Response to Taking Racist Comments at Work

Racist Comments at Work?

I’m sitting at my computer fuming because I just read a blog that suggested that someone who experienced a racist comment at work should keep silent because it would be unprofessional to speak up. WHAT?!? Did we not just celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday who reminds us that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.

The author goes on to show much empathy for the patient using racist language and captures the exchange between the nurse and patient as one where the patient may be “grumpy” and is there not by choice but by circumstance so the nurse “should place his patient above his own frustrations while on the job”.

Once again we as people of color are told by someone who does not understand or experience racism and microaggressions how we should act and respond to racism. God forbid we exercise our right of being safe and comfortable at work. Instead the professional is directed to stand in the presence of racism and racist remarks without saying anything. He is expected to yet again take on and hold within himself the psychological and emotional toll of racism to make others comfortable.

There are times when we’re silent because we don’t know what to say. We’re taken off guard because we’re focused at the task at hand, like I was before I read this blog post and felt an immediate need to respond! And there are many times when we are silent because we choose not to say anything for fear of retribution or other consequences.

Speaking up and not remaining silent at work definitely has consequences. You may fear losing your job. Or suddenly find yourself isolated at work with relationships with colleagues becoming distant or strained. You may also fear how speaking up will impact future leadership and job opportunities within your current company. So making the decision to be silent is a very personal decision.

The choice to speak up or stay silent can be a difficult one and we make different choices at different times in our lives. The real problem here is being told to remain silent and just deal with the racist language at work.  But remember that there is always a choice and that is for you to decide, no one else.

See below for our tips on how to deal with this at work. And share your suggestions in the comments too!

Initial letter and inquiry

I work in a community hospital with culturally diverse patients and staff. Recently, a nurse told me about an upsetting experience. The nurse is African-American and was caring for a patient in a double room. He overheard a conversation between his patient’s roommate and a visitor. In a loud, strident voice, the visitor expressed his views about a situation concerning race that has been widely reported in the media. The visitor criticized the African-Americans involved and made several borderline and blatant racist comments. The nurse heard the comments and left the room without comment, but was angry. He later asked me, “What could I have said?” Several people thought that as a “professional” he acted correctly by not saying anything. I am troubled by the notion that silence is the professional approach to racism. What do you advise?



Dear Troubled,

First let me say that I am so sorry you had to experience this in your life and at work. You deserve to be in an environment free from racist and offensive comments. Though we as people of color deal with microaggressions and racism on a regular basis we do not deserve to and I want to highlight that.

It’s challenging to think and respond clearly when we’re in the middle of listening to racist remarks that are no doubt painful to hear. Here are some tips that work for us:

  • Take a few deep breaths, maybe more than a few. This is important so you can be clearer in making a decision about what to do.
  • Decide if you are going to say something or be silent. There are reasons for either choice. This choice is yours to make.
  • Tell the person that you find their comments offensive and ask them to refrain from that language in your presence.
  • Every workplace has its own policies about how to proceed so definitely consult your workplace. However, consider contacting your supervisor or HR to let them know what happened and how you responded. Taking this step allows your perspective to be heard from the beginning.

Because you work with many different people, and given the tension in our country at this time, unfortunately, you may continue to have these experiences. These tips will help you next time.

For other readers – has this happened to you before? What did you do? How did you handle it? Share your experiences and suggestions with us. There’s so much that we can learn from each other!

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