Standing up to thinly veiled racism in the workplace

Dear Carolyn:

I am a middle-age white female who works in a retail setting with colleagues whose skin tones are every color imaginable. I respect my coworkers and they respect me.

Our company generally does whatever makes the customer happy. But this is the South, and because I am white, other white people think I am a safe place for their coded racist remarks. Yesterday, a customer remarked to me that she had to move to a city up north because, “when you have a very pale, blond, blue-eyed daughter, you have to get her out of (our diversely populated city), if you know what I mean.”

It caught me completely off-guard, and she breezed away before I could process what she said. I stood there with my mouth hanging open and just let it happen. I looked at the face of the young girl I was working with, who has brown skin, and I was ashamed I didn’t defend her.

I need my job, but this has to stop. I want to make a stand, but how can I confront covert racism on the company dime?

— Not at Liberty to Speak

I can’t wait for the day when emboldened racists realize their moment is over and they need to slither back under their rocks. (This is hardly about just the South.)

Until then, I suggest you have some employment-friendly responses handy. “I beg your pardon?” for example, is deceptively powerful. Feigned ignorance is a well-known expression of disgust — code for code — plus, forcing someone to repeat their ugly words is encouragement to rethink them.

A blank, “I’m afraid I don’t (know what you mean),” would have worked here as well. Preparation is key, since being gobsmacked renders this whole discussion moot.

If you’re not to the point of quitting (but feeling out other jobs, I hope), your preparation can and should include consulting your supervisor. “Whatever makes the customer happy” does not translate simplistically into “Ignore customers’ racist remarks.” For one thing, another customer could easily witness an employee’s non-response to such a remark and choose to shop elsewhere.

And, a company will struggle to serve customers if its staff has poor morale and high turnover — a reasonable risk if such dehumanizing exchanges are or become common, and if you’re instructed to look the other way.

Dear Carolyn:

Here’s the other side of the story about the wife (in a recent column), whose husband keeps pressuring her to change her hair color (

Wife keeps insisting that husband get a haircut. He refuses, or does so only grudgingly. His hair grows long and unruly and unattractive to wife. Husband thinks wife is “controlling,” while wife feels resentful because husband doesn’t care enough about her to practice normal grooming.

— Anonymous

This isn’t “the other side.”

You have only one thing you don’t find attractive, and hair-color guy has only one thing he does.

That means there’s much less of a power grab in what you’re asking. Plus, your question is about grooming — meaning, presumably, your husband is free to wear his hair any way he wants, and you’re merely requesting neatness.

Partners owe each other an effort to be attractive, yes — but they also owe each other an effort to see the beauty in each other’s results. And pushing someone beyond their sense of self is not loving, respectful or appropriate.

Obviously the standards are highly individual — one person’s minimum on fitness, hair care and mirror time could be another’s vain excess. To know what’s fair to ask, you have to know and respect the person you chose. Your husband’s stubbornness could be pushback against yours.

Going outside these broad limits is often, and often rightly, seen as hostile. Refusing basic fitness or self-care, refusing to say anything kind about a partner’s appearance, refusing to back off on weight or facial hair or whatever else — all can erode a couple’s fundamental trust.

That’s likely where things have gone wrong here. You think he’s negating you, he thinks you’re negating him, and you’ve both retreated in anger.

Since I’m not advising him, I can only suggest that you make the conciliatory gesture. Tell him you love (this), (this) and (this) about him. Say you’re absolutely fine with it if he does (this), (that) or (the other thing) with his hair. Say you respect completely that these are his choices to make and apologize for putting him on the defensive.

Admit that (ONE thing that bothers you most) is merely a pet peeve — just as (his peeve about you) is something he gets stuck on that you accommodate. There rarely isn’t one.

Say you’re asking him one final time to consider this single gesture for you, and then dropping it either way.

Then drop it either way. If he refuses even at this point, then he accepts the consequence of choosing to repel his wife.

Much ado about hair, yes, but the approach applies to hair and just about anything else. Good luck.

© 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

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