Racial Jokes in the Workplace

Being mindful of what we say is not only the right thing to do-- it's good business

DJ Cipha Sounds faces backlash after a questionable "joke" about Haitian women and HIV

Despite having more than 15 years experience in the music biz, a New York City radio personality recently made what many would call a not-so-smart career move. DJ Cipha Sounds of NYC’s Hot 97 drew fire on Monday after making a joke about how he has remained HIV-negative because he “don’t mess with Haitian women.” The controversial remark caused a demand for his dismissal by city leaders and listeners, and ultimately led to his suspension.

Cipha Sounds, real name Luis Diaz, apologized, saying it was “a stupid, tasteless joke” that was “totally taken the wrong way,” and he took full responsibility for the snafu, adding that he was embarrassed for having said it.

He adds that it was an honest mistake and that he never intended to offend anyone.

Cultural insensitivity is nothing new. In fact, not too long ago a Caribbean woman I know said she was having a conversation with a White coworker who asked whether the majority of Caribbean people “come over here on boats.” My friend was appalled and offended (as was I when I heard about it).

Did her coworker not realize the implications of what she’d just asked, especially in a workplace environment?

Her coworker soon came back and apologized, but the damage was already done. My friend had lost respect for a colleague and began to view her as someone culturally ignorant and insensitive.

We all should be more aware of the things we say in any arena of our lives, especially in a setting such as the workplace, where an irresponsible quip could cost you a client, a business relationship, or worst—your job. And who wants to build a quality professional reputation only to have it blemished or destroyed by a slip of the tongue, whether due to ignorance, arrogance, or an “honest mistake”?

In DJ Cipha Sound’s case, his workplace included the airwaves in a city with the largest population of Haitians in the U.S. (which would be considered part of his audience, or in the business world, clients/customers.) Yes, his show features many racial jokes under the guise of entertainment; but this time he went too far, insulting a people who are still dealing with the devastation of January’s earthquake, among other national crises.

It’s not only right—but smart—to be mindful of the things we say and how it might affect others not only personally, but professionally. You can burn bridges with words, and some words are unforgettable and ultimately unforgivable.

Have you been on the other end of a co-worker or boss’ offensive or inappropriate remark at the workplace? If so, tell us about it and how you handled it.

For more on how to rebound after a verbal slip-up at the workplace, check out Making Your Words and Actions Count After Workplace Gaffes.

  • Luckily, I’ve never dealt with it in the work place but I have in other real life situations. My experiences are too wordy to type here but I’ve definitely had to check people on being racially insensitive. Btw, great post, as usual.

  • Thanks GangStarr Girl I’m glad you enjoyed. Also, feel free to share how you handled it and what was said. Maybe someone is going through the same situation and is looking for recourse.

  • Too Gone

    Unfortunately, I have been on the other end of ignorant insensitivity — from my former manager who was a minority of a difference race herself. She had made comments affronting my intelligence, and once about her kids liking hip hop. I was too shocked to do or say anything, sad to say. Knowing that harassment or discrimination issues can blacklist one for life, I was not one to pursue anything. And most of it was from ignorance, although I believe some of it may have stemmed from a deep-lying resentment toward me for having the position I had, as if I were “unworthy” of such a position in her mind. The industry I am in is small and word gets around. So for me to pursue anything would have amounted to career-suicide.

  • the way people are playing this up it seems bad…like he was just sitting around making racial jokes when in all actuality it was simply a response to a question about condoms being sent to Haiti…and I don’t see the problem. Unless he was just sitting around bad mouthing Haitian women.

  • Dennis Nelson

    Racial Jokes Can Be insulting And Demeaning But Not Everybody Telling The Jokes Are People Who Want To inflict Harm On Anyone But Still The People Who Tell The Jokes Should Always Be Keenly Aware Of How The jokes May Really Be Hurtful To People On The Receiving End Of Them!

  • ZBoogy

    I am dealing with a coworker who is really culturally insensitive. I’m debating whether I should come back with a quick comment or sit her down to talk to her. (I’ve already marinated on whether I was being too culturally sensitive, but I think not)! Very nice girl and a great worker. She always refers to jokes she’s heard african americans make- i.e., all black people have sickle cell or diabetes, the antoine song is hilarious (not to me, but more power to his hustle), it was hilarious to see all those people in atlanta grabbing for applications for sec 8 housing…. difficult to explain in details. Any suggestions???

  • ZBoogy

    … also how hilarious it was when google made that mistake of ‘do you mean, a black person stole my car’….

  • Janell Hazelwood

    @ZBoogy Maybe you could refer your coworker to this article and have a dialog to gain some understanding. Or refer her to http://www.blackenterprise.com/careers/2009/12/01/making-your-words-and-actions-count-after-workplace-gaffes/ . If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, talk with your manager. Maybe your manager could serve as a mediator.

  • Quiana

    This is another example of someone being unprofessional in the workplace. I am not radio or TV personality but I would have enough intelligence not make any comments that will be construed as culturally insensitive. It is just not appropriate. We all need to make a conscientious effort to be more professional and be able to discern which conversations or comments are appropriate in the workplace. It is a matter of respecting yourself and others.

  • Brandy C.

    Hey Janell! Awsome post. There are so many racial remarks made on that show that can easily offend anyone, I’m acutally surprised that they haven’t been asked a long time ago to tone down the racial jokes.

  • Jane Eyre

    This is the way it is in America, I’m afraid. I suggest developing a thick skin and a few witty comebacks. Don’t let it get to you. It isn’t worth it.

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  • Danny

    a lot of Americans are by nature very sensitive or annoying loudmouths. I suggest you stop wearing your feelings on your sleeve and grow up. To the latter i say you need to realize what you are saying, because there is always someone bigger and tougher than you.

  • bud

    Document every instance of inappropriate comments, then find a lawyer and sue! It’s the American way.

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