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There is a very nice co worker at my office. Every morning he comes to my desk and we chat for about fifteen minutes about how our kids are doing and whatnot. I really enjoy these morning conversations.

At one point both him and I had to go through some training courses at work, and one of the courses was taught by an Asian (he was the only Asian) guy. Also both my wife and kids are Asian, and my co worker knows that.

So one morning while talking with him, we get approached and asked if we finished a particular course. Since I do not remember all the course names or what they were about (they were just boring corporate nonsense), I asked if it was a course taught by an Asian guy.

At that point my co worker gets visibly upset. He accuses me of being a racist. I try explaining to him that there was no animosity in my words and that there was no other way for me to describe the guy teaching the course (since they were all almost identical due to corporate world not allowing for much variance in men's appearances). I continuously try to explain to him that people shouldn't hide their race and that my wife and kids are Asian and it would make no sense for me to be racist towards Asians. He keeps on calling me a racist, obtuse and a troll to any explanation I give. Then proceeds expecting an apology and tells me that I should never identify people by their race. At his point I get upset too and tell him that what he is saying is trying to control people's speech and that everyone is entitled to free speech.

At that point he gets up, leaves, and ever since that conversation he has avoided me, and hasn't even said hi back to me if he sees me in the hallway.

He is a very nice guy and very pleasant to talk to. I would like to resume our morning conversations, but him avoiding me doesn't give me a chance to talk. How do I fix things between us without having to apologize since I believe what I have done was not wrong.

UPDATE: So I ended up sending an email to mend things over. We met, I apologized indirectly, he said that he was a bit too sensitive about it and overreacted, and apologized too. So we pretty much both indirectly apologized, and now our morning conversations are resumed, although some damage seems to have been done since now they are not quite as open, but I am sure time will fix that too. I followed exactly what Kate Gregory said, and it worked!

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You need to clear the air with this co-worker. Even if you were in fact secretly an incredibly racist person, and you briefly let your guard down and let it show (I'm not saying that's the case), your co-worker's reaction sounds over the top. Some of the avoiding of you may be embarrassment over the over-reaction. Then given that you're not a racist and don't want to be thought of as one, you'd like to clear it up I'm sure. Since you need to work together, and used to enjoy chatting, it's worth putting in some energy to fix things.

First, think long and hard about your original comment. Not even vaguely remembering the name of a course you went on is kind of strange. Not remembering the date or anything else about it except the race of the instructor is kind of strange. It indicates that for you, that's what stood out about it. Many people would think that showed you pay attention to race, and in a lot of people's minds, that makes you racist. They say things like "I don't see colour" which people of colour say is actually a terrible thing to say. Take some time to sit with your own thoughts on this. Would it have been better to say "the one we took in July?" or "the one about dont take bribes?" than what you said? IS the phrasing "an Asian guy" a little dismissive? Would have you have said "a white guy"? This is all just you and your head, just thinking and learning and growing.

Second, is there a reasonable apology you can compose? Not one of those "I'm sorry if" non apologies. Something like "I'm sorry we clashed over my description of the instructor. I could have worded that better or come up with a better way to clarify which course you meant." Work on that until it's something that is genuinely an apology and is genuinely true and reflects your feelings.

Third, email the co-worker and say something like "Can we meet over coffee so we can clear the air between us?" Don't put your apology in the email.

If the co-worker refuses to meet, you can say something like "I would really like a chance to apologize and return to how things were between us. I believe you've formed the wrong impression of me and I'd like to fix that."

If you get to meet, say the apology. Then say something like "our friendship is important to me and I want to restore it." Then listen.

Try not to say things like "free speech" or "I can't be racist because I am married to someone of a different race." Focus on the conclusions you drew when you thought this through, and if it seems appropriate, share some of that. Listen to how the coworker felt when you said that. Listen to how the coworker felt when you defended yourself. You may both learn from the conversation.

Ideally you shake hands and put it behind you. Worst case is things never go back how they were, but at least you tried and it's not festering and getting worse.

  • 4
    This worked! Thanks, I sent out an email, so will know how things go during coffee break. Also only reason why I referred to the person by race is because there were five guys, all dressed the same, talking the same, looking same (same in age). The only difference was one guy being Asian. If it was four Asians and one white guy then I would have asked if it was the one by white guy. And yes I didn't pay attention to either of their presentation because I just can't focus to some corporate non sense that doesn't concern me. I was forced to attend it physically, but mentally I was elsewhere. – Quillion Aug 11 '18 at 15:28
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I don't quite see how the views you describe qualify as liberal, but here's how I typically deal with situations like that.

First of all, you won't gain anything by replying "No, I'm not a racist" when someone accuses you of being racist. All you achieve is going into confrontation mode, which for most people is the point where they become irrational. Instead, ask them to clarify, something like

"Why exactly do you think what I said is racist?" / "What exactly do you mean by 'racist'?"

Ask this as non-confrontationally as possible, try to understand what they regard as racist, why they think their definition of racism applies to you / your statement etc.

Then you can start questioning their definition (in your case, it sounds like their definition of racism is quite nonsensical) or explain why their definition does not apply to what you said. This is also best achieved by asking leading questions.

The point of all this is to let them have their say, demonstrate that you are interested in not being perceived as racist (why else would you care to listen to them?) and that you are in principle willing to learn: After all, in principle, even statements not meant to be racist can justifiably be perceived as such. Understanding this may also help avoiding clashes like the one you described.


Free speech is completely irrelevant in this discussion, by the way. Either what you said is racist (which is the claim of your co-worker), or it isn't. Referring to free speech just means that you are legally allowed to say what you did, which is independent on whether or not it was / is racist. Calling a statement out (correctly or incorrectly) as racist does not automatically imply wanting to ban that statement from being made in public.

What can happen though is that the fall-back to free speech is seen as an implicit concession ("Yeah, alright, it was racist, but I'm allowed to say it anyway!!"), which is obviously not what you intend.

  • I did try to ask for his definition of racist, and when he explained it to me, I tried to explain to him how it made no sense, to which he called me, obtuse, a troll and a racist. His definition was that no one is allowed to identify a person by race, and he simply stood there expecting me to apologize for being racist. And he explicitly told me to never refer to people by race (which is why I bought up free speech argument). My assumption is that he is waiting for apology from me. But I do not want to apologize since I have done nothing wrong, however I do enjoy talking to him daily. – Quillion Aug 11 '18 at 15:19
  • @Quillion I can understand that, I wouldn't want to apologize as well if I was in your place. However, I would maybe decide to apologize for unwantingly creating the impression of being racist and thereby upsetting my colleague. That way I am not apologizing for what I said, but for the unintended consequences. – Flo Aug 11 '18 at 16:13

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