Watercooler: When the chair of the anti-racism committee is a racist

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 V:

I work for a government agency which is charged with promoting community harmony and working to increase our city’s level of interracial trust. While i am an employee of the agency, we also have an extension arm of volunteers from the community who serve on a committee and actually do much of the leg-work. The Chair of the committee is an older white man from Baltimore who is prone to saying things like “Illegal Alien” at community immigration discussions, “China-man” or “Oriental” when discussing Yao Ming’s athletic ability, and waxed nostalgic during a luncheon about how the “A-rabs” used to sell goods on the streets of Baltimore when he was a lad.

Anyway, one day at work i discussed with him finding possible funding sources to help sponsor a study abroad trip to learn Spanish in an immersion program. While grilling me, an African American female, on why it is necessary for me to learn Spanish since we already have one Spanish speaker on staff, he also pointed out that my country of choice (Dominican Republic) sounded like i was tyring to get a work funded beach vacation.

As I stood there like an idiot trying to convince him that I was serious and not looking for a free vacation, the discussion turned to the benefits of immersion studies in terms of the cultural experience. To which he stated “Well if you want to know what it’s like to be an immigrant, I can call homeland security and tell them you’re a terrorist and have you deported. Of course they would have to send you to Africa, because you clearly don’t look Hispanic.”

I don’t remember much after that. The red veil of rage lowered and I went to my office to fume.

The thing that kills me about this guy is everyone knows he’s racist but yet and still he is the Charmian of a committee created by our local government to fight racism and discrimination.

Now, when i deal with him, i am quick to cut him short and point out his racism. Oddly enough, his impromptu visits to my office have dwindled significantly. Coincidence…?

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.

As “all-American” as apple pie?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

The other day I was watching “The Agency,” an addictive new reality show on VH1 about the agents and models who work for Wilhelmina Models. The agents were pitching a new client, Bongo Jeans, and brought a few different models to the client to be considered for a new ad campaign.

I was struck by how many times the phrase “all-American” was used. The client kept saying that they were looking for a guy and a girl, both of whom had an “all-American look.” You can pretty much imagine what kind of phenotype they meant by “all-American.” (And if you can’t imagine, you can watch the episode here.)

The show reminded me of a job I had a few years ago.

I was one of the few people of color there. After about 6 months on the job, a new guy whom we’ll call Tommy Smith, referred by another employee, joined our department. He happened to be mixed like me, also Chinese and white.

A few months after that, another position opened up, so I emailed a friend of mine to ask if he’d be interested. He declined, since he had just started a job he was excited about, but he recommended a friend of his instead. We’ll call her Claire Jones.

Claire sounded like the perfect candidate for the position and I trusted my friend’s judgment, so I immediately passed her resume onto my boss, whom we’ll call Pat.

Then the following conversation happened.

Pat: So is Claire Jones also half Chinese?

Me: What? (Couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.)

Pat: Is Claire also half Chinese, like you and Tommy?

Me: Um… not that I know of.

Pat: Oh she’s not half Chinese?

Me: Like I said, not that I know of.

Pat: Oh so she’s an all-American girl then?

There were so many things wrong with this exchange I couldn’t even wrap my head around it. Did Pat think we were all in on a secret plot to sneak in as many down-low Asians as possible with European last names? And could she have made it any more obvious that to her, “half Chinese” and “all-American” were mutually exclusive categories?

It seems to me that “all-American,” like “inner-city,” is one of those code words that people use when they don’t want to sound racist. But with or without the euphemism, I heard Pat loud and clear.

Oh and in case you’re wondering, Claire Jones did get hired. And it turned out that she was actually a down-low Asian too: a transracially adopted Korean-American woman. Sorry, Pat. I had no idea — really. ;)

Recommended Reading

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Erica

Measuring the Gender Gap - New York Times
According to this study from Elle magazine and MSNBC.com, most women would still rather work for a man, most women still feel like they need to work harder than men to get the same recognition, and men are honing those “feminine skills” of listening and communication. Also in the article: the one occupation where it pays to be less attractive is babysitting (when it’s the mom that’s doing the hiring).

Too Busy to Notice You’re Too Busy - New York Times
Edward M. Hallowell’s new book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap, talks about our compulsive need to fill our time. In short, it’s our need to maintain control over the near-constant influx of information, even though we’re ultimately not in control of it at all if we’re constantly responding to it. I stopped in the middle of writing this paragraph to answer the e-mail ding and to Twitter something.

Discriminating Dress - Washington Post
A Muslim woman tells the story of her interviewers’ noticeable reaction to her head scarf. “General religious discrimination charges made up 1.9 percent of all charges filed in 1992, while they accounted for 3.1 percent in 2004, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The number of charges filed by Muslims alleging discrimination doubled from the four years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the four years after, according to David Grinberg, a spokesman with the EEOC.”

How We Grow Bullies and Bad People - Management Craft
Inspired by the Kathy Sierra cyberbullying situation. One way we, as a society, let this happen is by letting racist jokes go unchecked. More generally, we really enjoy our schadenfraude and let ourselves be entertained by things that we ought to be putting a stop to instead.

The Debate Heats Up - Generations@Work
Russ Eckel starts out with this question: “Are young people today more narcissistic and thus more likely to find it difficult to participate constructively in our society as they age?” He goes on to talk about how prejudices against minority youth confound the issue.

EEOC Initiative to Eradicate Racism - Strategic HR Lawyer
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is launching an initiative called E-RACE (Eradicating Racism And Colorism from Employment). According to the EEOC, 31% of Asian-Americans and 26% of African-Americans have reported witnessing or experiencing discrimination in the workplace.

Recruiting and Presenting Immigrant Candidates - The Desk of Yvonne LaRose, Consultant
Yvonne LaRose reflects on the topic of how so many people come to this country with big credentials and big dreams, and what they actually end up doing once they get here to get by.

Not enough visas? 150K Applications in One Day - WageSlave
150,000 H-1B visas for immigrants were allotted for 2008. They were all distributed within a day, in record time.

Recommended Reading is a weekly feature where we link to some of our favorite workplace-related blog posts and articles. If you would like to suggest a link to Erica, please email tips@raceintheworkplace.com.

The business of selling and consuming blackness

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Hadji Williams has spent over 15 years in the advertising and marketing worlds at Chicago and New York agencies great and small, including BBDO and FootSteps Group. Williams is also an educator, having taught over 20 introductory and advanced advertising courses at Columbia College Chicago.

A recent Californian, Williams is also the author of the controversial Knock The Hustle: How to Save Your Job and Your Life From Corporate America (2006), KTH: VoL. 2 (Fall 2007) and C.R.E.A.M. (Winter 2007). Currently Williams has launched ProdigalPen, Inc. Publishing, which is dedicated to sharing the stories of multicultural life.

One of the most interesting chapters in your book is titled “Crop Circles and Alarm Clocks: Pride and Prejudice in Corporate America.” How do crop circles and alarm clocks relate to race in the workplace today?

While writing KTH I wanted to come with a way to explain the patterns of bigotry and bias that exist in corporate America to people who may not have had the experiences that I’ve had. So I settled on “crop circles” and “alarm clocks.”

As you know crop circles are these wildly bizarre geometric patterns that mysteriously appear in fields in rural America. The first time we see photos of ‘em or network coverage of them, we scream “hoax” or “fraud” because they’re just too blatant and specific to have been anything else, right?

That’s how instances of bigotry and bias go down in business—when someone shares an instance, it must be a hoax, a fraud, an exaggeration, or some sort of scheme to get money or sympathy. It can possibly be true. And since most of corporate life involves sophisticated liberal whites and not the so-called backwards thinking rural whites that we often blame racism on, any reported instances of mistreatment must be simple misunderstandings, right?

Alarm clocks are the result of believing said hype. They’re random wake up calls that remind you that the world isn’t as liberal or inclusive as you’ve been suckered into believing. For example, I’ve worked with numerous white colleagues and bosses who’ve told that because I can speak in complete sentences and don’t have an over-the-top swag, that I “wasn’t like the ‘regular black people’” they knew. Regular. Hmmm… Or some of the times I’ve been called N-word at work. Or have been paraded around a client’s offices because they couldn’t believe that a black guy was developing their campaigns.

Those are some of the random wake up calls that I’ve received over the years. Just reminders that bigotry exists in many places and many forms and the worst thing you can do is believe people who benefit from it when they say “oh no, we treat everyone equal.” Continue Reading »

Impress your inscrutable Japanese boss with Jimmy John’s sandwiches

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

From black folks dancing about chicken to DJ’s spinning cheeseburgers on turntables, we can always count on fast food ads to reinforce racial stereotypes.

Jimmy John’s proves to be no exception. Check out this ad, in which a Japanese salariman tries to impress his inscrutable boss in the boardroom — with sandwiches. I’m surprised there was no karate chop anywhere in the ad.