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OhHellWithIt's Journal: How to deal with unintended racism at work? 1

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So... I'm sitting in the break room eating lunch with three of my colleagues, all of whom are close to twenty years younger than I am. We're talking about long commutes, and I tell them about my two years of commuting into the District of Columbia from western Fairfax County. Somewhere in the conversation, one of my co-workers uses the phrase "black guy" in the way one would use "mugger" -- almost as if the two terms are synonymous. A bit later, she jokes that after dark, the only two white people in D.C. are President and Mrs. Bush.

I didn't know what to say. I thought, "Are you ****ing nuts?!!!" Then I replied, in a jesting tone, "I detect a bit of a cultural bias that you need to lose", and explained that I had spent a lot of time in D.C. after dark, and that while there are neighborhoods that are unsafe, it wasn't like what she sees on the news. The conversation went on and was more innocuous, but I'm still upset.

You see, I've been in variations of this scenario before. I grew up in the Southern U.S., where we capitalize "Southern" and attach the name "Yankee" to people from points north of Virginia. I'm white, and I'm old enough to remember racial integration in the 1960's and 1970's. Sometimes there'd be a joke told; other times, just a passing remark or tone of voice -- the conspiratorial wink -- we understand each other, you know? Being a conflict avoider, and being taught to be polite, I'd usually just change the subject. I grew up and moved to a more urban environment. When my next door neighbor moved in a few years ago, I didn't bat an eye when I saw that he was black and his wife was white. They fit right in with the Pakistani family across the street, the Japanese-American man two doors down, and the African-Chinese family next door on the other side. Even back in my hometown in South Carolina, people are generally civilized enough to keep their opinions muzzled.

But now I'm at work, and here's this young co-worker who hasn't absorbed this culture yet. She is a native of China, a classless, and (to my eye, at least) monocultural society. I'm sure she didn't mean anything hurtful, but what she said at lunch is the kind of thing that could poison a working relationship and possibly even sink her career. I'm not sure what to say to her, but I need to say something, perhaps as much to salvage my own self-respect as to help her fit in here.

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How to deal with unintended racism at work?

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