What’d They Just Say?

Graphic Jennifer Aedy

It’s toward the end of a tiring shift, and a coworker just made a racist remark.

It was casual and in passing, but racist nonetheless. Which of the following options is best to repair the situation?

a) Step in right away and inform your coworker about their offensive words, right their wrongs and hope that they take something away from the conversation. Trust that they won’t be mad or insulted for being insensitive and slightly racist, have faith that they will absorb some of the information and won’t remain ignorant.

b) Report all offenses to the boss, resulting in forced confrontations with the offender as well as sensitivity workshops for the entire staff, who may call it all a waste of time.

c) Do nothing, stand by and let it keep happening on a regular basis in a vicious cycle of the ignorant oppressor saying whatever they please and the minority/victim/whoever has to hear it cringing as they keep their head down and silently keep working.

This scenario may sound familiar—racism in the workplace happens far more often than we care to admit in Canada and elsewhere. Though people are sometimes reluctant to admit it, Canada has a hideous history of racism and the poor treatment of minority groups.

Much of the infliction has been, and still is, aimed predominantly towards marginalized groups such as Aboriginal, African, Chinese, Japanese, Muslim, Jewish, South Asian people and more. Canada as a whole is often seen as a warm and welcoming melting pot of various cultures, but the truth is some individuals still only see race through narrow tunnel vision.

I have dealt with some instances of casual racism in the workplace, where coworkers remained ignorant to the offensive words they uttered. I overheard someone on a conference call say, “I’m sorry I can’t hear you, it sounds like you’re speaking Chinese.”

“I’m sorry I can’t hear you, it sounds like you’re speaking Chinese.” — A coworker on a conference call.

At the time, I did not feel it was my place to interrupt so I let it slide, even though I knew how inappropriate it is to say something of that nature. Another coworker declared that I was Filipino and that the spelling of my name was a result of my apparent background. I explained in a curt and direct manner that I was in fact Chinese and British, but did not bother to explain why what she said was offensive.

Finally, a third colleague used a racial slur lightly in another context, and since the word (chink) holds so much weight and offense as a racial insult, I was put on the spot and had no choice but to explain why it is offensive to use in any sort of context.

As I went on explaining this, the individual remained immovable and ignorant in their stance. Try as I may to inform them of their offence, they were having none of it. My other coworkers watched nervously from a short distance, observing my attempt at reason.

Luckily these instances were very general and none of them were aimed directly at me. No one said anything to intentionally insult my race, or me as an individual, but I still did not feel that the overall ignorance was passable.

With such a diverse population, classes on race and racism should be mandatory in the education system throughout Canada. Based on my own personal experience, however, the only formal lessons I received on the subject of race in my primary or high school education were largely based around Canadian history during the World Wars.

So aside from a poor introduction to racism in a formal school setting, where else can people learn about race and the affects of discriminating against others based on their cultural background?

In raising children, parents are accountable for sharing their knowledge, but race is a touchy household subject. Discussions on racial equality may have varied from home to home, especially between majority white households and those with people of colour or minorities, who face more discrimination on a regular basis.

We learn from our peers and hope that our friends will correct us if we step out of line and say something stupid or offensive. After all, since race is a social construct, it should also be the responsibility of the society we live in to help keep us informed and to break down the stigma and prejudice surrounding minority groups.

When our education system, our parents, our friends and society as a whole fails us in our teachings on racism, we are left to our own devices to self educate.

How much of this behaviour is considered tolerable before people become self aware of the things that come out of their mouths, or before others step in and say something when they witness casual racism? Perhaps it will always be up to individuals to fend for themselves.

Progress requires both self-educating and sharing knowledge, but people must also be willing to have an open mind in these discussions. Moving forward requires learning what is or isn’t appropriate for topics of conversation, word choices and slang. It also involves being open to new ideas and a brief history lesson from time to time.

Conversation topics and word choices are all about context, and the things we say around friends are different from what is appropriate in maintaining a safe, professional workplace.