or twice that you don't want to hear his shit)
posted by amberglow at 6:33 AM on May 22, 2004

i know how you feel, adampsyche, because i've been in a very similar situation. it was somewhat easier for me, ironically, for other similarly racist reasons - my boss was chilean, criticising koreans and i was a gringo, so in the great racial pecking order i was "higher" than him, and my disaproval carried more wait than i expected...

i simply looked uncomfortable and refused to join in the conversation. people picked up on the fact that i didn't laugh at jokes about races or women, and i think the number of comments fell off, although they never went away altogether.

i wouldn't express an opinion at the time, but if racism or sexism, for example, was being discussed, i would try to gently make the case for what i believed in. again, i think this had an effect, although again i think it was largely due to "ooo - gringos think that" rather than the logic of my arguments.

i also worked in a company in scotland with a fair amount of homophobia in the workplace. there i was rather less tolerant, for a variety of reasons (i was on the receiving end of agression for being english; people there live in a culture that is much more aware of these problems than chile (where people are generally friendly but ill-informed, rather than malicious); and i was younger and angrier). in response to one joke about gays i remember pointing out that "it wasn't infectious", which simply killed the conversation dead, with my boss walking away. i looked for another job and raised the issue, rather clumsily, when i resigned (they'd recently fired someone, in my opinion, for being openly bi, and i gave that as my reason for leaving, although it was obvious to everyone that i was unhappy working there in general).

anyway, i think i did more to change attitudes in chile than in edinburgh. but that may be more due to chileans' willingness to change - or at least accomodate others and make them feel more at ease - than my approach.

(and i should add, since i feel i seem to attack chile a lot at times, that it has changed me hugely. for the better, i hope.)
posted by andrew cooke at 6:47 AM on May 22, 2004

oh, and i put on my cv, when looking for a new job while in edinburgh, that i wanted somewhere that had a tolerant workplace (can't remember the exact words). that was a smart move because it got my cvs noticed by people who felt similarly, and i got an excellent job with some excellent people.

also, wrt mischief's comments here and elsewhere, i just asked myself why i have the attitude i have. it's not, i think, from any desire to do good for [insert minority here], but rather that i am accustomed to a certain culture, where mutual tolerance is the norm. i'm not black, female, gay or, whatever, but i have my strange little habits and a certain degree of tolerance makes me feel much more at ease. so please don't think i'm doing this out of some misguided and condescending desire to make the world better for [insert minority here]. i'm not. i'm simply the kind of person who will make a noise if they are uncomfortable...
posted by andrew cooke at 6:55 AM on May 22, 2004

My boss then proceeded to shrug and say, “what do you expect? It’s all Indians who work there.” He then said that he didn’t mean to sound so culturally insensitive, but that they are *really dirty*.

Is the boss an Indian? I assume we are talking about the subcontinental variety, not Native Americans.

The politics of immigration on the east coast are very complicated. Coherent social groups tened to concentrate in the same area after that area has reached critical mass. It is entirely possible that the company has a population of "low caste" Indians living nearby, who maintain their traditional standard of living, rather than try to modernize and break out of the caste system. In this case, your boss may simply be observing a local reality, but using unnecessarily general language to describe it.

Finally, when the boss treats the workers poorly, the workers tend to treat the boss's equipment poorly. If the boss has this attitude about his workers, it is no surprise that they leave the computers a mess. Conversely, the computers *are* messy, so the boss is justified in his opinion. His choice of language is unfortunate, however.

What needs to happen is boss and employees need to get together and have a corporate-hygene talk. If it is important to keep the computers clean, then by all means, go to it.

The company has an office attached to a warehouse, so it’s a pretty dusty kinda place (it’s also in New Jersey, so I’m sure you understand), and all of the engineers are Indian immigrants.

Now you are just as guilty as the boss of cultural insensitivity. New Jersey is culturally no Manhattan, but the nicer parts do tend to be a lot cleaner than The City. Fortunately, it is a lot easier to change "being from new jersey" than it is to change "being from India," so this comment is more of a snark than a real complaint.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:04 AM on May 22, 2004

depending on the kind of person he is, you may find talking to him directly is really useful. i know i've said things that i thought inoffensive, or ironic (on different occassions) in the past, and upset people - if they let me know (or i infer it from their startled reaction) i take it into account in future (i'm thinking of the arab/dark windows comment, which i might possibly have made as a bad joke myself, assuming people would get the irony).
posted by andrew cooke at 10:30 AM on May 22, 2004

I was just going to say what Kwantsar said, pretty much exactly. Just to be snarky and all.
posted by rafter at 11:32 AM on May 22, 2004

Now you are just as guilty as the boss of cultural insensitivity. New Jersey is culturally no Manhattan, but the nicer parts do tend to be a lot cleaner than The City.

Oh, come on. That was a joke, and a self-jab at that. There are beautiful parts of NJ, I just bought a house there.

It was about non-American Indians. And I fail to draw a parallel about joking about NJ (which I don't believe to be true), and taking a stab at an entire race.

Ah, that's right, mischief. I must be sooooo sensitive. It wasn't about me, like I said, I am just disgusted with the sentiment, and wanted to put it out there to see what, if anything, would be most constructive, Obviously, that requires a little more knowledge about the job, etc., but I can surmise from the helpfull responses that I got exactly what to do.

I actually googled "racist boss" last night and found this, and I found that particularly interesting because it is the exact same community of Buddhists that I belong to.
posted by adampsyche at 11:37 AM on May 22, 2004

Sorry if I sounded defensive there, Kwanstar. I appreciate snarks. Really. ;) I just wanted to draw the obvious distinction.
posted by adampsyche at 11:39 AM on May 22, 2004

I've experienced a similar problem working in retail. My boss will often point to a black person who has come into the store and whisper "keep an eye on that one, they tend to steal." Or when the topic of shoplifting comes up, she always says emphatically "it's always the young, black girls who come in here and shoplift." I've always just refrained from responding yay or nay, but it makes me uncomfortable and I've seen other employees look upset by it as well.
It's a tough situation. When I asked my boss to elaborate, she gave many examples where she has caught black people stealing from the store, so in her mind she's not being racist, just learning from experience. It still bugs the hell out of me, though.
posted by bonheur at 1:09 PM on May 22, 2004

Whatever. It's your molehill. Just don't be surprised, if you start preaching to him, when he starts preaching back.
posted by mischief at 1:26 PM on May 22, 2004

Whatever. It's your molehill. Just don't be surprised, if...

Ok, you've offered your advice already. Now stop being so sensitive ;)
posted by vacapinta at 1:47 PM on May 22, 2004

Heh. Who said anything about preaching? In fact, that's one thing I intend to not do. Chant, sure, but not preach.

Besides, he preaches enough as it is. Hence, my question.
posted by adampsyche at 3:23 PM on May 22, 2004

What seems weird to me is that someone would even hold a stereotype of Indians being dirty. I have known quite a few Indians (East Indians) who live in America, and they are all fastidious people. Maybe this guy saw a documentary about purifying oneself in the Ganges.
posted by bingo at 12:15 AM on May 23, 2004

Wait, something's missing. adampsyche, you pointed out an unfortunate interaction between you and your boss, then another. Are these isolated things, or does your boss have a clear pattern of this kind of behavior? There's a big difference. If not, you'd do well to talk to him directly about it, leaning heavily on non-personal things like a client being present- point out that he(?) might not appreciate it and it could harm your business. Don't quit, though.

If it is part of a pattern, though, you need to move on.
posted by mkultra at 8:32 AM on May 23, 2004

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