Watercooler: black = stupid?

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 Sullie:

Some background: I work at a company run by middle-aged white men; the employees are also white, are women, and most of them are under 30.

This morning, the two meeting planners in the office were researching how to become certified meeting planners; to do so they need to join a professional meeting planners association. Not wanting to spend too much of the company’s money on membership fees, they were looking into various associations listed on an industry website to try to narrow down which might be the most cost effective one to join.

When they saw the Association of Black Meeting Planners, the young white employee remarked “Yeah! That is so me! Sign me up for that group!” to which her boss replied “Well, they probably are the cheapest one to join - but I can’t really understand why they have a professional association in the first place…”

Then the conversation turned to why there should not be organizations like that anyway, since “They are always the ones who want to be treated the same as everyone else. If I applied and they turned me down, I could just scream about racism too, right?”

The conversation ended with the boss informing the employee that if black people are taking any type of civil service exam, they are given more points then white people taking the same exam, just because they’re black. To which the employee replied “What because they’re stupid they get extra points? That’s so unfair! Stupid people are just stupid people!”

It wasn’t really my place to interject since I was in an adjacent office and just overhearing their conversation, but I did have to go hide in the bathroom to keep from piping up. Of course, she was on track with her classification of stupid people…if only she realized she was talking about herself…

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.

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.

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. Continue Reading »

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.

Watercooler: what are you?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

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

So far, about 5 co-workers total have asked me in varying ways “what are you?” Almost all of them I answered honestly and I wasn’t that bothered by it because they, most importantly, didn’t ask immediately (you know, they actually waited to get to know me first) and they waited for some natural context of conversation.

I’ve written too many times about this and the “I like [insert race/ethnicity] [gender]” so I’m not going to rehash but today as I’m sitting there at work, one of our “clients” comes up to me and it goes like:

Guy who looked like Howard Stern: Hey, what are you?
Me: What?
Guy: Your race. Are you Filipino? You’re Filipino?
Me: No.
Guy: Japanese?
Me: No.
Guy: Chinese?
Me: No. [Guy is baffled but amused]
Guy: Mexican?
Me: No.
Guy: What?! What else is there?! [Guy is still baffled but not offended that I just won’t flat out tell him]
Me: (Shrug)
Guy: Russian? Are you Russian?
Me: No. (Asks Guy work-related service question)
Guy: ALEUT! You’re an Aleut!
Me: No.
Guy: Oh cah-maaann!!!! (laughs)
Me: (chuckle)

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.

Watercooler: a multicultural celebration gone wrong

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 M:

I work for a government human services agency and we have a diversity council here at work. I served on it for a few years, but I got so frustrated and pissed off most of the time that I didn’t serve on it anymore.

One time, this group of people decided that they wanted to develop “cultural competency” guidelines for human services work. I do honestly think these people were well intentioned, but I think some of these guidelines tend to stereotype groups and lump them into the same category. For example, the implication that there is a “Pan-Asian view” of things or “Hispanic view” of things when in fact there are people in these groups that come from different countries which may have very different beliefs.

Also, a few years ago, the assistant commissioner had this big interest in diversity so she started to go to our diversity council meetings. (She seemed like one of those touchy feely 1960s flower type children.)

Anyway, so I’m at work one day and the assistant commissioner sends an email to everyone on the diversity council about this great idea she has: that all of us people of color can dress up in “traditional dress” and people can come around and we can describe our culture to them. <big eye roll> I suppose since I’m 1/2 Peruvian I’m supposed to dress up like one of the indigenous people of Peru and bake a potato dish for them.

It never happened at work, but the fact that our assistant commissioner — someone who thinks she’s so “diversified” and “informed” and “liberal” thought that this would be a good idea just killed me!

I mean, if part of the mission of the so-called diversity council was suppose to dispel stereotypes, I don’t know anything more stereotypical than having people of color (a term I hate by the way) dress up in “traditional dress” and share our traditions with all the white folks.

Aren’t “people of color” part of America too? When are “people of color” going to stop being perceived as “the other” or “foreign?”

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.