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A racist boss

You are new to a job you badly wanted and are still on probation. Your boss has been helpful and encouraging, but you’ve noticed he has a bad habit of cracking casually racist jokes. You find them offensive but your co-workers seem to put up with them. Do you confront him or keep quiet like the rest?

By Ken Gallinger and Ruth McQuirter Scott

The ad I answered did not say “self-righteous person needed to act as boss’s conscience.” No, it invited me to apply as a widget-maker. Which I did. And, lucky me, I got the job and now am making the widgets of my dreams.
So what part of my job description entitles me to correct the boss on his “casually racist jokes” (whatever the heck a “casually racist” joke is)? That must be in the “five-percent sundry as assigned” — because I sure don’t see it anywhere else.

The reason “act as boss’s conscience” is not in my job description is, of course, because that’s not what they pay me to do. So here’s the deal: I show up each day, work hard, contribute in the best way I can to the company culture and shut the heck up. I don’t need to laugh at jokes I find offensive, and I won’t. I might let my face show my displeasure. I might even try to absent myself from situations where they are told, and if asked why, I might go so far as to say, “I find the humour at these gatherings not to my taste.” But that’s where it ends.

The question as posed offers only two alternatives: confront the boss or keep quiet. But in fact I have a third alternative. I’m on probation; I can look for another job. If the culture in this company is truly racist and so offensive to me I can’t tolerate it, I should move on. The reason for probation is so employers and employees can try each other out before signing on for good; the boss’s humour is one factor in that decision I will soon have to make.

There’s one more possibility. At the end of the probation, there should be a “How’s it going?” conversation. In that context, I might choose to say, “I love the work and the people. But can I tell you one little thing? Some of your jokes bother me a bit.” The boss’s response (thoughtfulness? fury? penitence?) might tell me whether this was a place I really wanted to stay — or it might make the decision about staying for me.
Author's photo
Ruth McQuirter Scott is an educator and member of Port Nelson United in Burlington, Ont.

I would love to believe that by taking a moral stance and directly confronting my boss about his racist jokes, I would change his behaviour, save my job, and one little corner of the world would be a better place. Life experience, however, has robbed me of my naiveté.

As the parent of adult multi-racial children, I have fought the stupidity of racism in its many forms for 27 years. I always tried to go through the “proper” channels, but was often disappointed and perplexed. My complaints were met with a mixture of polite indifference, minimal but ineffective action, dismissal, and even outright backlash against the children.

Now that they are young adults, my son and daughter deal with racism in their own ways. My son is philosophical. He says, “You can find stupidity and ignorance anywhere.” He considers which battles are worth fighting and simply chooses to associate with people who are not racist. My daughter has gone the route of social justice. As a law student, she is involved in research on racial profiling and does pro-bono work for gay rights organizations.

So what would I do in my “dream job” with a boss who likes to crack racial jokes? I would begin by simply leaving the room as a sign of my displeasure. As my position becomes more secure, I would say, “I can’t believe you said that!” If he continues, I would have a private conversation, explaining how uncomfortable I feel about his jokes. I would tell him my own story to make it more personal. If my work is solid, and he respects me in other ways, perhaps my opinion will have some weight with him. But if the jokes escalate, I would find a different job or department, but not before reporting his conduct to the organization.

Would my leaving change his behaviour? Perhaps not, but I would hate to find myself two years down the road sitting in silence while a new hire winces as yet another tasteless joke emerges from my employer’s mouth.
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