I am African-American and male. Two weeks ago as I was leaving work for the day, one of my co-workers yelled “Be careful out there! There could be police officers and we would hate it if you were shot!” This co-worker (Bill) is not a friend of mine outside of work although we have always gotten along on the job. The whole place went silent after Bill yelled that. I just shook my head and left. No one followed me out to my car and no one has said anything to me about it since, except for Bill. The next morning, he came up to me and said he realized that his comment was probably offensive to me even though he had meant it to be a joke about police officers. He was sincere and seemed truly chagrined about sticking his foot in his mouth (his words). I accepted his apology and harbor no hard feelings. We all say stupid things at times, me included.
Here’s my problem. I know it is not a legal matter or something that should be reported to management. Still, it really bothers me that none of the people standing by said anything when the comment was made or to me about it later. Should I let it go or tell them what’s on my mind? Do you think I am being over-sensitive, or are my co-workers a bunch of jerks?
— Still Irritated
Dear Still Irritated:
What I think is this: Stand-up comedy should be left to professionals in front of a paying audience.
You went two weeks without saying anything about this to your co-workers. If you vent now, all your co-workers will hear you saying is: “I think you are a bunch of racists and I steam with anger a long time before finally blowing up without warning.”
— Evil Skippy
I don’t think you are too sensitive, but there are strong clues here that you do jump to conclusions. Unless you have mind-reading skills, how do you know what your co-workers were thinking when the comment was made? Here are some possibilities for your consideration:
- “OMG. Did Bill say what I thought he said? Why isn’t anyone saying something? What could I say? Should I say something? Now he’s walking away . . . too late. ARGH!”
- “Does Bill have any idea how awful that sounded? What a jerk.”
- “I wish people would stop picking on police officers. 99% of them are great.”
- “Walking away without swearing at Bill was sure classy. I might have punched him.”
- “Yikes. That was terrible. I’m going to tell ‘Still Irritated’ how I feel tomorrow. Wait. That would just remind him all about it and make him feel bad again. Maybe I’ll just wait how he is acting tomorrow.”
- “Everyone’s quiet all of a sudden. What did I miss?”
And so on.
Years ago, someone gave me this very good advice: “Don’t let what others might be thinking drive you crazy – you never know what’s really going on in their minds.” This holds true in your case. You might be right, you might be wrong – why dwell on it when you can never know?
Yes, the comment was a stupid one. Bill stuck his foot in his mouth and he knows it. I commend him for apologizing and I commend you for being empathetic and forgiving.
Here’s my advice. If your co-workers have never caused you concern in the past when it comes to racial matters, go ahead and talk about how you feel with a few of the ones who you know best but do so in as casual a setting as possible. In a simple conversational tone, say something like this: “I felt bad about what Bill said the other day. Did I tell you he apologized to me the next day? I appreciated that. I wonder what went through everyone else’s minds when Bill said that. What do you think?” You are opening a dialog and will have an opportunity during the talk to also say you were disappointed that no one else spoke up to object to Bill’s comment (again, in a conversational manner and not accusatory).
You displayed empathy when you forgave Bill. By speaking calmly and sincerely to your co-workers, you will create an environment where they will have an opportunity to grow in empathy too. There will be a better chance of getting them to understand the impact of Bill’s comment, everyone’s silence and even the seriousness of the underlying social issues if you approach the topic with respect rather than accusations or criticism.
On the other hand, the “Bill incident” from two weeks ago is one more piece of a bad puzzle if there have been racial comments in the past at your workplace. If that is the case and there is a pattern of unwelcome racial comments, talk to your manager or to human resources. Today.
Evil Skippy and/or Jim are available to speak at your conferences and seminars! For information or to send a question for Evil Skippy to answer, use the “Contact” link on the left sidebar.