Watercooler: The missing wedding invitation

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog in which we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from Merq:

So there’s this guy, we’ll call him Frank, who is a first-generation Greek American. Now, Frank can only be described as a “special” kind of fellow… There are a million race-related stories involving him, but today I’m going to tell just one.

Our boss, Jim, is really the salt of the earth. Every one of his employees can list at least five instances where Jim has gone (far) above and (way) beyond his role as an employer to help resolve issues in their personal lives. It’s because of Jim that we are a surprisingly tight-knit team—an anomaly in our organization. So anyway…

Frank gets engaged, but he drops hints to suggest that he’d prefer that none of us show up to the wedding. Besides the larger Caucasian population of our small department, the group includes individuals of Nigerian (me), Egyptian, and Korean origin. But while many of us could care less about not being welcome at this wedding, I was more than a little disgusted at his refusal to invite our boss, Jim.

A little background on Jim and Frank: This man campaigned to the higher-ups to elevate Frank’s status from an internship to a high-ranking position within our department. This man got into heated arguments with said higher-ups when they refused to give Frank a raise. This man listened to Frank whine for hours on end whenever he argued with his fiancée (and they fought a lot), offering the best advice one could after 22 years of happy, stable married life. This man even went to Frank’s amateur league baseball games from time to time! The only problem was, this man was black.

While Jim was definitely admired and loved within the confines of the workplace, it appeared he would have to be “explained” at Frank’s mostly-Greek wedding. This apparently wasn’t much of a concern for another co-worker, Ira, who invited the entire group to his somewhat-traditional (Russian) Jewish wedding, even going as far as to ask Jim to be his best man. While he appreciated the sentiment, Jim (secretly a shy kind of guy) assured him that he would rather just lend his support from the sidelines. This was already much more than I was able to do, as I didn’t even attend (I appreciated the invite, but I really don’t like weddings).

With that fun bit of background information, let’s go on. A co-worker from another department came by to say her goodbyes on her last day. Her friend and ours had begun an inter-office romance that constantly made them the butt of everyone’s jokes. As she started to leave, she called, “Don’t worry. We’ll all get together for the wedding!”

Frankie-boy freaked out, and in a panic, screamed “You guys can’t come to the wedding!” (Did I mention our departing friend was Indian?) Of course, we were referring to the hypothetical union of our two co-workers, but his reaction confirmed what we’d all suspected from day one. Although we may not have wanted to attend, we weren’t welcome there, anyway.

Fast forward a few weeks, to the retirement party we threw for our 65-year-old department “den-mother.” Being that I was the only one of us who lived in Manhattan (a story in itself, but one for another day), after the party, Frank asked in a jocular manner if he could crash on my couch. Being that I already had a guest, I told him no, which led to him badgering me with “why nots.”

Of course, I could see what he was getting at. Just like Wurgel on the atrocious Black. White, he was looking to prove to himself that blacks are, in fact, the real racists in America. Finally, after what must have been the 26th “why not,” I responded, “for the same reason I can’t go to your wedding.” Frankie stood there dumbfounded.

While I laughed my head off, sharing the story with the other co-workers as we prepared to leave, I could see Frank exhibiting Textbook Modern Racist Trait #432:

When confronted with your own bigotry, get indignant as hell.

As Jim and his family drove off to their Westchester home, the rest of us walked together, dispersing as we reached our various subway stations. But on our way, we passed by a nightclub, outside which a crowd stood dressed in white from head to toe.

Suddenly, Frank’s endorphins seemed to kick into overdrive. His steps developed a jovial gait, and his round face lit up in an expression of excitement with slight traces of malicious glee.

“Hey, Merq. Do you ever dress in all-white?”

Judging from his expression and the total randomness of the question, I knew this was a query best left ignored. But like earlier that evening, he pressed on, repeating the question with an attention-seeking, “are we there yet” persistence. Finally, I responded in the negative, and his eyes showed a look so blissful, I was afraid he was going to cream himself right there.

“You know why, Merq? Because if you did, you’d look like a dirty q-tip!”

Glee all around.

Being that I’m not the type to cry over spilt racism, I smiled and made no fuss. After all, it was just a joke, right?

The next day, during a casual conversation with Bossman Jim, during which Frank and I discussed the random, comical incidents of the past week, I remembered one from the night before.

Suddenly, it wasn’t so funny. Despite Jim not addressing the issue seriously (because I did honestly present it as a joke like any other,), Frank hit the roof. Staying true to Rule #432 once more, he screamed about how I had taken his joke “out of context.”

Funny, I didn’t know there was more than one way to interpret it.

Please email team@raceintheworkplace.com if you’d like to send in a story, put “watercooler” in the subject line, and let us know what name we should use for you. Pseudonyms and first names are totally fine. You can read more Watercooler stories here.


  1. jstele wrote:

    Did he only invite white coworkers to the wedding? That’s why Jim would have to be “explained”?

    “You know why, Merq? Because if you did, you’d look like a dirty q-tip!”

    I’m not sure if this is racist. Yes, it is a reference that would work only if you had dark features on your face, but it could’ve been a regular insult, not a racial one.

    Maybe Frank was mad because he didn’t want to be exposed to the boss as rude. Even if it were not racial, the joke does not present him in a good light.

  2. ncddev wrote:

    On the contrary, jstele, I think ALL of the quoted comments are “race conscious”, and since they are not complimentary comments, I would consider them reflections of racism. (Racism is not always exhibited consciously!) Moreover, the comments are reflective of people who don’t really trust themselves completely. Even the narrator of the story might have addressed Frank (or whichever one had the wedding already scheduled) in a less flip way than “For the same reason I’m not attending your wedding”. Undoing racism is a complicated and sometimes subtle enterprise. We will all make mistakes, but I suspect we won’t make progress otherwise. At least we’re all reading these messages!

  3. Koko wrote:

    Okay, I’m having a slow day today. I just completly missed the whole story.

    Can someone explain it it dummed down terms?

  4. deb wrote:

    Hey! I actually remember hearing this one on an early ATR episode! It annoyed the crap out of me then, and it annoys me still. What an arse, that Frank.

    I did like this, though:

    Textbook Modern Racist Trait #432:

    When confronted with your own bigotry, indignant as hell.

    Ain’t that the truth, Ruth! :P

  5. shay wrote:

    This dude sounds completely ignorant and very racist. Kudos to you that you didn’t go off on him completely when he made that q-tip remark. He never would have lasted in my workplace where it is extremely diverse and very open minded.

  6. tomi wrote:

    I heard this story and ATR and lmao then, and its just as comical now, but still a little disheartening. I like your writing style, Merq.

    jstele: whether or not something is “overtly racist” or not (whatever that means, for some reason white people feel like they have a right to decide), there are a lot of things someone can do or say that reveals and reflects their racism or how deeply they buy into racial stereotypes, conscious or not.
    An example is someone who wonders why all the black women he meets have attitudes–guess what, they don’t, but someone who buys into the stereotype will interpret any actions through that filter.

    In Merq’s case, the racism seemed pretty conscious, and I would DEFINITELY say overt.

  7. Carmen Van Kerckhove wrote:

    Hey it’s so cool that so many of you remember this story from ATR! :) That was a loooong time ago. The story was too good - I just had to reuse it here! Thanks Merq for giving me permission.

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