After a meeting yesterday, my boss was talking about he was driving through a certain part of the city and several teenagers were running through traffic and doing wheelies on their bikes. Based on the areas he mentioned and some of the things he implied, it was apparent that he was talking about black children. He joked about sagging pants and finished with, “those kids can be so reckless.”
I never said anything to him because I didn’t know how. When I got home it really bothered me because I wished that I knew how to breach the topic with him. The rest of the room was laughing and the whole incident bothered my conscience. How can I handle this better next time? I’m white and I wish I had been a better ally in that moment.
I understand why your conscience is bothering you. There are many aspects that make this extremely problematic. Statements about “black on black violence” are used to insinuate a justification for police brutality in many cases. Your boss making a joke about “reckless” black youth has dangerous implications.
I also understand why you had trouble managing up. People get very touchy and defensive when confronted about a racist comment and its especially difficult to navigate a power dynamic.
Here’s my advice:
1. Build Trust
It sounds like your workplace has some issues in terms of its cultural responsiveness because everyone was laughing with your boss. You have some work to do here. The truth is that if you want to leverage your white privilege to make changes in your colleague’s mindsets, you need to build authentic trust. It’s the only way around those defensive walls that shoot up when people have race-based conversations.
My favorite resource on this comes from Brene Brown. She speaks on the nature of trust and how it is gained/lost.
2. Ask Questions
My favorite method to use in those moments to frame questions to help people arrive at their own conclusions. Often, people will get defensive when you ask them to clarify their racist jokes/statements but this is a great starting point for a conversation. When you control your tone and body language, you can leverage your white privilege by challenging their statement in a productive and positive way. My goal is to try to delay them getting defensive for as long as possible because I’ve had more persuasive power when I’ve kept calm. If it feels uncomfortable, that’s okay. You mentioned you wanted to be a better ally and here’s a first step. Get Socratic with it.
3. Keep a Record
I urge to consider going to HR with your issues. Keep a detailed, written record of these instances. Include dates, times, people involved, and exact words. I don’t know how long you’ve been employed there or how well you know your boss, but this issue could grow and you want to be armed with information.
White Privilege Syllabus
Do you have questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org