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I work in a small office. We've had the same cleaning lady for a number of years now, and when she comes once a week to dust/clean my office I'll chat with her.

Recently she's made a few comments about black people that make me... uncomfortable.

The latest, and most unnerving comment came last week when she said something along the lines of "I was cleaning an empty apartment for the landlord. Of course it was a mess because the last tenants were black." Not her exact words, but this is the gist of it.

Before that, she gave me the impression that she wasn't thinking normally when I had mentioned a brewery that opened up down the street from where I work, and the first thing she asked was, "Is there a lot of black people in there?"

In both cases I was caught off guard, made pretty uncomfortable, and just clumsily changed the subject because I didn't really know what to do. She hasn't explicitly stated her thoughts on other races to me, but judging by comments like the ones above, you could infer that they don't exactly fall under normal thinking.

My fears are that, since I didn't outright object to her, she thinks that my thinking falls in line with her's. This is bad because:

1) I don't think it does at all.

2) I don't need her saying this things to a coworker of mine and going "ThatEngineerGuy knows what I'm talking about." or something like that.

So my question is: How do I make it clear that I don't what to hear these kinds of things, especially at work?

I feel like if I confront her head on, she'll take this as an allegation of racism. This will probably be met with a denial and an argument. I also don't want to go straight to management, because we're both adults and I'd rather try to settle this between us first. I also don't want to put her job in jeopardy, because while I feel she displays some Not Okay Thinking, I haven't seen her treat my black coworkers differently.

Has anyone been in a similar situation? How did you handle it?

(Also, if it matters, we are both white)

  • 4
    The best response I've found to handle these situations is to ask them "What do you mean by that?" It directly addresses the situation, forces them to specifically evaluate their statement, and turns the tables back on them. Plus, you don't come across as enabling their behavior by being silent. – Nick2253 Apr 1 '15 at 20:20
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    @Nick2253: I've tried that once and I really really didn't like what they said. Won't try again. – NotMe Apr 22 '15 at 18:37
  • "What do you mean by that?" works when someone is trying to be subtle, or thinks they are being subtle. In this case, I don't think she's trying to be subtle at all – Chris F Jan 29 at 23:48
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I wanted to jump right into a straightforward answer but I decided to do a little research and I found this article on creativespirits to sync my thoughts with what others have actually studied.

So far you've reacted calm, which is a positive thing. You have, however, not shown any disapproval towards the situation which is somewhat an approval to the situation -- depending on how important it is to you being adjusted.

Silence is not an approval in the cases of sexual assaults but when it comes to bullying, racism and others actions we do not approve of, being silent means that you do approve.

People who are racist think they have more support in society than they do. If you don’t say anything they’ll continue to think that. If you do, they start to reassess, says Prof Yin Paradies from Deakin University

If you don't think this is okay, which is obviously the situation, then you need to approach the individual and show that you're not okay with this, without assaulting though.

You might wish to get an understanding on why this person feels this way, in order to be able to approach the individual, and try to guide without shouting you're wrong.

But in the end of the day you should not be wasting too much energy if it's obvious that there is no way of adjusting the individual's thoughts or actions; we never know what past this person has had to deal with and someone's negative experience and/or the way someone is raised has a greater impact than reasons and arguments, plus it shouldn't be too energy consuming for you if it's not likely to go anywhere.

I recommend taking a look at the article, I think it pinpoints most of the points I wish to say.

Good luck with the situation, I hope we don't have to get questions like this in a few years.

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    Being silent is not approval in a social situation anymore than it is in a sexual one. Many people interpret it as approval in either case, but they do so wrongly because their are numerous reasons to be silent that do not stem from approval of what is happening. Speaking up is the best way to actively handle it, but we should also keep in mind that silence is never approval and work to stop people from assuming otherwise. – Lawtonfogle Apr 2 '15 at 14:54
  • I somewhat agree but I don't think you care enough if it doesn't bother you enough to speak up. The thing about sexual assaults and why I do find them different is the shock people experience, or fear. They cannot defend themselves or speak up. If you can, but you don't, you are indicating that you don't disapprove, and thus you approve of the situation. – Jonast92 Oct 4 '16 at 13:46
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    You can experience shock or fear at a major social violation. Not everyone would immediately be aware of the social implications of speaking up. That some people may not experience shock, fear, or other reasons for remaining silent does not allow one to judge what others experience and thus limit the ability to make any judgement on their approval or disapproval of the situation. Doing otherwise is akin to saying that since some people are able to verbalize their disapproval in a sexual situation, silence for anyone is approval. – Lawtonfogle Oct 4 '16 at 14:40
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This sounds like a contract cleaner, payed a tiny fraction of what you are paid. You don't want to hear this stuff. You don't want to be complicit in this stuff. But I doubt you will help the world or your own conscience by getting her fired. Why don't you stick to speaking for yourself,

"Florence, I don't agree with you about African Americans. I would like to change your mind, but if I can't, please keep those opinions to yourself."

Chances are that's the last you will hear of it; and you can consider other steps if it doesn't work.

  • 6
    I like the way you worded that. Short to the point and doesn't leave any room for argument. – stoj Mar 31 '15 at 16:21
  • I feel like this intro would be very unlikely to help "Florence" change her mind, so the "I would like to change your mind." seems disingenuous to me. However, according to Jonast92's answer showing your disapproval is actually helpful in some regards. In any case, if you're just looking for a quick fix to stop the racist comments (and don't mind possibly stopping all comments), this would definitely work. – Rick Apr 1 '15 at 16:01
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I've been in these kinds of situations a few times and they're very difficult to handle.

  • You don't want to come off as the "humorless" guy who turns everything into a social cause.
  • You don't want to be seen to approve of such comments
  • You don't want to realize later that you overreacted and that her comments can be seen in a different light. Racist comments might be an indication of a minor mental problem, something that compells her to say socially unacceptable things.
  • It's quite a big thing to suddenly shift the tone of a conversation from friendly and gentle to highlighting an issue. For most people this is a very difficult thing to do. No matter how gentle and kind your words are, you have to actively force the tone of the encounter onto a more serious level.
  • You are usually caught completely off guard.

The best response I can think of is not to take a position, but to show that you're confused by the situation. Instead of taking control and making a definite statement, just frown a little, and ask her to repeat, or clarify: "black people? what does that have to do with anything?". Pretend that the very idea that skin color could be used to make a personal judgment is completely alien to you: it's not offensive, it's just absurd.

This has the following advantages:

  • It keeps the ball in her court. You didn't decide to judge her or to change the tone, you're simply asking her to elaborate on a conversational turn she took.
  • It will shift the uncomfortable sense of having sole responsibility for the parameters of the encounter onto her.
  • It gives you more time to asses the situation and to figure out what her angle really is. You don't have to commit to any position or tone.
  • She's most likely to see you as "one of the PC brigade" and leave you alone.
  • If she doesn't back down, feigning ignorance will allow you to start a socratic dialogue: you highlight the flaws in her argument, simply by forcing her to explain them. This is not an easy thing to do, and it's certainly not a sure win, but at the very least you keep from silently approving of anything, and force her to make her position absolutely clear.
  • You have some (small) chance of actually making a change in her thinking. If you make a stand, and attack her with logic, she'll just dig her heels in start giving you printed out internet articles every morning. Force her to explain, and she won't feel attacked. If she changes her opinion it wil be her own choice and not yours.
  • I think this is at the same time the nicest and the most effective attitude. – Nicolas Barbulesco Apr 1 '15 at 19:33
  • This is exactly what I do too! – mhwombat Apr 21 '15 at 19:49
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I tend to reply to those kind of statements in a few ways:

First, reply by saying something like:

"That's not really a fair statement, I've known plenty of [insert own 'group' here] who are just the same.

If you think about it, anyone can be like that, so it's not really fair to single out [target 'group' of people]."

I usually tone this as a light-hearted rebuke (and can be applied when the target is race, age or sexuality etc.) - whatever stereotype or generalisation they're asserting.

Second, as others have mentioned, warn them off from a policy / legal perspective:

"You know you'll get into trouble if [the boss, HR, a customer] hears you."

If they continue bothering me over time or if they say something extreme or grossly offensive, I'll tell them bluntly:

"Look, I don't share you're point of view and I'd rather not hear it. If you don't stop being [racist/sexist etc.] around me I'll report you."

If they continue after that, I'll escalate the issue to my manager just as I'd told them I would - but I always give them the warning above first for fairness (in case of misunderstandings or misheard / out of context statements).

I'd recommend against "tweeting" about their behaviour (public shaming) or running straight to you boss in the first instance. Instead, attempt to educate them instead of just driving their point of view underground.

  • 5
    I think your first suggestion could be taken to be an agreement with the assessment that [first group] is bad and could add on the additional prejudice that [second group] is bad too. Maybe if the groups are male and female that may seem like a rebuke (even though those categories aren't all inclusive) but just claiming that you know plenty of Hufflepuff who are just as bad as the Ravenclaw mentioned is implying an agreement that Ravenclaws are bad in general. I might try to instead mention that you've never noticed Ravenclaws to exhibit the negative behavior any more than anyone else. – Rick Mar 31 '15 at 16:39
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    I have found that racists back down very quickly when they find that their expected audience - in this case, me - is less than supportive and they sense hostility to their message below a polite facade. As I said, most of us and most of our employers won't put up with this and the perps cut it out and cut it off very quickly when they realize that their views have no support. Most people don't like to be alone even when they are right let alone being alone when they are wrong. – Vietnhi Phuvan Mar 31 '15 at 17:16
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    @Rick I'm not saying any group is "bad" just that we're all "as bad (or as good) as each other" - I've modified my answer to make that clearer. – Michael Mar 31 '15 at 21:17
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    @VietnhiPhuvan I'm not advocating silence in my answer? – Michael Mar 31 '15 at 21:21
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    @Mikaveli Making the stereotype not a stereotype anymore is exactly the ideal outcome imho. Pointing out a small error that she forgot to include asian or white people, may just get her to rethink enough to include asian or white people in her stereotype while not thinking enough to realize that it's the entire stereotype (race influences how tidy people keep their apartments) that is flawed. – Rick Apr 1 '15 at 14:21
2

I usually say straight out in an even but firm tone that I do not find these comments acceptable, that my employer does not find such comments acceptable and that if I hear any such comments going forward, I am bound to notify my employer. I don't think that my employer, if such comments were made within hearing distance of anyone including visitors, wants to create even inadvertently the impression that a hostile environment exists in the workplace. Such comments also run counter to and defeat most employers' goals to treat employees and visitors such as clients or contractual cleaning staff with dignity and respect.

My warning is tough but under the circumstances, a warning is pretty mild compared to being fired outright, on the spot and for cause. I am not going to complicate my life nor is my employer going to complicate their lives trying to understand why such comments are being made. They are unacceptable. Period. And we are neither the legal guardians of those who make these comments nor are we their psychiatrists.

  • Here your goal is just that the woman shut up and keep her racist thoughts to herself. Indeed, racist comments are a problem. But I consider racist opinions a bigger problem. – Nicolas Barbulesco Mar 31 '15 at 20:07
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    @NicolasBartulesco I don't want to tell people what to think nor am I out to change their minds - I am not an evangelist nor a missionary. I simply tell them to keep their thoughts to themselves. They can think whatever they want. What they can't do is act it out and make it appear in any way that either I or my employer endorse this kind of thinking. They are free to hate me on the basis of my ethnicity. They just don't have the right to say it at work or on social media where what they say can come back to me at work - It would be like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater or inciting a riot. – Vietnhi Phuvan Mar 31 '15 at 20:25
  • Although locked mouths help keeping calm and order, I don't like the idea of racists keeping their thoughts to themselves. I prefer when things are said frankly. Thus, I know what to think of the person. For instance, in my work, I know a director, he tells me, and other people, that women in a team "create too many problems", and indeed there are only men in his team. When one day a woman will suffer a career problem at his encounter, knowing this will help her. – Nicolas Barbulesco Mar 31 '15 at 21:58
  • @NicolaBarbulesco He got away with what he said and how he acted because his company let him get away with it. If I were HR, I would quiz him very closely as to why there are no women on his team. Having said that, there are so few women in the candidate pool for say senior software engineers that discrimination is hard to prove. Nevertheless, someone from senior management or from HR needs to lay down the law to him. – Vietnhi Phuvan Mar 31 '15 at 22:19
  • Just for once I'm with Vietnhi. Nobody says, "we tolerate any talk from you that you're stealing from the company, because we value free exchange of ideas and we'd prefer to know where the threats lie rather than have thieves keep quiet". If someone says he excludes women from his team because they cause too many problems, then he can change his policy or he can leave. Yes, it's good for those harmed by his discriminatory policy that he's admitted it. Still, one does not encourages confessions by carefully not responding to them or to the offence confessed! – Steve Jessop Apr 1 '15 at 8:55
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It's usually pointless to become aggressive and threaten their current employment -- especially if they're someone you don't want to see leave and they don't really yet understand proper workplace etiquette. And I hardly believe it anything less than futile and borderline inappropriate to engage them in racially charged debate in the workplace. Just remind them that it is inappropriate to make such comments in this environment and move on!

1

You could state that you think the kind of topic is unsuitable to be discussed in that context.

The idea is not to request her to stop talking about her specific topic, but to propose to exclude the kind of topic for everybody.
If there are multiple people involved, and all are aware of the issue, it could make sense to talk about it when at least part of the group is present, demonstrating to her that there is a consensus about it.

If the formal content of the request is not related to her person, it gets easier because there is nothing to defend against for her.
On the communication level, the talk should be openly directed at her, it's not about pretending to set up some new rule that is unrelated to her remarks.


The above is based on recent experience with a very similar situation, where it worked out pretty well:

In a discussion group of about 6 persons, one was making right-wing comments from time to time. It was not easy to answer because she was only making side remarks, interspersed into what she was saying in the ongoing discussion. It felt more awkward each time, and at some point, it was enough. I interrupted the discussion by saying something like "I notice that you make political remarks from time to time. I think that political topics really do not fit into this group.". As soon as it was openly spoken out, the situation got less awkward.
As a result, nobody disagreed in any way, and there was no single political remark since then.

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