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: 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 »

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. ;)

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 »