I work for a government contractor as a third party independent contractor for about a month now. I directly report to and take orders from the government employee that I interviewed with before getting the job and he was glad that I took the offer.

This is somewhat of an odd situation, even though he is the customer (the government employee) I get treated as though I'm almost a new coworker to him. He says he appreciates my good work he has faith in me to get a project done. Keep in mind he is a Senior and I'm young (mid 20's male).

Here is the issue. I noticed that he likes to talk about somewhat borderline racist jokes that he looks up on the internet "AND" shows to other coworkers and contract workers(note other coworkers do not look these jokes up he shows them to them) . In no way does he try to say it in a low voice, and additionally goes to other coworkers/contractors offices to tell the joke there. I looked up these jokes, and notice that he leaves out the racist portion but says the rest of the joke. These jokes are directly aimed towards my ethnicity.

In the office I am the only person of this ethnicity, all of the other government employees and contractors are the same majority ethnicity.

I don't understand why he likes to tell these jokes and explicitly leaves out the ethnicity portion of the joke. He knew my ethnicity and what I looked like and met me in person before he hired me, and he is very polite and helpful when I ask him work related questions, but he still likes to make jokes targeted at only my ethnicity.

Are their any options I have to address this situation? How do I protect myself from blow-back while doing it?

  • 4
    I wonder how he's doing that since most racist jokes heavily depend on some prejudice or stereotype related to the specific ethnicity for their punchline to "work".
    – Fildor
    Oct 6, 2017 at 9:58
  • 3
    For example: "A bishop, a rabbi and an atheist ..." jokes surely won't work if you alter them to "Three guys go to a bar ... "
    – Fildor
    Oct 6, 2017 at 10:01
  • 2
    Just let it wash over you, it's nothing to get upset over. When you're in a minority it's just a part of life. If you're confident in yourself you give it back, if not just don't worry about it, it's only noise. The one thing you DON'T do is bite the bait.
    – Kilisi
    Oct 6, 2017 at 12:18
  • 2
    So he tells a generic joke and the only reason you know that an offensive version of the joke exists is because you looked it up on the internet? Oct 6, 2017 at 12:51
  • 3
    I think a really important piece here that all the existing answers have missed is that the coworkers are specifically looking up these jokes to be racist, editing out the racist parts, and then distributing/sharing them. That suggests a lot more motivation and intent than simply making sanitized jokes.
    – enderland
    Oct 6, 2017 at 14:14

5 Answers 5


This is a really difficult one to answer.

While you could report this behaviour, your co-workers could argue that removing the racist aspect of the jokes implicitly makes them non-racist. The act of reporting them will obviously create a somewhat toxic working environment which may well shorten your tenure within the team.

You could try being a little passive-aggressive in coughing loudly while an obviously "non" racist joke is being shared. This will bring attention to you and might make them a little uncomfortable.

Or you can come right out with it and say "Yes, I've heard this one before, thanks for cutting out the racist part, I appreciate it".

There does seem to be a culture within this team that's probably existed for so long that this passive racism is part of normal business. It's going to take some effort for them to adjust to the modern world.

However, realistically speaking, there probably isn't much you can do with this kind of ingrained behaviour, with out suffering undesirable consequenses for yourself. If these guys have been in this environment for a long time, they probably don't know any different, and simply excising the racist portions of the jokes is probably the most they can do. They're stuck in the locker-room.

The choice really is yours. You can either live with it for the rest of your contract, you can press ahead and do something about it, or you can attempt to change their behaviour gradually over time in the hope you drag them into the modern world and current (and acceptable) way of thinking.

  • 1
    Hehe, passive agressiveness can sometimes work, but... isn't it easier to confront him honestly and ask what is going on with the over the edge jokes?
    – Stian
    Oct 6, 2017 at 11:29
  • 1
    I think that with this coworker, saying "thanks for taking out the racist part" would not work well. If he's dumb enough to think it's acceptable to loudly share racist jokes as long as the specific race is removed, he's likely to take that statement as encouragement that what he's doing is okay.
    – David K
    Oct 6, 2017 at 12:08
  • 1
    I think this would be a more appropriate answer, if the OP hadn't said this: "that he looks up on the internet with other coworkers" -- it sounds like the OP's coworkers are deliberately looking up racist jokes and then making them in a way that is intended to make fun of the OP.
    – enderland
    Oct 6, 2017 at 14:04
  • "he finds" - it says "he finds" ... OP looked them up.
    – Fildor
    Oct 6, 2017 at 15:17
  • @Fildor I put the OP's original wording back in the question, which had the sentence I quoted.
    – enderland
    Oct 6, 2017 at 15:36

I'm not condoning what he is doing because racism is wrong whether it's joking or not, however there are some factors here that show he's at least not completely ignorant, which is good because getting someone to improve on that is going to be a lot easier than trying to crack the shell of a dyed-in-the-wool bigot. And as you touch upon in the question he hired you knowing your ethnicity and seems to value your work so I think this more a case of "inappropriate humor" then someone with actual racist beliefs (again I'm not defending or conding his behavior)

By editing out the explicitly racist parts he's showing that he knows there is a line to be drawn, it just sounds like he hasn't drawn it in the right place. Since you aren't his coworker but an outside contractor you don't have the options to treat this as a grievance or anything like that but honestly I don't think you'd need to in this case anyway.

It sounds like you have a good rapport with him and that he values your working relationship so leverage that here and try having a talk with him. Something like:

Hi ["Joke" telling coworker], I appreciate that you've tried not to offend me with your jokes by keeping my ethnicity out it. However I'm finding that some/most (delete as appropriate) of the time they are still crossing into being a bit offensive. Otherwise I really like working with you and I hope I'm not wrong in thinking that you appreciate what I bring to the work here so is there any way you could tone down the racial humor in the office around me?

Assuming he's not a jerk he'll probably take it on board, I'd expect a few slip ups if he's used to to saying these jokes as part of a long-standing culture and you might need to remind him that they aren't ok but if he's still telling them more frequently than that (and importantly if it's frequently enough to bother you) then you can take further steps, you can talk to his manager:

Hi ["Joke" telling coworker's Manager], as you probably know ["Joke" telling coworker] has a tendency towards racial humor and while I know he's not trying to be offensive towards me it still makes me uncomfortable. I've spoken to him about it before but it's continued, could you have a word with him or is there anything else you would like me to do about it?

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that raising it may backfire on you slightly if your coworker is a jerk (I'm not saying that's fair but then life rarely is) but if they respond badly to it then that probably tells you that you don't really want to be working with this person anyway.

  • 3
    "By editing out the explicitly racist parts he's showing that he knows there is a line to be drawn," -- if the OP's coworkers are looking jokes up specifically that target the OP I'm not sure that this is really true at all.
    – enderland
    Oct 6, 2017 at 14:05
  • 2
    I have to agree with @enderland. What you interpret as "If I remove the race part, it's not offensive anymore, right?" I am interpreting as "If I remove the race part I can't get in trouble for it!"
    – David K
    Oct 6, 2017 at 14:06
  • 1
    @DavidK oh I absolutely agree! I wasn't suggesting that they weren't offensive any more but clearly he is editing for some reason, whether it's not wanting to get in trouble or not wanting to offend the OP, either way he's drawing a line somewhere and that gives the OP a toehold to get him to move that line to a place he is happy with.
    – motosubatsu
    Oct 6, 2017 at 14:09
  • @motosubatsu it might be difficult to have that line drawn. As others on here have mentioned a good point that I did not think of. If he has been saying these jokes for quite a while before I came on board what will make him budge.
    – Bex
    Oct 6, 2017 at 16:42
  • 1
    I'm not clear on where the OP is writing from, but in the US at least a contractor can still successfully file a complaint if a US Government employee or other contractor is making a hostile work environment, especially if it's a discrimination issue.
    – Paul
    Oct 6, 2017 at 18:51

I'd address it. Not in a "I'm getting all racial on you" sort of way, but in a tone of weary semi-annoyance.

"C'mon Bill, we've gotta get you some better material."

If you're a joke-teller yourself, bring out your own stash.

Historical note: I'm Methuselaicly old, so I remember when the bookstore (a) existed, and (b) had row upon row of ethnic joke books, sorted neatly by ethnicity/religion/hair color. Amazing how times change in just one lifetime...


I don't understand why he likes to tell these jokes and explicitly leaves out the ethnicity portion of the joke

In the same paragraph,

but he still likes to make jokes targeted at only my ethnicity

Do you see how the second statement contradicts the first?

Storytime (sidenote, skip if you want):

When Dr Samuel Johnson had finished his great lexicography, the first real English dictionary, he was visited by various delegations of people to congratulation him, including a delegation of Londons respectable womanhood, who came to his parlour in Fleet Street and said, "Dr we want to congratulate you on your decision to exclude all indecent words from your dictionary."

And he said, "Ladies I congratulate your persistence in looking them up.

Now, earlier in your Q you mention:

I looked up these jokes, and notice that he leaves out the racist portion but says the rest of the joke. These jokes are directly aimed towards my ethnicity.

We have the following facts.

  1. His source material includes racist language
  2. He intentionally leaves out such language
  3. His resulting joke contains traces of said language
  4. You did look up the material
  5. You decided to take offence to it

We do not know what borderline racist is. It's presumably not racist, otherwise you or someone else would've taken action already.

At this point I would go back to the source material and see if there are other jokes aimed towards another ethnicity. If there are, I would contrast each joke to see if the ones aimed at your own are of the same type (the ones he finds funny). If not, mystery solved.

This concludes the investigation section.

I read your question as you taking offense at a joke because of the source material uses your ethnicity as the punchline. This is regardless of your customer's deliberate omission of such information.

The best course of action is to let it go and learn to, well, take a joke. You or your ethnicity is not being made fun of. I don't know why you think it is, but maybe there's something you didn't convey in your text, so I must give you the benefit of doubt.

Since this is a customer it's best to enlist your manager's aid, or at least sympathy, rather than take first action on your own. Before you do that you must decide what you're looking for:

  • You might be reallocated to another project, or
  • have someone make it clear to the customer that his humour is not appreciated, or
  • have him removed from the project.

Then speak to your manager and say you detect racist intent in your customer's sense of humour. Here I assume you've already taken Step 0, ie. Document EverythingTM, so this is where you present the evidence to Mgr, and them them take it from there.

  • Well to be honest its ethnicity word of the day meme jokes. I searched up the joke can't find any other ethnicity for the ethnicity portion just my own kind.
    – Bex
    Oct 6, 2017 at 15:55

Don't bite the hand that feeds you, unless you're trying to fire him and take his position.

Even though you're a contractor, your boss decided to treat you like one of his own colleagues. He praises you and let's you give input on a project.

Unless he's directing the jokes at you or intentionally mocking you, you will only be seen as vindicative. You yourself said he removes the race from the joke so he knows the line he can't cross.

If this is how you treat your benefactor, I wonder how you treat the other members of the team?

Actually I'm not even sure why he's a Federal employee is relevant. It seems that you're looking for a fight to pick.

I'd advise you to refrain from reporting him and grow thicker skin, this won't end well for you.

  • I don't want his job I enjoy what I do as a contractor and like the company that I work for. I feel that I don't have a say since I'm a contractor to a private company and he is the one that manages us.
    – Bex
    Oct 6, 2017 at 16:33

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