Recently, I've had a couple short conversations with a coworker that have taken a racist turn, and I'm not really sure how to respond. We don't work directly together, but often see each other in passing and say "hello".

For example, today he asked if I heard the news about Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, and then stated that she is black to which I responded, "huh". I had heard the Prince was getting married but nothing about who he was marrying. He then proceeded to make a comment that because she is black, they'll have to start using the Link (welfare benefits) card "over there". I responded with "I don't know about that", and I think he could tell the comment made me uncomfortable so he let the conversation drop, and we continued on our separate ways.

After the fact, I'm trying to figure out what a better response might have been.

  • "That's racist" would be pretty direct, but I am generally pretty confrontation-averse, and I worry it wouldn't do anything to help him see that.
  • Pretending to be confused by the comment so that he'll explain, and hopefully point out his own racism
  • Doing what I did
  • Something else entirely

My coworker and I are both white. I am in my mid 20's and he is probably 55 or older.

Clarification - The Link card mentioned is a system used by the state of Illinois to help people who need financial support to get enough food. As identified by Revetahw, the coworker was claiming that since Ms. Markle is black, she must need one of these cards, thus stereotyping that all black people need the card (and financial support from the government).

  • 23
    What do you want to achieve with your response? – Oleg Nov 28 '17 at 17:38
  • Somewhat related and possibly with helpful answers: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/questions/6753/… – Kodos Johnson Nov 30 '17 at 7:32
  • 2
    Really this isn't enough context. Does the man have a history of racist remarks? Has he ever misbehaved toward a client or coworker? Is this simply his sense of humour? If so, does he only make racist jokes, or can he be self-deprecating? Without such context, it's impossible to give real advice here. – Tijmen Nov 30 '17 at 17:37
  • @Tijmen " Really this isn't enough context. Does the man have a history of racist remarks? Has he ever misbehaved toward a client or coworker? Is this simply his sense of humour? If so, does he only make racist jokes, or can he be self-deprecating? Without such context, it's impossible to give real advice here." There is sufficient context. At a minimum the history begins with the remarks on their face. There is no homour involved. That is the practice of a racist to further a racist environment. The behaviour should be documented, and the individual should be terminated immediately. – guest271314 Dec 1 '17 at 20:54
  • 1
    @guest271314 Maybe, maybe not. OP never clarified so we don't know. As it stands the post doesn't have an actual IPS question and the accepted answer only explains what he did instead of actually offering an IPS solution. – Oleg Dec 4 '17 at 5:35

14 Answers 14

up vote 83 down vote accepted

I feel like what you did is one of the most positive things you can do in this situation for a couple of vital reasons.

  • You avoided escalating an awkward situation into a heated debate

    You want to avoid this in your workplace. Putting him in a position to explain what he meant by the comment leaves him feeling uncomfortable, like he possibly could've gotten in trouble (for making racist comments in the workplace), and will likely dissuade him from making those kinds of comments (at least around you) again.

  • You didn't take it upon yourself to change his opinion during this one interaction

    No matter where anyone stands on what is right and wrong, changing someone's mindset is a difficult task for the workplace because of how sensitive a topic it can be. You also mentioned he is over twice your age, which can be a valuable indicator that someone will be more difficult to change, since they've had many years to develop these opinions.

  • You expressed that you didn't share/follow his line of thinking

    Showing your discomfort and turning it back around on the offender leaves them feeling awkward. It'll either dissuade them from making these comments to you, or eventually to avoid these comments as a whole. I think this is about the best thing you can hope for in this environment.

If the comments ever escalate or he doesn't seem to take the hint that you don't want to participate in these discussions/comments, I'd consider speaking to HR about how they could address the issue. Racism in the workplace can be a sensitive item and isn't something you want to take into your own hands.

  • 21
    Going to HR before asking him to stop seems excessive, if not mean. Maybe the guy just doesn't do hints. – Chris Wohlert Nov 29 '17 at 14:02
  • 14
    @ChrisWohlert: Not excessive at all. HR's job is to be aware of employee situations that might expose the company to legal risk. Having overtly racist employees who talk about their racist ideas at work is such a risk. – R.. Nov 29 '17 at 16:14
  • 11
    @ChrisWohlhert you sure about that? A black person that has to endure comments that are racist towards black people can claim harassment or a hostile work environment in many locations. – Kat Nov 29 '17 at 19:23
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – John Dec 2 '17 at 23:19

Option 2

Pretending to be confused by the comment so that he'll explain, and hopefully point out his own racism

I think your second option is the best way to go with an older person. Most folks of that age won't learn or respond well to a direct "that was racist" comment, especially from a much younger person. The indirect subtle approach is the way to go here.

Here is a quote from an article I found to be helpful on the subject in the past.

"People who are racist think they have [got] more support in society than they do. If you don’t say anything they’ll continue to think that. If you do, they start to reassess,” says Prof Yin Paradies from Deakin University, who helped create Everyday Racism

Dealing with racist people

  • 9
    +1 For this, great answer. I find that sometimes letting a person explain their reasoning will sometimes help them find how they are wrong. – Childishforlife Nov 28 '17 at 16:13
  • 2
    Is there a typo here? "think they have go more support in society than they do." – Xen2050 Nov 29 '17 at 5:22
  • 3
    @ Xen2050: The wording is sic the quoted article. The author probably meant "...have got more support...". – A. I. Breveleri Nov 29 '17 at 9:08
  • 2
    I'm not supportive of "pretending to be confused". Playing games is immature behavior. – Acumen Simulator Dec 1 '17 at 13:52
  • 1
    What is nice about this approach is that it works on anything that has ever been said, see here. – Servaes Dec 1 '17 at 14:07

I can give you personal experience. I was in a similar type of conversation with a coworker once, but I was in the place of your coworker. I said something that my coworker took as being racist. (Though I didn't intend it to be).

My coworker simply said "This conversation is making me a little uncomfortable." That simple statement hit me like a ton of bricks. I apologized immediately, my coworker and I were all good, and I learned a lesson that has stuck with me over the years.

  • Out of curiosity, looking back, do you feel your comment was actually racist, and you simply didn't notice it? Or was it simply interpreted in a different manner than you intended? – Mehrdad Nov 29 '17 at 8:29
  • 1
    This has happened to me with language I didn't realize was offensive to gay people. I couldn't apologize enough and haven't used the term since. – Korthalion Nov 29 '17 at 11:21
  • 3
    I like this response. You can't always count on someone to read your signals that you're offended. I'm not easily offended. From personal experience, I tend to let the first uncomfortable comment float, because people don't always realize what they're saying. Past that, I've said things like "I'm not the person to joke with about <subject>" when they can't let it go. If they still can't let it go, I have no qualms about rudely dropping the conversation while they're mid sentence. – bluescores Nov 29 '17 at 13:47
  • @Mehrdad Yes to both. ;-) I did not make the comment with the intent of it being racist. But perception is more important than intent. Since my coworker perceived it as being racist I had to admit that it probably was. – eric70x7 Nov 29 '17 at 13:58
  • 10
    @eric70x7, What if another person perceived it as not racist? Then it is both racist, and not racist. Intent is not always clear, but it can be explained. When someone misunderstands what you said, that doesn't mean that you misspoke. – Chris Wohlert Nov 29 '17 at 14:07

You can not fight intolerance with more intolerance

This little pearl of wisdom comes from a friend of mine. Sorry for the story, but I think it will help make some sense of this.

My wife and I were being married, I ask my friend to be best man. He is black, my wife and I are white. I asked him because of all my friends (I don't have many) he is the one who I felt I could ask the most "husband" questions to. While other friends might judge or make small comments, I felt that he could be a great role model and source of advice for my marriage.

One of the things we had to talk about very early on when planning the wedding was my now brother in law. My wife's, half sister's husband (to be exact). He is a racist dirt bag. One of those people that should at least know to keep their mouth shut but never do. The rest of my wife's family that I had met were fine, but this one guy... While my best man wasn't going to be the only non-white person there, all I could think of is the hate filled racist making a scene. Even my wife's family was in fear of this guy showing out. Every one from great-grand parents down warned him and more importantly my sister in law not to make a scene or say anything.

As the day grew closer my now father in law, my best man, and a few other family members where all having a dinner together, just guys, and my father in law says something along the lines of "Look, every family has problems, and our biggest one is going to be this racist little **** that married my daughter. I just want to apologize in advance, and if he gives you a hard time let us know and we will "take care of him""

My friend, without missing a beat says "Thanks, but you can't fight intolerance by being intolerant. One of the great things about this country is freedom. And that means that he has to be free to be a racist, even if every one is thinking it is wrong. That said if he makes me or any of the other guests uncomfortable I will just ask him to leave, and if he doesn't then we can get everyone involved in getting him out of there."

Later that night I asked him, "You know you could just say that the brother in law can't come. No one would fight you on it. In fact that's basically what they wanted." He told me, that would do no good. How is someone ever going to learn, if never given the opportunity. If he never gets to see a black man in a good light, how would he ever learn. My friend went on to explain that there are two views that he could present.

  1. Black people don't like you so don't come around them. They have just as much hate as you do.
  2. Black people can't be all that bad. There was one at my sister in laws wedding.

Of those two the later was the best. That people often make the mistake of trying to fight intolerance and hate with intolerance and hate. Instead people should lead by example.

To give closure to the story, the brother in law decided not to come. But my wife's biological father (not a big part of her life, but we invited him anyway) ended up being a bit racist too. He (bio-dad) nearly shit a brick when he found out that we had instructed every one to give money and gifts to the best man, because he had keys to our house and was going to drop them off. Honestly it was one of the funniest moments of the wedding.

It several years later now, and while the brother in law continues to be a minor sore in the side, the bio-dad isn't. He (bio-dad) my still be racist, but he keeps it to him self, and that's all you can really ask for.

At the same time, my wife and I have become foster parents and we do care for children that are not our own race. To protect the children we don't allow racist comments or conversation in the house. That doesn't mean race isn't an allowed topic, but we try to teach that judging based on race, or hating based on race isn't useful.

What it does mean is that we don't let the problematic brother in law around. The kids have enough to deal with, without having to deal with that at home. An arrangement that he hasn't had a problem with yet. So there is a line.

Story over, back to your question.

What does all that mean. Well you have to decide. You are entitled to a work place that you feel comfortable in. But you are not entitled to make this person feel or believe differently. There is a line, where you become so uncomfortable that it effects your work. If he crosses that line, then document it with HR and asked that he be removed to another team.

However, you may have done exactly the right thing. You mead it clear that you were not comfortable with the conversation, and he moved on. It may be upsetting, but your not going to change his opinion.

  • 1
    +1. This is a comforting take on the application of political correctness in things that should be social norms. Institutional and syndicated bigotry (racism included) should not be allowed but freedom of thought needs to be allowed or we will find that the zero tolerance march will step on something that is fine for many but not for some and is targeted for political reasons. When a citizen says his countrymen are the best that is bigotry, still common and tolerated today but is on the path of political correctness if zero tolerance is followed. What if meat eating is the next target of PC. – KalleMP Nov 29 '17 at 23:13
  • 4
    This is a wonderful answer. I love it. And your friend is awesome. "People often make the mistake of trying to fight intolerance and hate with intolerance and hate. Instead people should lead by example." – Wildcard Nov 30 '17 at 3:52
  • 4
    I would recommend anyone who thinks that fighting intolerance is itself intolerance read up on the paradox of tolerance. Further, regarding the point "you're not going to change his opinion," in many cases it's the people witnessing the exchange who are able to be swayed; and in those cases, it's worth making a strong statement in opposition of intolerance, even if the person you're directly addressing won't be convinced. – user22a6db72d7249 Dec 1 '17 at 0:54
  • 2
    @JesseSielaff Did you read the whole thing or only the parts you liked? "John Rawls concludes in A Theory of Justice that a just society must tolerate the intolerant, for otherwise, the society would then itself be intolerant, and thus unjust." And there is also the problem of deciding what is or isn't intolerant. – Oleg Dec 1 '17 at 13:13
  • 1
    The OP is a representative of the company, and the company is not entitled to make the coworker act differently, but it absolutely is entitled to make acting differently a condition of employment. You answer is full of platitudes and vague weasel terms, but has little concrete advice. – Acccumulation Dec 4 '17 at 2:20

It's best to avoid confrontation. What you did is fine, it got the message across without causing a firestorm.

Feigned ignorance is also a good way to go, and is a bit of a stronger way to put some negative social pressure on someone who is being rude. When they have to explain their position, they make themselves look foolish.

I'm sorry, why would they need that? Did the queen disown him? Are they both poor? What do you mean.

I'm not a huge fan of the "call out culture". IMO, it just makes the person you are calling out dismiss you as a kook. Being dismissive of them, as you were, or feigning ignorance and making them explain are far more effective.

Normally, I'd say humor is a good approach, but not in this case.

You handled yourself well, IMO.

  • 1
    Forcing someone to examine their own position by explaining it to you is a good strategy in more than just racist remarks: A revelation they reach of their own accord will have far more impact than any you might try to impart upon them. – TemporalWolf Nov 30 '17 at 21:07

Option number one is also viable as a direct call out, but I'd suggest using less aggressive words, for example

That's a very stereotyping statement, isn't it?

That way you point out directly that his behavior is not okay, but don't sound too accusing (like 'you racist!') which would make him defensive and less likely to think about if there is something wrong with his behavior.

  • In a slightly more direct variant, you might try to ask (in a exploratory way, not confrontive way): How would you define racism?, so that there is an implied undertone that you think this is racistic, but allow him to explain himself. – hlovdal Nov 29 '17 at 22:37

You could also just stay silent in response.

Silence can be pretty deafening if used appropriately, and this might be such a case.

That said, I don't think what you did was a bad idea either. This is just another option.

When I hear stupid hateful things at work I often don't bother to say anything. I just raise an eyebrow, shake my head, and walk away. My general way of indicating "what you just said was so awful I'm not going to dignify it with a response" Most people seem to get the idea that what they just said was inappropriate and drop it. After a few of these disapproving looks they tend to stop telling me their hateful jokes.

It also seems to work well with older people, particularly people who tend to be polite under normal circumstances and are just a product of their time.

The only times this strategy didn't seem to work was in situations with more than a couple racists in the same setting... When several racists get together and exchange jokes and terrible stories there's little to be done about it. They reenforce each other's hateful views and things often escalate to whole new levels. If you find yourself in this kind of situation at work, it may be time to vote with your feet and look for a new job. I say this from experience, when a company culture is toxic enough that racists feel comfortable having little hate sessions complaining about it to management probably isn't going to end well for you.

Give nothing to racism.

The New Zealand Government recently ran a PSA campaign encouraging people to give nothing to racism. You can see their ad here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9n_UPyVR5s

Allowing racist rhetoric to be said without being challenged, allows racisim to grow.

A strong, but neutral response would be "That sounds racist, and is inappropriate, I don't want to hear anything more like that" and then leave it there.

I would escalate that to your manager if they continue - because that kind of talk is totally unacceptable in the workplace.

  • I like the link, but the rest of the answer seems a little heavy handed. Why not listen to the response first. – sehe Nov 29 '17 at 0:54
  • didn't work, still plenty of racist clickbait crap in NZ media, here's a critique by Rachel Stewart – ropata Nov 30 '17 at 4:21
  • I downvoted because I think the approach is unproductive and discourages communication. It doesn't help to put what you think are racists in "the basket of deplorables". – Willem Dec 4 '17 at 11:09
  • @dwjohnston "Allowing Marxist rhetoric to be said without being challenged, allows Marxism to grow." - how does that not corner an individual, to the point where hitting you is the only rational response? Do you think I enjoy engaging ideologues, or that I'm here to spread memes? (I guess I'm spreading the "communication > violence" meme...) The existence of group interest conflicts (group, not class) does not absolve me of the responsibility to engage individuals on an individual level. – Willem Dec 5 '17 at 9:13

There are two aspects to the question about how to respond to such a comment.

One the one hand, challenging the person will do damage to your relationship to a coworker. Nobody likes to be challenged, and people rarely change their world view based on a single challenge.

One the other hand, letting the comment pass with no negative response will likely leave your coworker with the feeling that he "scored a point". That will increase the chance of his making another similar comment to you or to other coworkers.

It's important to understand that most people who engage in insulting humor do so out of the sense that they gain "social capital" by doing that. For comparison purposes, there were a lot of Polish jokes and blond jokes making the rounds years ago. Most of the people who told such jokes had nothing against Poles or blondes. They were just convenient targets. Once a person gets enough negative feedback for telling such jokes, they generally move on to some different behavior, unless they are really hung up on the issue in question.

Calling someone a racist is nearly always counterproductive. The people who do that all the time are about as divisive as the racists are.

What I might have done is to say something like "I don't think that's very funny." and let it go at that. If the guy gets the word that saying things like that gets him negative social capital, that will be a powerful incentive to get him to change. If he continues to escalate, you make have to become more direct in your response.


I have to point out that there are a lot of things wrong with your coworker's comment aside from the racist tone.

First, millions of Africans are from countries that used to be colonies of the British Empire. As citizens of the British Commonwealth, they have the right to migrate to England, and many do. London today is more multiracial than many American cities. Most of them a quite a bit more African in appearance than Meghan. They do, however, speak English with a British accent that makes my English sound very foreign by comparison. Yours too, probably.

Second, the public social safety net in England is quite a bit more extensive than the one in Illinois. People get free (gratis) medical care and university tuition in England, and these benefits extend to the middle class as well as poor people. I am sure they have something that would make Link cards look paltry by comparison.

Third, Britain was not always as free from racism as it is today. If you go back a century or so, The US Armed forces were integrated (they were resegregated later), while the British kept non white colonial in separate fighting forces. Beginning at the end of World War Two, England has gone through a profound remaking of its views on race and ethnicity. Meanwhile the US has been doing two steps forward and one step back. In the US, animosity towards "those people" is fed by economic despair, and the feeling that, if they win, we lose. That's true whether "those people" are of another race, or are immigrants, or are even from another part of the US.

Best of luck with your coworker. Hopefully, you will leave the world better than you found it.

There is ambiguity (without knowing ALL the context) whether it is a joke ABOUT racial inequality/discrimination/stereotyping or a joke ADVOCATING such. The need to clear up which of these meanings was intended gives you a perfectly good reason to politely confront and ask, which is a good lead-in to have a discussion about contexts where the first kind of joke is or is not appropriate. The second kind, obviously, simply is not.

Doing nothing is dangerous. You have options- and none of them are perfect.

The by-the-book responses:

  1. Report it to HR

  2. Report it to your boss or his/her boss

The other options:

  1. Ask clarifying questions - hope they see that even if they don't think they did anything wrong - they know you think s/he did

  2. Say "that is so enlightening" - that often goes over their head. I use it all time in social settings when some will see what I did. Others won't.

  3. Call them out, either directly or say you heard that on The Archie Bunker Show. (Not every option is for every situation, especially this last one.)

Good luck.

  • 2
    In what way is it dangerous? – Martin Dawson Nov 29 '17 at 16:53
  • 2
    Silence is taken at worst as agreeing. It contributes to creating a hostile work environment. I hope that helps explain what I meant – Jeff Nov 30 '17 at 15:23
  • 1
    imo it's an overreaction to call it dangerous and report it when he is very likely just joking. He's not actually harming anyone, it's just an inappropriate comment to OP who he doesn't know well enough to know that it is probably a joke. – Martin Dawson Nov 30 '17 at 20:46
  • 1
    @MartinDawson That individual is making a joke at someone elses' expense, in a deliberate effort to psychologically affect the other individual. They should be fired immediately. What they should really do is look into the crown itself to find that there are many original people of the planet that have been kings and queens throughout europe. Without Queen Scotia whom migrated to Albion from Ancient Egypt there would be no Scotland. – guest271314 Nov 30 '17 at 23:12
  • I know nothing about what happened in the "for example"I was responding to the general questioner indeed thought it was racist. And yes "innocent bystanders" do get fired. It happened in a company I worked at in 2000. – Jeff Dec 3 '17 at 2:45

The first version of my answer referenced an interracial marriage several generations ago in the Russian Imperial Family and the British Royal Family. Learning this bit of history was felt by a commenter as requiring too much effort. (If any reader is interested, see the following link: Najeda Mountbatten.)

A more important piece of knowledge -- something that everyone should know -- is that every human alive today can trace his/her ancestry to Africa. The human race originated in Africa, and emigrated out of Africa to populate the rest of the world.

Therefore, unless you are dealing with someone who is irredeemably ignorant, a telling response could be

You are an African too. All of us are. Everyone in the world can trace their ancestry back to Africa. We are all emigrants from Africa.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Catija Dec 1 '17 at 20:37

In this specific case I would counter directly and assertively.

What are you talking about? Are you dumb? Don't you know how successful an actress Meghan Markle is? By now she has probably made more money then you and me combined.....in a lifetime. No I don't think they will need a Link card.

I would probably have made the remark "Are you dumb?" but with a big smile. Or replaced it with: "Do you actually know who Meghan Markle is?".

  • I wouldn’t have upvoted this, and probably wouldn’t employ this method, but I admit it’s a tempting response. – Obie 2.0 Nov 30 '17 at 8:57
  • @Obie2.0 People are looking for a universal responsive for a given situation. That is hard because a response like this is totally appropriate in my culture but I can understand that other cultures would have problems with the "directness". Maybe only answers from inhabitants of Illinois are appropriate. – Pieter B Nov 30 '17 at 10:23
  • Probably not going to work. Even if he doesn't know who Meghan Markle is, he's sure to realise that Prince Harry is unlikely to need financial help from the State of Illinois. – Dawood ibn Kareem Dec 4 '17 at 5:07

protected by Tinkeringbell Nov 29 '17 at 20:41

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.