THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Are you racist?: Reconsider comments at work
One of the most dangerous ideas in the workplace today is that racism is gone. It's not.
Princeton econ prof Jesse Rothstein acknowledges racist thinking, even today. "Some people think racial discrimination ended in 1972," he says, "and that segregation persists because minorities cannot afford nicer neighborhoods."
In fact, Rothstein found that there's a threshold for the percentage of minorities living in a city, and once a city crosses that threshold, white people start leaving. In terms of white flight, Rothstein says, "There's a real difference between a school with 5 percent minorities and a school with 6 percent."
These are the people you work with: white people who leave a school district if it isn't white enough. No one wears a percentage sign on their shirt to let you know where they fall on the continuum of racist thinking, but we all fall somewhere.
I've written before about subtle discrimination. There's cultural agreement that it's not okay to be racist in an overt way, which means that the racism goes to places that are hard to pinpoint. It persists in under-the-radar ways. Here are some other examples.
A University of Chicago study found we judge people who might be African American more harshly than others.
A Vanderbilt study found that immigrants who had lighter skin make more money than those with darker skin.
The advertising industry is so suspect in its hiring practices that the New York City Commission on Human Rights recently issued subpoenas in an investigation of systemic discrimination against African Americans.
What can a white person do to improve the situation? Start with herself, of course. The more you understand your racial prejudices, the less they'll show up at work. In the meantime, here are a some annoying things that white people say that African Americans wish they wouldn't.
1. Don't praise someone as articulate, as if you're surprised. There's been a lot of dicusssion about U.S. Senator Joe Biden calling his colleague Barak Obama articulate. My friend says he has experienced this problem many times in his life, but would never come out an say anything because he'd be labeled "too sensitive." He quotes Penn professor Michael Dyson: "Historically, articulate was meant to signal the exceptional Negro. The implication is that most black people do not have the capacity to engage in articulate speech, when white people are automatically assumed to be articulate."
2. Don't discuss politics. It's a minefield of offensive and inappropriate comments. The number of political subjects that have underlying race issues makes politics too risky to contend with at work. Talking about politics is healthy for society, sure, but it doesn't mean it's the right thing to do at work.
3. Don't make racial jokes or comments against any race. Often whites think it's okay to joke with a black coworker about Asian, Latinos, etc. This makes most people of color uncomfortable and also think "If whites joke with me about Asians and Latinos, what are they doing when they're with them?"
4. Don't say "you people" when referring to people of another ethnicity. It creates a division between you and the other person.
And finally, here's a story that illustrates how careless white people are at the office: "I recently changed positions within the same organization and willingly took a job in an office in a predominately black neighborhood. Whenever we have joint office meetings or are in the main office, only my white counterparts ask, 'How are things going over there (code for 'I wouldn't be caught dead over there, do you feel safe, has your car been stolen?')?' This question comes from people who never spoke to me before, and it was an every-meeting type question. In one meeting I responded with, 'I don't have a problem working around or with black people.'" No one has asked since.