Watercooler: When money trumps racism

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 Ariella Drake:

I’m a white/Chinese Australian woman who looks mostly white, so I tend to hear all sorts of racism from white people who think they’re ’safe’. About five years ago, I worked for a rather large insurance company in their worker’s compensation claims department. Some of my job involved going out to workplaces to talk to employers about ongoing claims from injured workers.

One of our clients was a large manufacturing company that tended to employ mostly low-skilled immigrants, so their claims usually came from such employees. I was in a meeting with my supervisor, an underwriter and the contact for the organisation. These meetings tend to be rather a challenge, because the default attitude of employers when it comes to workplace injuries is that the injured workers are making it up and ‘milking the system’, particularly when it comes to non-white employees. This client, however, was particularly noxious. Not only did he generally ignore my answers to questions until my (male) supervisor practically repeated my answer (though I suspect that also had to do with the fact that I was in my late teens, which was rather unheard of in the position I held in the organisation, and generally led to older clients doubting my ability and knowledge), he felt the need to make racist comments about the injured workers whose claims we were discussing.

I was quite young at this point, and was still rather accepting of the idea that I should keep my mouth shut in the interests of retaining business for the company, but as the racist and derogatory comments escalated, particularly against Asian female employees, I couldn’t resist slotting in an comment about my own background when the opportunity presented itself. The client mostly toned down his comments after that, realising he wasn’t surrounded by ’safe’ whitefolks, though at the end of the meeting he still felt the need to make a joke about getting all the injured employees (he used racial slurs to refer to them) to lie down in the driveway as speedbumps as part of their restricted duties return-to-work program.

I was angry enough at having to sit through such a meeting, and I was actually quite shaken on the drive back. What I wasn’t expecting was my supervisor pulling me into a meeting room when we got back to the office to tell me that he thought my mentioning my background whilst the client was being openly racist was inappropriate and antagonistic, and could have cost the company business. I was shocked. I wasn’t really sure what to say in the meeting, but the more I look back on the incident, the more angry I feel. My supervisor was largely uninterested in how the client’s comments made me feel as a Asian woman (albeit one with light-skin privilege), and I realise now that the sick feeling in my stomach at the time was largely related to discovering that the company I worked for was so interested in money and ‘client relations’ that it was willing to overlook blatant and unapologetic racism and sexism from clients.

That wasn’t the reason I left the company, but it certainly made me less sad about leaving.

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.