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The context

In February last year I started a new job. I started the same day and in the same position as another person we'll call Ed. Our offices are across the hall from one another. I'm a white woman, he's a black male. We work in a large office that is Vietnamese owned. It's a melting pot, but mostly Asian. I like a lot of the people there, and I love the nature of the work I do there.

The conflict

I just learned that he has been telling people behind my back for the last year that I was a racist and made racist comments to him. This is completely fabricated. Our work areas don't overlap and I did stop having casual conversations with him 10 mos ago because he was always bringing up race issues, which I feel are inappropriate topics of discussion at work. This is one allegation, a year ago, he didn't bring it to management when it happened, it was a combination of his actions in the office and other people's comments that caused it to surface. There have been no other incidents or claims against me from anyone else in the year I have been there. The HR Director that brought the situation to my attention would not disclose who was involved so I can't be 100% sure of who he made these claims to, but I feel like based on their actions, I have a pretty good sense of at least some of the people he's involved.

What I've done so far

With the coworkers I have relationships with, I have told them it's not true, and I could understand why they would be mad at me if they believed it was. They appreciated that, and I feel like those bridges are still there. If I was in their shoes, I would distance myself as much as possible from this situation, and I believe that's why no one told me about this for a year and I don't fault them for that, even though some of them knew about it from the beginning.

My question

How can I recover from this in my workplace?

I would like to stay where I'm at if possible, and would like the situation to be resolved but I feel uncomfortable bringing this up with anyone. I see a couple options, but I'm not sure which strategies might be most effective to resolve the situation, or how best to implement them. For example, would it be productive to address the matter with him directly? Would it be helpful to say something to coworkers that I've never talked to and that I don't have a relationship, who may have only heard his side of the story? (With some of these people it would literally be a first conversation.) I don't want them to have the impression I'm trying to keep this going, I'd like to move past this as quickly as possible.

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    I read this pretty clearly as a single question ("How can I recover from this in my workplace?") with sub-questions (e.g. "For example, would it be productive to address the matter with him directly?", "If I talk to him, what should be my approach?") to clarify. It's a thorny problem, certainly, but I don't see it as too broad or poorly defined. – Rose Hartman Mar 5 '18 at 6:23
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    @RoseHartman That question isn't about interpersonal skills at all. – Catija Mar 5 '18 at 13:15
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    This should be moved to workplace.stackexchange.com – peufeu Mar 5 '18 at 15:08
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    @peufeu I disagree. If the question were about how to deal with HR in this context, how to manage OP's professional reputation, etc. then it would be a workplace question. But the problem described is an interpersonal conflict (and a common one); the fact that the setting is work doesn't make it off topic (just as an interpersonal problem at an airport wouldn't be moved to travel.stackexchange.com). I put a caveat at the beginning of my answer about workplace topics not because OP asked about those things (she didn't) but to highlight that they may be relevant but would not be covered – Rose Hartman Mar 5 '18 at 15:13
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    @Catija The "this" in "how can I recover from this" is an interpersonal conflict: OP said something that offended, the offended party has been talking behind her back, she's concerned about her relationships in the group. That feels like a very relevant question for this site, and a valuable one to have here. I'd love to see more answers to it, since this is a common interpersonal issue but a very painful one. – Rose Hartman Mar 5 '18 at 15:16
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If you're sincerely interested in mending your reputation and relationships in this group, then the first step is to loosen your grip on this premise:

...that I was a racist and made racist comments to him. This is completely fabricated.

Why should you reconsider this? Because the way to resolve an interpersonal conflict is to listen to the other party and attempt to understand their point of view. It's not possible for you to listen to him if you begin with the assertion that what he experienced didn't happen. I don't mean to minimize your response --- it's genuinely very, very hard to put aside your own feelings and perspective when you feel under attack, as I'm sure you do right now. But you asked what your approach should be if you talk to him, and the answer is that it should be one of open-minded listening. In order to do that, you have to allow the possibility that you did say something racist, even if you didn't mean to. Everyone does sometimes, unfortunately.

So let's assume for the moment that you did say something racist to Ed, without realizing it. It might have happened a bunch of times, even. How might that have made him feel? Marginalized? Threatened? Angry? Betrayed? Scared? You might have hurt him badly. In order to repair the damage, you need to put aside your perspective for the moment and apologize for hurting him.

Whether it was intentional or not doesn't matter --- if you hurt someone, you apologize.

As an analogy, imagine if you stepped on Ed's foot accidentally when you got into the elevator, and he winced. For most people, the instant response would be "Oh my goodness, did I step on you? I'm so sorry! How clumsy of me. Is your foot okay?" Imagine how outlandishly rude it would be to respond with "Why are you wincing? I absolutely did not step on you. I'm not the kind of person who steps on people's feet. How dare you accuse me of such a thing. You owe me an apology." And yet, we well-meaning white people often have a very hard time seeing the effects of unintentionally racist comments as harm because we can't see past our own pain at thinking (or having others think) we might be racist.

"But his accusation was completely fabricated!" you might be thinking. "I never said anything to him that could possibly be construed as racist." Well, there are two possibilities:

  1. You did indeed say something that he interpreted in a way different from what you meant (e.g. you said something you didn't realize had racist connotations), so while he genuinely did experience you saying something he perceived to be racist you have no memory of having done that.

  2. He has some kind of completely unfounded personal vendetta against you and is maliciously spreading fabricated stories that he knows to be false in order to hurt you.

In my experience, #1 is much more likely. So start with that assumption and try to resolve the conflict from there.

How can I recover from this in my workplace? Here are the steps I recommend

  1. Read this excellent article in its entirety: Getting better at getting called out It includes tips for helping you to take Ed's perspective here, as well as very concrete dos and don'ts for talking about this with him.
  2. Take some time, alone, to prepare yourself. This will be a very hard conversation --- don't underestimate the power of preparation. Think carefully about what you want to say (and what you want to NOT say), and how to say it. Write down talking notes for yourself, and practice saying them.
  3. Ask Ed if you and he can have a talk about this. Here's an example of what you might say to ask him:

Hi Ed, I had a conversation recently with HR and they told me I had said something problematic to you a while ago, something that sounded racist. I was really shocked and dismayed to hear that; I hope you'll accept my apology. It was certainly never my intention to contribute to a racist environment here at work, and I sincerely apologize for my actions. If you're willing, I'd love to talk with you more about this so I can understand exactly what it was I said that caused that reaction, so I can do better in the future. Either way, thank you for speaking up about it.

A couple things about this example script: It starts with the assumption that Ed's experiences were real; he experienced you saying something that sounded racist. (In our elevator analogy, we're acknowledging that he got his foot stepped on.) Because you're starting from a position of validating his perspective, a heartfelt apology for having unintentionally hurt him is the natural response. It also puts you both on the same team by thanking him for speaking up --- it makes resolving this and preventing this kind of thing in the future your shared goal. In that spirit, it asks him to help you learn more about what you did so that you can avoid making that mistake again. Note that it's not his responsibility to teach you, though, and he has every right to say no. If he does say no, accept that gracefully and try to do some honest introspection to see if you can get to the bottom of the matter on your own, or with a trusted friend.

  1. If Ed takes you up on your offer to talk about this issue, concentrate on listening with an open mind. Resist the urge to tell him your perspective, to correct his impressions, to explain yourself. This is NOT the time to explain why you're not racist and his impressions were wrong. Your goal is to understand what his experience was. Keep in mind that this is a hard conversation for him, too, and he's doing you a really big favor by taking the time and emotional energy to engage with you on this.

  2. Work on humility on this front going forward. It's much better to apologize right away when something like this happens, rather than it festering over months. Dismissing it (saying it didn't happen) doesn't make it go away. As soon as you think you've said something that someone was offended by, try to correct it. If you and Ed do have a talk (#4 above), maybe end it with something like

I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about this. I know this isn't an easy this conversation, and I'm really grateful [warm smile]. I'm going to try to be more aware of what I say going forward. If I do step out of bounds accidentally, I hope you'll feel comfortable calling me on it.

And hopefully he will. Immediately, and to your face (rather than behind your back to other coworkers). If he --- or anyone else --- does call you out in the future, be very careful about managing your reaction. Re-read that article on getting called out every once in a while to keep those strategies fresh.

Good luck! :)

NB: Since you posted this on IPS and not on Workplace, I am responding to this in terms of how you can mend your personal relationships at work (rather than how you can protect your job, maintain professionalism, avoid getting into trouble with HR, etc.). If you want help addressing the workplace side of this problem --- which admittedly is not what you asked --- you can ask another question there. I just wanted to mention that this is a problem with multiple facets, and my answer only deals with the IPS side of it (as did your question).

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – HDE 226868 Mar 19 '18 at 2:52
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I hate to use tired old expressions in answering questions - it seems lazy, like I'm just spouting platitudes. But this question involves a degree of anticipating what other people might think, and rightly or wrongly a lot of people subscribe to the sayings I'm going to list:

"There's no smoke without fire" If they've heard a rumour that you said something racist, and you go about deliberately bringing up the subject of racism, it will only support their wrong idea.

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks" Any excuse to quote Shakespeare! But seriously, a lot of people subscribe to the idea that the more you protest your innocence, the more guilty you are. This is massively unfair on innocent people, but you're dealing with the mob here.

"Actions speak louder than words" At least this one is positive, and of the three possibly the only completely true saying. You can't simply tell someone you aren't racist. Sure you can tell them your side of a story, and you may even convince some, most likely those people who know you well - but that's because they have a history of your "actions" to look back on. People do tend to side with the party they know best, at least in situations based on hearsay like this one. But you won't likely convince anybody you don't know that well simply by telling them - this is more likely to play into the hands of the no smoke without fire brigade.

So as painful as it may be, and as much as it may play on your mind what other people are thinking, I honestly believe the best course of action is to say nothing further beyond what you have already said. You have told the coworkers whom you know well and you believe that you had a mainly positive response - so leave it there. Some of those may well do good work behind your back - putting other people straight on the matter - and that will likely be more widely believed than coming straight from you. Other than that, keep silent, go about your normal business, and through situations that arise naturally you will over time have opportunities to demonstrate your good character to others.

I believe very strongly, based on experience, that situations like this do eventually resolve themselves. Someone that would spread a false story about you will eventually do it to someone else, and when that happens those affected will remember your situation. Also, people who have a chip on their shoulder about racism constantly raise race issues and turn every issue they can into one about race - again, over time people see through this.

But there is your stated goal of "I don't want them to have the impression I'm trying to keep this going, I'd like to move past this as quickly as possible." Moving on is something you will have to do, internally. Once you trust that your closest colleagues know the truth, and that instantly undoing any damage your accuser may have done cannot be achieved with words, you must put the matter to one side. If you really believe that you can move on from it and do so then this will show in your actions and behaviour and others will know that you are not keeping it alive.

I sincerely hope that you regain your inner peace, and don't let your contentious coworker rob you of that peace.

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    I am the original poster. I did let it go and did not address it further as the above post suggests. I was promoted last summer to a job with the same organization in a different, higher status department. Still difficult to see him but is easing with time. – Stacy Jan 30 at 5:31
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How can I recover from this in my workplace?

For recovery, what specifically led to this allegation, which means that you'll have to speak to the person privately about what comment the person took to be racist. That addresses the person one-on-one and if the person is reasonable, they can reply and give you an exact example.

How do you interact with others? You say that you mostly work with Asians, so do you interact with them in a way in which the person's accusations against you would seem believable? Why this matters is that if someone makes an accusation against you, but others don't see this pattern, you don't need to do anything to defense yourself. People will see you as reasonable and fair. Getting defensive could make things worse, if you try something publicly. Try to resolve it in private and if the rumor continues be kind to all.

Would it be helpful to say something to coworkers that I've never talked to and that I don't have a relationship, who may have only heard his side of the story?

Even with good intents, this still comes off as defensive. Also, if you've given no one else a reason to believe you're a racist, they probably don't see the same pattern the other person does.

Finally, if it's that bad, evaluate why you want to stay so much and how this could possibly impact positive growth in your career.

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I once was accused of being racist, and I felt much like the OP. "Me? Racist? It didn't happen!" This was years before Stack Exchange, so I went to my best friend in town at the time. He basically said to ignore it, because I clearly wasn't.

That answer worked, because my actions showed I wasn't racist.

But the answer didn't sit well with me. I tried to be friendly. How did anything I said come across as racist?

The answer is, unfortunately, the way people use language forms connotations, and how other people are using language other places forms connotations we aren't aware of. One easy example right now is making the assertion, "all lives matter" is, right now, a racist statement. This is because it's the counter-claim used by the white supremacists to quell the "black lives matter" movement. But if you somehow didn't hear about that movement, and outside of the context of that movement attempted to call out somebody else's racist actions against a minority by asserting that "all lives matter", you meant no racism, but everybody around you heard you say a racist remark, because everybody else knows about that movement.

This is important, because this is at least part of the root of this person's claim. It's not relevant to your mostly Asian company. But in a lot of very big white dominated companies, racism is defended by the statement that "race relations are inappropriate conversation topics in a work environment."

You didn't mean it as a racist statement. But you said it. And given his background, Ed almost certainly knows the other context in which that was used, and understands it to have been a racist statement.

As you have found, because you're not actually racist, you can mostly recover from these claims by ignoring them. But you can probably recover better by digging into the source of them, finding out what was said that was seen as racist, figuring out why it was considered racist, apologizing, and trying to move forward in the world which is unfortunately a bit more hostile than you realized.

The best source for finding out where these claims came from is the person who made them. This may require having a conversation about race relations at work. But that's OK, because from your perspective, it's not really a conversation about race relations, but rather a conversation about communicating at work, which is definitely on topic for a work discussion. If you still feel it's not appropriate, you can probably work extra to compensate for the time that you spend doing it.

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