Don’t Mince Your Words

Deflect racist remarks in the workplace with finesse

Joyce Scott was invited to be the keynote speaker at a seminar on leadership for executives. Drawing on her past experience as one of IBM’s top sales people in a year in which she also had two major surgeries, Scott gave an outstanding speech. One executive–from an audience of mostly older white men–approached her after the speech and raved about how much he had enjoyed her talk and how much he had learned. And then he added, “You remind me of the girl who used to clean my house. You have such a warm Aunt Jemima face.”

Most racial slights and insensitive remarks in today’s workplace may nor be as blatant as what Scott experienced. Sometimes they’re innocent statements and occasionally they’re expressed to test mettle. In either case, it’s important to speak up, but make sure it’s in a professional way, says Scott, a career strategist.

“I told the executive, `The next black person you say that to will be offended. Let me give you some advice…’ In business you don’t let things dike that go,” she adds. “You find an appropriate and disciplined way to handle it.” If you react impulsively and “do three snaps in somebody’s face.” you can immediately lose credibility. Because these remarks are upsetting and frustrating, it’s important to take time out and remember that “this is work, not love,” warns Scott.

Racist or insensitive coworkers tend to say subtle things like, “you people.” Oftentimes people need things pointed out to them, says Scott, who may respond with, “You mean us Episcopalians?”
Sam Horn, author of Tongue Fu (St. Martin’s Press; $12.95), believes in a martial arts approach to deflecting verbal attacks and insults.

Uncover the problem. If someone says something to offend you, such as “blacks are not good at customer service,” then you should ask, “What do you mean?” The person may come back with the real issue, which you can then address. It keeps you from saying something you may regret.

Name the game. If you sense that someone is intentionally insulting you, look them in the eye and say something like “You’re not putting black people down, are you?” If you say exactly what they’re doing, they will probably backpedal, Horn says.

Take notes. This works well for someone who’s using offensive language. Remain calm and pick up a piece of paper and pencil like you’re going to take notes. Often they’ll back off, because they know there will be a record of their remarks.

Choose your battles. Before confronting someone, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it trivial?
  • Is it a persistent concern?
  • Is it intentional or innocent?
  • What are the extenuating circumstances?
  • Can or will it change?
  • Will I win the battle or lose the war?

If you do decide to confront someone, have documentation of what was said and when; talk to the person in private; and ask for the behavior you want.

If you’ve ever been the target of an offensive remark, you’ve probably experienced the “I should have said” syndrome–you think of the perfect response when driving home or sometime in

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