I’m worried my boss is discriminating against my coworker

A reader writes:

I have a colleague, who I’ll call Zach, who’s really good at his job and has a lot of knowledge about his specialized area, and currently he’s the only person we have working in that area. He’s not a native English speaker but his English is good, although he has a medium-strong accent. Also, he happens not to be white, and the other employees in this department are. I hope accent and race are irrelevant here, but I’m not sure.

Our team got a new manager several months ago, I’ll call him Ed, and he has some changes he’d like to make regarding how we do business (as new managers often do). As Ed works on implementing these changes, though, I’ve been getting concerned because it appears to me that he’s neglecting to involve Zach in the changes that affect the area Zach specializes in. For example, recently Ed assigned me a small project that directly affects Zach’s work and has nothing to do with my own. I made a point of consulting with Zach before making any final recommendations or changes, but I’m not sure why the project was assigned to me rather than Zach in the first place. (I don’t object to doing the project itself, but I do object to Zach not being consulted or even informed about it.) In that particular example, you might say Ed assumed I’d coordinate with Zach, but there have been other times where that was fairly clearly not the case.

I’m not sure whether this all comes from unconscious racism, discomfort with Zach’s accent, or just the fact that Ed and Zach work in different buildings, so Ed doesn’t see Zach and forgets to include him. Or possibly it’s all coincidence–though it’s looking less and less like it. Should I bring this up to Ed, or to Zach, or keep quiet and just keep on trying to make sure Zach is included in any discussions that are relevant to him? If I do talk to Ed or Zach about it, do you have any suggestions on what I should say?

Well, even if Ed is just forgetting about Zach because he’s in a different building, it’s still problematic. If it’s being driven by racism, it’s even more problematic — but either way, a manager shouldn’t be freezing out an employee.

If indeed that’s what’s happening. It’s possible that this is all just cluelessness on Ed’s part about who handles what. Or, it’s possible that Ed is deliberately making changes to who handles what, and it’s not based on race or what building Zach is in, but rather on Ed’s assessment of Zach’s strengths and weaknesses. (In fact, it’s even possible that he’s loaded Zach up with other projects that you’re not in the loop on.) If this is the case, ideally he’d be explaining himself so that you know what’s going on, but people don’t always do that.

In any case, the good news is that the way you should handle it is the same regardless of what might be causing it:  Just be straightforward. The next time Ed assigns you something that’s more in Zach’s area than yours, say something like, “Normally this would fall to Zach, because he’s our chocolate teapot guy; I focus more on caramel coffee carafes. I’m glad to do it if you want me to, but I wasn’t sure if you knew that or not and I’d at least want to get Zach in the loop on it.”

You could also just ask Ed about the big picture: “Hey, I hoped I could ask you something I haven’t been clear on. I’ve noticed you’ve been assigning things like X, Y, and Z to me, which are areas Zach specializes in and has traditionally handled. I’m certainly willing to take them on if that’s what makes sense, but I was curious whether these are permanent changes we’re making and what the big picture is on this stuff generally.”

Frankly, if you have a good relationship with Ed and he seems approachable and open during this conversation, you could even say, “I do worry that Zach might be getting left out of things because he’s not in our building, but he’s really amazing at chocolate teapot building.”

Now, some people might say that you should stay out of this, worry about your own work, etc.  But if it is racism, you should be finding ways to push back and to act as an ally for the person facing discrimination — however subtle it might be — and too few people do. So good for you for thinking about it — and if there’s actually an innocent explanation, the above will still be appropriate actions to take.

You can read an update to this post here.

{ 166 comments… read them below }

    1. CC

      I’m not sure if you know this but “race card” is a bit of an offensive term for anyone who is a minority and has been accused of pulling “the race card” out when they rightfully talk about their experiences.

      We don’t know enough to make a judgment in this case, of course. But “the race card” statement really just serves to dismiss claims of racism in many cases.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yeah, Michael C, I’m sure that’s not how you meant it, but it’s worth being aware that it generally comes across as dismissive of very real issues (whether or not they are in play in the OP’s situation).

      2. Anonymous

        I think what Michael C. is saying here is that he doesn’t want the OP to start calling Ed a racist when we don’t know all of the facts behind it. In other words, don’t jump to conclusions. I think AAM mentions a few good other reasons, including Zach having his own projects the OP is unaware of, as to why Ed is giving others tasks that might appear to be better for Zach’s expertise.

        I agree, the phrase can be offensive. However, people do jump to conclusions at times and that does come up. Since the OP has made it a point to mention that Zach is not white, I would like to see if s/he has any situation examples that can point more towards a race issue; the OP mentions there are other examples where s/he thinks its discrimination.

        1. CC

          I know what he’s trying to say, but what that phrase implies is that minorities often take advantage of their race in order to gain a benefit, and thus we should consider this a “race card” before considering actual racism, as if the first one was more offensive than the latter.

          1. Anonymous

            It’s a double-edged sword. If someone says it’s racism, then they can be accused of playing the race card. If someone is accused of racism, that can damage their reputation especially when there was no evidence of racism whatsoever (and that’s where the term comes into play). That’s why it is important for the OP to answer back with more concrete evidence showing it is indeed racism. Furthermore, has the OP spoken to Zach regarding this situation? Has Zach spoken to her about an inclination of racism?

            1. Emily

              It’s like the difference between saying, “Let’s consider this from all sides and make sure we have all the facts before rushing to judgment,” and saying, “Now don’t go making hysterical assumptions!” The meaning of the two sentences is vaguely the same, but the second one uses dismissive language.

            2. CC

              Really? You think allegations of racism “ruin” someone’s reputation, more than racism damages people’s daily lives? In my experience even the worst racists move along their lives quite normally, without ruined reputations, precisely because people often quote ‘the race card’ as a reason why the accusations are probably false.

              Look I’m not saying this OP is right, I’m saying that using that phrase is deeply offensive. You’re dismissing that, too.

              1. The Editor

                Uh…. Anonymous didn’t say “more.” Anonymous said that it can damage both ways, and I tend to agree.

                Now I don’t go around accusing people of “pulling the race card” nor would I recommend doing so, but Anonymous’s point _is_ valid, if not diplomatically stated.

              2. Anonymous

                I never once said, nor implied (as Ariancita claimed) that “allegations of racism ‘ruin’ someone’s reputation, more than racism damages people’s daily lives.”

                Please stop saying that I’m dismissing the offensiveness of the phrase. Actually I have acknowledged it. But accusing someone of being a racist is a very serious matter which, like I said, can damage someone’s reputation. That’s why I used the phrase “double-edged sword” meaning no matter which way you look at the situation, someone can get hurt.

                Let’s take this situation we have right here. The OP mentions that Zach is not white and has a medium-strong accent. And then she goes on with her write-in about how Zach hasn’t been getting projects she believes he should be getting. She acknowledges there are more definitive cases to which she says make her believe it is a discriminatory action. But she does not provide those to us. So to us, before we can judge the OP or Ed, we need the whole story. What are those other cases s/he think explain her inclination? Right now, the OP has it in mind that the boss is being racist/discriminatory. If she started passing this around without evidence, then s/he can be doing damage to him and perhaps damage to Zach. Or how about to the OP too?

                Of course, if the OP can say, “I’ve heard Ed use derogatory language against groups of people or in reference to Zach” then by all means, the OP has solid ground to stand on and AAM can give her advice to work on. As I have written before, AAM wrote good advice here since not all details have been given.

                That’s what I mean by being called a racist, when there is no ground to stand on, is damaging.

                1. Ask a Manager Post author

                  But no one is suggesting that the OP call the boss a racist. That was the whole point of my advice — it’s an appropriate way to proceed whether racism is involved or not.

                  And no commenters here have suggested calling the boss a racist either.

                  And frankly, being accused of racism (which, again, no one is suggesting doing) is a much less serious and damaging thing than being the one dealing with racism. MUCH less.

                  And yet some of the comments here have implied that we should be more concerned about shielding the boss from anonymous commenters on the internet thinking that he might be racist than about the possibility that he might actually be.

            3. fposte

              It’s not important for the OP to answer back at all, because our judgment of the situation doesn’t really matter. And actually, so long as the problem is fixed at the OP’s workplace, the people there don’t really need to be sure what caused it either.

    2. BCW

      As a person of color, I have no problem with the term pulling the race card. I guess its like anything, anyone can be offended by any term. And I tend to agree, don’t bring up race without being sure that its the case. Thats one of the worst things you could accuse someone of. I’m have people claim I was being sexist before when I had very good reasons to think the way I thought about the woman in question, but its a horrible thing to be accused of.

        1. BCW

          I think to accuse someone of being a racist who isn’t is a pretty awful thing. Maybe the guy is a complete racist. Maybe the guy has adopted a baby from another country. Who knows. But its a damaging claim to make.

          1. CC

            Off topic, but adopting a baby from another country does not mean one is not racist. Racism doesn’t necessarily mean wearing white sheets and joining the KKK. Racism can be a set of subtle prejudices. It doesn’t mean one walks around insulting black people out loud.

            1. Anonymous

              I strongly feel that CC is beginning to just nitpick with anyone who doesn’t agree with the statement. I mean technically calling someone a “black” person can be offensive but you used that anyway.

              I understand that there is a subconscious level of racism but you have to look at the environment everyone was brought up in. I am sure each race has on one level or another a disposition towards another whether it be knowingly or unknowingly due to the fact of how it is all represented in the media. It has a deep impact on how we think consciously/subconsciously when we watch or listen to certain things especially over prolonged periods of time.

              The race card statement can be taken as offensive, but by the same token calling someone a “black” person could be equally offensive, how many “black” people do you know whose skin tone is legitimately the color black? I know quite a few people who get offended over someone who says “black” man, stating things such as, “Humans associate good and evil with color. Things that are white are usually paired visually with that which is good (with the exception of certain asian cultures) and vice versa.

              I believe unless you mean it to be harmful and are saying something in anger that you should stick to the topic at hand. Many kids grow up today saying the N word without having any clue as to where it originated. Many people become angered over that, but when you over popularize the term in modern music and use it in a different way than how it originated, those who do not know the former use will simply associate it with the song. There is much more that goes into it than just what we say.

            2. Jules

              I think CC is, at this point, just being contentious. :( Bad move.
              I don’t find “race card” any more offensive than people who say “oh sure, pull the single mom card” or “use the disability card”. I’m proud to be black — I have experienced my black friends being racist against caucasians as well as the reverse. I don’t like ANY of it.
              Also all of this “implied” stuff — let me tell you something, just because YOU inferred it, doesn’t necessarily mean that anything was implied.

        1. BCW

          Don’t really get what you are saying. All I’m saying is to say a term is offensive to people of color is ridiculous. Some may take offense, others may not.

  1. Nev

    “But if it is racism, you should be finding ways to push back and to act as an ally for the person facing discrimination” – Alison, I like your advice so much for this statement. It is wrong on many levels when a manager uses subversive tactics, and make certain employees feel left out just because he/she doesn’t like them, or doesn’t know how to handle them. Not sure that this is OP’s case, but Ed doesn’t sound like a team player to me. At least, he hasn’t made sure everyone is on board with his change strategy.

    1. Xay

      I was so happy to see this part of Alison’s advice.

      When a person is the target of discrimination (racial/gender/etc), those allies are so important because of the people like the first commenter to this post who seem to have a bigger problem with potentially accusing someone of racism than the effects of discrimination on the affected person.

      1. Staying Anonymous

        That is exactly it! I will never complain about racism anymore because so many people react as though I am accusing them!
        But if I complained about my wallet being stolen, they wouldn’t think I’m accusing them of being the thief, so why do they get so defensive about racism?

        1. Nev

          I think people who react overly to accusations in racism are insecure if they are indeed racists, or just don’t want to deal about this topic because it causes them some moral dilemma.
          So I guess, discrimination is the New Age taboo of the office culture, but it would be more productive if people talk about it or better yet, do something to fight it. I know what it feels like to come from different culture, and to have an accent. Some people just stop listening to you, or react as if you are stupid. OP (and ideally the rest of the team) has to stand for Zach, because Zach himself has a limited set of choices to respond to the situation. But OP should do it tactfully, because we cannot call “thief” to anyone who had a motive and an opportunity to steal our wallet.

          1. Anon

            On the other side of the spectrum, as a person who grew up in a very multicultural city and happened to be born white it often feels like you have this extra layer to break through in order to be able to fight the automatic assumption that you are treating a person a certain way because of their race.

            I had a business class in which I was one of three white people and we were extremely outcast and often excluded from lectures topics etc.

            Obviously I’m not saying there isn’t a sociological history as to what caused this and I’m not saying that what I’ve endured is in any way comparable to those who have experienced racism in their lives.

            But just realize discrimination comes in so many forms from so many different sides of the equation. Someone said here yesterday that perception comes from both sides.

            1. Anon

              Also I totally agree that people should help stand up for minorities if it is wanted. But it isn’t always wanted. Sometimes that’s considered insulting and disempowering by those individuals and i can understand that as well.

            2. CC

              Anon, there might be prejudices on both sides, but discrimination is about systematic power. As a white male, you hold some privileges that you probably have never thought about and thus aren’t aware of (note, this doesn’t mean I’m saying everything’s been easy for you, just that your experiences may have been improved in some cases).

              If you feel uncomfortable around POC because you feel like they expect you to, I don’t know, acknowledge their experiences on equal footing, then that’s part of the problem, too.

              1. Anon

                ha! it’s funny that you just assumed I was male when I only said white.

                I don’t believe I said equal footing or that I said I felt uncomfortable. I said alienated in very real, marked ways which is a very different thing. But yes, all of this is part of the problem which makes me sad.

              2. Jaime B

                Discrimination and racism does not only happen on a systematic level – though that is the worst because laws, societal mores and cultures are stacked against “x” in ways that members of “x” can’t even fight against. That’s why members of “y” have to fight for equality too. However, to imply that the only discrimination that counts is discrimination that is systematic *can* be damaging to efforts to have everyone buy into the ultimate goal – equality for all and erasing discrimination.

                1. Anon

                  Yes. Exactly this. Remoulding and undoing the institutionalized forms of discrimination is obviously very important because that is the societal framework of it. It happens though on so many levels and consciously and unconsciously. Just because it changes “on paper” doesn’t mean it has changed “in practice”. Re-writing something and actually living by that are two very different things.

          2. fposte

            I don’t know; I think just a lot of people haven’t really thought about the unconscious bias of the culture they’re in, and they’re used to thinking about racism as a conscious bias, which they know they don’t have (“If I were racist I wouldn’t be dating her/have hired him/adopted them”). And if that’s so, they hear the suggestion of racism as the suggestion of consciously discriminating, which such a horrible notion that they can’t really hear past it.

              1. fposte

                Not quite sure where you’re going there, but I was expanding on Nev’s comments about why people have difficulty with the suggestion that actions might be racist, and I think the distance from that post to mine might have lost the thread.

                1. Anon

                  Oh sorry! I had just said: ” Someone said here yesterday that perception comes from both sides.” and then when you commented after me I remembered that I think it was actually you who said it so I pointed it out. I should have been more clear about what I was referencing with all the threads going on.
                  There was no other implication behind it.

            1. Rana

              I think that there’s a lot of truth in that. A lot of people who, when it’s pointed out that something they’ve said or done is racist, react as if they’ve been accused of being a racist, as in one of those hood-wearing Klansmen or something.

              I like the “step on my foot” metaphor: sometimes one accidentally steps on someone else’s foot (is racist) which causes hurt to the other person. The productive response is apologize and try to be less clumsy in the future. Unfortunately instead we get defensive reactions like “I didn’t mean to step on your foot (say a racist thing)! Therefore I didn’t really step on your foot.” and “How dare you accuse me of being one of those people who goes around stomping on feet (is a racist bigot)!” or “Well, maybe you shouldn’t wear sandals (be so sensitive).”

              And, yeah, it’s hard because sometimes you don’t know that you’re about to step on someone’s foot (say or do something accidentally racist) but, hey, that’s why it’s good to acknowledge the possibility and work on not doing it again.

              I’m a white person raised in a racist society. Stupid shit is going to come out of my mouth sometimes despite the best of my intentions. But it’s still on me to learn from those mistakes and to apologize when I make them, not on the person I inadvertently hurt.

            2. Nev

              Completely agree. Most people think they are non-racist, tolerant and totally non-discriminating. However, our perceptions of other people and cultures are so layered that we have real blind spots for our biases. I proud myself on standing against for any case of discrimination. However, a friend of mine recently pointed out that I expressed a very narrow-minded opinion, showing that some cases of discrimination are more obvious/relevant to me than others. I was totally unaware of that, and it got me thinking and making some of the tests recommended in the comments below, just to find out that I am not so unprejudiced and open as I wish I were.

  2. The Plaid Cow

    Any good boss should also be working to alleviate any single point failures within the organization. If Zach is the only person who knows something (in an organization that is spread across multiple buildings), it is probably time for other people in the organization to step up to the plate.

    1. TW

      But a good manager would also be able to say that they wanted to spread the knowledge base around. It sounds like the manager in this situation is barely acknowledging Zach’s existence.

    2. JT

      I think that spreading knowledge around is generally right, but it depends on the size of the team and how specialized the knowledge is. In this case the fact that the boss feels other team members can do the job means spreading knowledge/capacity around is probably wise (though he/she should be transparent about that rationale).

      But in, say, a five- or even ten-person team or organization, it might not be possible for more than one person to know how to use specialized technology, or do certain types of graphic design, or rigorous accounting, or some kinds of programming.

  3. Just a Reader

    I don’t see any evidence that this is racially based. It seems much more likely that Zach is overwhelmed or underperforming, and/or the LW is being given an opportunity to do new kinds of projects.

    1. Mike C.

      What kind of evidence would you need to see before you considered issues of race or creed being involved?

    2. Tiff

      I think the op would have to go into more detail than he/she would want to in order to provide “evidence” of racism, and in this case the op has considered several other options and is not reaching that conclusion lightly. The challenge with modern day racism is that it is usually not a conscious decision to exlude or discriminate, and when it is it’s usually well hidden.

      The “evidence” can be found in the results, in this case a good performer being excluded from his own work program. I’ve also seen cases where workers with heavier accents are avoided just because someone doesn’t (or sometimes can’t) deal with the accent. Either way, no matter why it happens, it alienates a worker who has value and impacts the organization negatively.

      1. Just a Reader

        I have zero experience with racism in the workplace, and maybe the OP is holding something back, but it sounds like there could be any number of reasons for this treatment that he/she isn’t aware of.

        Not defending the manager or saying it can’t be racism, only pointing out that nothing in the letter points to racism except the fact that the coworker is not a native speaker.

        1. Esra

          Not a native speaker, and not white. As someone who has had an outright racist boss (I called him on every comment and he had several complaints against him when I left the company), even an accent can be enough for someone to discriminate. It’s not something logic really applies to.

          1. Just a Reader

            Fair enough. I’m white but I am also a woman, and in my early career (13 years ago…not all that long), I had a couple of sexist bosses. Calling a female subordinate (or anyone) “sugar” or “honey” is never okay in the workplace.

            I work for a very diverse Fortune 500 company and have been lucky enough not to have ever witnessed racism in any form in my career…crazy that it happens in this day and age.

            1. Jamie

              “Calling a female subordinate (or anyone) “sugar” or “honey” is never okay in the workplace.”

              IME women do this far more than men. Just curious if it would bother you as much if a woman called you honey than if it were a man.

              1. CC

                To respond to this, women by definition don’t hold gender privilege over other women, so if you want to ask if it can be sexist when other women use it, then I am going to say no. Yes, it’s still annoying, but it doesn’t have the same implications.

                1. Ariancita

                  Yes, exactly. It’s about a social hierarchy. In many cultures, an older woman (usually the mother) can wield this privilege over younger women (usually the daughter in law) in negative ways within an extended family household. That can and does happen. But in the U.S., women don’t tend to hold gender privilege in any significant and enduring way over other women.

                2. Ellie H.

                  I disagree. I think women are capable of making sexist comments and propagating sexist ways of thinking about women. Over the summer some acquaintances were talking about playing soccer (which all of them had at some point), and one of the girls said something like, “Well, guys are just better at footwork.” I found this totally sexist, even though it was said by a woman. Perhaps using dismissive terms of endearment directed toward women such as “honey” is different, but it doesn’t seem fundamentally so to me.

              2. A Bug!

                With those examples it would depend on a little more context. First and foremost in my mind, it depends on whether or not the person involved uses those words on everybody, or just women.

                All women I’ve met who use “honey” and “sugar” use them on men and women. So it can be a little bit offputting but I’d hesitate to call it sexist, just over-familiar, I guess.

                On the other hand, I’ve never met a man who’d call a woman “honey” who would also call a man “honey” in anything other than a highly derogatory manner.

            2. Hari

              I almost can guarantee you its probably happened under your nose without you picking up on it. There are tons of *casual-isms that people do or say without even realizing (or even caring) how they are discriminating against minorities. The majority of it is small enough where unless you were of that certain minority and dealt with that on the regular you probably wouldn’t even pick up on it. It doesn’t make the person who did it “bad” or even “racist”, even if the actions were, it just means that they are a bit culturally ignorant.

              *http://casual-isms.tumblr.com/ a great website for anyone who wants to learn more about “casual-isms”. Be warned that they can come off as bit snarky and hostile to people who try to defend or write off these behaviors, but its a great resource for anyone, even minorities, to understand the history, hurt and consequences of these casual-isms.

              1. Emily

                Yes! Everyone should read Silent Racism, which talks about this exact thing. It’s not useful for us to use people-labels like “racist” or “not racist.” That just leads to people who inadvertently/well-intentionedly engage in racist beahvior protesting, “But I’m not racist!” which shuts down the whole attempt to correct problematic habits and behaviors that may be happening unconsciously. It’s much more useful to stop stigmatizing racists as bad people and to instead create safe space to talk about racism as a type of behavior that is often subtle, unintended, and unconscious, rather than the overt and intentional behavior of bad people.

                1. Ellie H.

                  Thanks for the recommendation, I am going to read this book ASAP. I am always looking for ways to educate myself about things like this now that I have realized how important they are.

                2. fposte

                  Excellently phrased. We all generally start with the “I’m not racist” notion and move on to “therefore what I do isn’t racist.” But since we’re not talking about conscious racism, we can’t really exonerate ourselves. I love Project Implicit at Harvard for showing a way to identify some of these things we reflect without realizing it:

                  http://projectimplicit.net/index.html

                  or take some tests for fun yourself at

                  https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/

                3. Ariancita

                  Replying to fposte: yep, I mentioned the Project Implicit test further down, but didn’t post the links! Thanks for giving the links!

            3. Emily

              The OP writes the Zach is “really good at his job and has a lot of knowledge about his specialized area” and also that Zach is non-white and not a native speaker.

              The OP also gives a specific example of the typical type of freeze-out she’s seeing and indicates that it was part of a pattern, rather than an isolated incident. (“In that particular example, you might say Ed assumed I’d coordinate with Zach, but there have been other times where that was fairly clearly not the case” and “possibly it’s all coincidence–though it’s looking less and less like it”)

              You, not knowing the coworker, look at this situation and despite the OP describing the coworker as great at his job and highly knowledgeable, you determine it’s more plausible that Zach is actually underperforming and the boss is not racist. This sort of reaction may explain why you’ve never witnessed racism in your career: because you appear to prefer accepting any other explanation besides racism, even when it directly contradicts the only evidence we have (the OP’s letter).

              1. Just a Reader

                Actually, I’m coming at this as a long-time manager. I’ve managed people who had undeserved reputations as rock stars, and I’ve managed people who were actually rock stars but flew under the radar. Colleagues often don’t have a full or accurate picture of their coworkers’ performance; managers do.

                I never said it’s not racism–I said none of the behaviors outlined in this letter automatically point to it.

                Perhaps you could ask questions for context before assuming I’m walking through life purposely blind to discrimination. Something to consider.

                1. Emily

                  I didn’t make assumptions and I certainly didn’t say you were doing it purposefully – quite the opposite, in fact. I said only that you *appear* to be preferring non-racism explanation, and that this *may* explain why you haven’t witnessed racism. Rather than interview you about your background and determine if this common phenomenon of white folks being unable to see racism, I made a general statement that I thought contributed to the general topic of discussion (privilege/unintentional racism) with careful wording to indicate that it may or may not apply to you in particular.

                2. Emily

                  Also, I simply took where you said, “It seems much more likely that Zach is overwhelmed or underperforming” and repeated it as, “you determine it’s more plausible that Zach is actually underperforming.” I didn’t say you said the boss wasn’t racist, just that you said it was more likely that he wasn’t. These were your own words that I thought could be reflecting an unconscious bias to prefer explanations other than racism, since you decided that an explanation that directly contradicted the assessment of someone closer to the situation than you was “more likely” than racism.

        2. Staying Anonymous

          I definitely understand what you are saying about a manager having a bigger picture than a co-worker. However, I would tend to guess that racism does exist in your workplace without your recognizing it, not because you are you but because everyone is racist to some extent. And everyone being racist to some extent does not mean that all bear the burden equally!

          I’d like to give an example of another -ism which may resonate better with the readers here. As an American living outside of the United States, I had to deal with people who would tell me how much they disliked then-President Bush. I wouldn’t even call any of them anti-American, but the effect of everyone’s comments combined was hostility!
          I am not saying that only Americans are allowed to complain about their president. I am saying that it feels hostile when the primary topic people want to talk about with ME is their unhappiness with the U.S.
          So, can you see how someone could feel negative vibes from others who may not be offensive individually?

    3. Anonymous

      I feel like this is another one of those posts where it’s something you’d have to see to understand why it’s making the OP feel the way it does. I’m remembering that post a while back when someone was concerned that her “elderly” coworker was declining mentally and people dogpiled that she was just being prejudiced based on age, then she came back and clarified and it absolutely did sound like the coworker was having issues.

  4. Mike C.

    For folks who are worried about “jumping to the race card” or whatever, I think it’s important that people like me never have to worry about things like, “did I miss a promotion because of my gender?” or “did I get laid off because of the color of my skin?”. Because I never have to worry about things like that, it becomes easy to dismiss the concerns of others because hey, “I’ve never seen it before, it must be something else.” This isn’t done maliciously or on purpose, but it’s really, really easy as someone born into privilege to not see the lack of privilege in others. That’s the definition of privilege, after all.

    Look, this isn’t some cesspool of the internet, this is a solid forum for the discussion of some rather important topics. Things may get heated at times, but the people who have questions answered and post in the comments are sane, rational people. And when someone comes here and says, “I think there’s something really bad going on, and here are some concrete examples why”, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Rather than cautioning them to “not jump to conclusions”, we should listen and be supportive.

    Look, I’m a guy. I’m one of those “I have to smell the milk myself before throwing it out” kind of guys. I have no idea what it’s like to worry about parking garages late at night or creepy coworkers following me around. I never will. Yet many women have this fear, and for good reason. So when I hear a woman discuss these issues, I need to take special care in understanding that even though I have never experienced these issues that these issues exist. All to often in the past I would disregard these issues because I hadn’t experienced them myself. Don’t be like me.

    1. Ellie H.

      This is a great sentiment expressed very well. I have also become much more open minded about realizing that issues exist even if I haven’t experienced them myself.

    2. BCW

      I agree. The OP didn’t say what her nationality was, but based on the comments, I assume she was white. So because she may suspect something of being racist, maybe she is a bit overly sensitive.

      As a black man I must say I would also need more evidence that there is anything racist about it. I have experienced racism in my life, and I know that it is often subtle. However anytime someone has an issue with a person of color or doesn’t treat them well, it isn’t necessarily based on their race. Ed may very well not like Zack, but doesn’t mean it has anything to do with race. Ed may have met with Zack at some point and they just didn’t get along. Who knows. I think when that is the assumption it can be pretty damaging as well.

    3. NewReader

      Well said, Mike C. And not only as work place advice but also good life advice.
      I am sure there are details that OP feels she should not be saying on the internet- the details would be too identifying. Someone who knows the situation might be reading and realize “Hey, that is Susie from the second floor! And she is talking about Andy but she calls him Zack!”
      I have noticed others- and done it myself – stating things in general terms. I do not wish to embarrass anyone- even if I am a bit miffed about the situation.
      One clue that drew me into the question was when OP said she has seen this happen before on more than one occasion.

      My rule of thumb is if I see something three times, then I need to question it (questioning as opposed to accusing). Three times can show a pattern. Sometimes seeing something ONCE is enough! But there are situations that can be ambiguous/muddy. (I saw a boss raise his hand to strike an employee. I only needed to see that ONCE.)

      I am likin’ what Alison said to do, OP. I would add one thing- perhaps New Boss has a minor hearing impairment. I have a slight hearing loss- usually not a big deal. But folks with accents- it is real work for me to understand. And talking on the phone with someone who has an accent- oh my. I am so embarrassed. My solution is to swallow my pride and just let people know “uhh, I have a very small hearing loss….” It took me a while to get over myself and say it out loud. I wonder if New Boss has a similar story.

    4. Ariancita

      Mike C., I always love your comments. Their straight forward and usually spot on. This is no exception. Well said.

    5. Another Job Seeker

      Thank you for your honesty. I believe that one reason that racism is still a problem in this nation is because people pretend it does not exist. I greatly appreciate your acknowledgement of what is often called “white privilege”. Thanks for looking into yourself to recognize that issues associated with race to exist – even if you have not experienced them directly. Your thoughtfulness is encouraging to me. Too often, racist attitudes are deeply ingrained. In many cases, people (of all races) mistreat others based on unconscious biases. They are not necessarily bad people, but their behavior can be destructive to relationships.

      In case anyone is wondering, I am a black woman. Unfortunately, I have experienced discrimination in the workplace. Too often, these situations are ignored because institutional racism can be subtle. If we wait until indisputable evidence about racism presents itself, we will not address much. We should use wisdom, of course. The OP’s supervisor’s treatment of Zach is inappropriate – whether it is racially motivated or not. (FYI, it sounds racist to me). However, I do acknowledge that it might not be racist. It can be addressed without calling the OP’s supervisor racist.

  5. AnotherAlison

    I have to wonder if there are some unmentioned reasons the OP thought racism could be a factor, because if not, it seems like a pretty big leap to make.

    I’ve been in a similar situation, and the new manager simply did not want to work with the white, American “Zach” at my place (because he didn’t like the way he worked, the deliverables he produced, and our Zach didn’t change when given feedback on his performance). It sounds like Ed hasn’t worked with Zach enough to know this type of thing yet, but maybe he has. Additionally, Ed may want to bring Zach’s area of work more under his control (i.e. Zach is part of another reporting structure and Ed would rather work with someone under his direct management). People getting screwed over in a power struggle happens all the time, regardless of race or gender.

    1. AnotherAlison

      (I’ll also add that while the OP says Zach was a good performer, the guy in our situation was, too. Some managers thought he was fine, but some others thought he wasn’t very good. Think of it as if Ed had asked Zach to keep his conference calls to twenty minutes, and Zach repeatedly made them 45 minutes. The extra content might have been fine, but our Ed did not want 45 minute calls. When the manager couldn’t get what he asked for, he gave up on trying to work with him.)

    2. Jamie

      I have to wonder if there are some unmentioned reasons the OP thought racism could be a factor, because if not, it seems like a pretty big leap to make.

      That’s what I was thinking. I agree that we should be alert to this and stand up to it when it’s happening…but I also think we should be cautious about such a serious allegation.

      I’m a woman. Someone could treat me badly because I’m a woman and that would be sexist. But it doesn’t follow that everything bad that happens to me is sexist, just because I happen to be a woman.

      I just didn’t see any facts in the letter to support the concern, again only going by what was written.

    3. Joey

      The only real sign that I see that there could be possible discrimination is the fact that it sounds like the Op may be insinuating that Zach is the token minority of the company. While its easy to make that anecdotal conclusion when you see different treatment of the only minority you’d really have to know more about the professional and local market to apply any credibility to that. And even then you’d have to find out more about the rationale for the treatment before making a reasonable assumption of discrimination.

  6. Anonymous

    I’m kinda distrubed that it seems that some people (not calling anyone out here) need “proof” before they will act on racism (or sexism, homophobia or other -isms). What kind of “proof” is good enough to call it? A horribly offensive joke? Firing someone and telling them to go back ‘where they belong’? Something else? People need to consider how detrimental racism or the like can be on the person or people it being carried out on, even if they don’t know it’s happening. I’m not saying you should accuse someone without proof, but like Alison said you need to push back and be an ally. Most discrimination, including racism and sexism, is this subtle. Sometime all you get is a “feeling”. People should push back on things that could be, just so this kind of sh*t can’t continue.

    And for anyone pointing out other reasons the manager could be acting this way, it doesn’t matter. The manager should not be acting this way. The other employees should not accept discrimination against anyone else. This is bad working environment.

    1. Just a Reader

      I don’t think anyone has demanded proof. Some of us are just pointing out it could be other factors. We’re not in the LW’s shoes and have no way of knowing what the environment is like.

      There’s nothing unethical about the manager’s actions that I can see. Poor management based on the lack of communication, yes, but not unethical. Poor management does not automatically equal discrimination.

    2. AnotherAlison

      The way I read this, the OP was concerned that Ed wasn’t working with Zach, and she didn’t say anything to the manager yet. To me, it seems the manager may not be aware that Zach is supposed to be handling things he is assigning the OP (maybe he is, but it’s not clear from the letter). If the OP said she had brought up the need to work with Zach with Ed, and Ed had been lukewarm on the idea, then I say there might be a very small indicator that there is some reason he doesn’t want to work with Zach, and it could be race. So far, we don’t even know that Ed DOESN’T want to work with Zach, just that he isn’t doing so yet.

      The other reasons this could happen are important. It’s not illegal for a manager to exclude an employee if it’s not discrimination. It may indeed be a bad working environment, and the OP is right to try to get Ed to include Zach in his area of work, but unless Ed has said he doesn’t want to work with Zach (or at least hinted around that he doesn’t want to) it seems premature to conclude racism.

    3. Jamie

      “I’m kinda distrubed that it seems that some people (not calling anyone out here) need “proof” before they will act on racism (or sexism, homophobia or other -isms).”

      I firmly agree that when it exists it should be fought against by everyone, not only those affected. And I also agree that no form of discrimination is okay and much of it can be subtle – which is just as wrong.

      But you ask about people’s retiecence to “act” on racism, etc without proof. It’s a really powerful allegation and absent any kind of proof or evidence I think it’s wise to make sure something is going on before you act on something that may or may not be the case.

      It is almost impossible sometimes to determine someone’s motivations for why they behave the way they do. That’s why I think addressing the actions or behavior is the way to go.

      No one should let discrimination go unchallenged, to be sure, but it’s also dangerous to have a zero burden of proof requirement before accusing someone of such heinous things.

      1. Zed

        But I don’t ANYONE in this thread has been advocating accusing the OP’s manager of “such heinous things.” I can’t imagine anyone assuming that the OP would interpret Alison’s (very good) advice as, “Call your boss a racist to his face!”

        The truth of the matter is that it might be racism or it might not be. But racism shouldn’t be ruled out just because it’s not polite to consider that someone (especially someone who is otherwise perfectly upstanding) might possibly be uncouth enough to have some unconscious racism going on.

        1. Jamie

          Like many, many topics the OP’s letter is discussed but so are the broader constructs it represents. My interpretation of the comments was that people were saying that based on the facts given in this case it may or may not be the case – we don’t have enough information to know. That was in response to the specific OP.

          The broader topic of addressing racism, beyond the OP’s specific situation, was some people expressing the need to use caution before you act on an allegation that could ruin a career.

          No one was advocating racism, or ignoring racism – from what I read.

          Alison’s advice is perfect for this instance – but as is so often the case people were commenting about the issue in a more general sense. An past example of this is the post where the boss was stealing an employee’s lunch. The direct problem was that employee, her lunch, and that boss. But the conversation encompassed expectations of personal space in the work place, rude co-workers, and dealing with bosses with social issues far outside the norm.

          If it was just about the lunch the comments wouldn’t have been needed. Alison gave the right advice so there would be no need to discuss it.

          I’m a little confused as to how I’m reading things so differently than some of you, who seem genuinely upset at what I think is a perceived tolerance (or willful ignorance) of racism – and I’m just not seeing that.

          People urging caution and making sure there is an issue before proceeding are not condoning racism. People urging others to act on racism without proof I am sure would find someone unjustly accused of racism to be abhorrent.

          If I played a role in the consternation I’m certainly sorry – I just don’t understand the anger as no one is advocating turning a blind eye to any discrimination.

          1. Zed

            I’m certainly not angry or upset, but I am… baffled. I am most confused, I think, by the suggestion that suspecting the OP’s manager of some degree of racism or discrimination is somehow doing damage to him or his reputation. You suggest the same in your response by using phrasing such as “act on racism without proof” and ” an allegation that could ruin a career.”

            I find this confusing because I am not really sure what act or allegation you mean. Unless I’m mistaken, not a single person has said that the OP should call her boss a racist, bring up the issue with HR, call the newspapers, or look into legal action. Or tattoo “racist” across his forehead. There is certainly a stigma attached to people who are know as being intolerant or bigoted, but I have a hard time imagining the OP bringing that stigma down on her boss’s head as the result of any of the comments here.

            I guess I just think the “think before you call him racist! that’s the worst thing you can call someone!” reaction is unwarranted and dismissive of the very real possibility that the situation described could be as a result of Zach’s race, ethnicity, or accent.

            (Also, it’s interesting how tense people get when they discuss race. If Zach were Sally, the only female computer specialist, and the OP was a man who was constantly given techie projects… I wonder if people here would be saying, “Don’t call your boss sexist! That will ruin his career!” Or, for that matter, “Maybe Sally just isn’t a very good programmer.”)

            1. Jamie

              “I find this confusing because I am not really sure what act or allegation you mean.”

              Again, by act I was referring to a specific post from Anonymous at 10:23 where s/he talked about being dismayed that people would need proof before acting on racism.

              My comments were in reply to a specific comment which had nothing to do with the OP as I made clear in the post to which you’re replying – I deliberately referenced speaking about the issue in the broader context.

              If we can only discuss the specifics of an OP’s letter and the broader context – even when it’s clear that is the intent – is off topic then I am mistaken.

              I do feel I’m being misunderstood, deliberately or not, because you’re arguing my words in the context of the OP’s specific problem when I went to great pains to make clear I was speaking about the issue in the broader sense.

              I hate when things get combative and have too much respect for this community, and Alison, to contribute to it further.

              This is clearly a very emotionally charged subject and debate can be a great thing and much can be learned from that. I would just urge caution for people to try to understand the points to which they are replying – since there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding on both sides.

            2. Xay

              “If Zach were Sally, the only female computer specialist, and the OP was a man who was constantly given techie projects… I wonder if people here would be saying, “Don’t call your boss sexist! That will ruin his career!” Or, for that matter, “Maybe Sally just isn’t a very good programmer.””

              The sad thing is there probably would be more than a few people who say that.

    4. Zed

      I agree, Anonymous – it bothers me as well that many commenters are so cautious about suspecting racism. Racism and discrimination are complicated and insidious; very few people, this manager included, think, “Zach is not white and he speaks strangely. I will treat him differently (and worse) than I treat everyone else!”

      Sometimes, sure, but I think more often than not the situation is lot more subtle. You start out vaguely uncomfortable with Zach, perhaps because he is a little harder to understand. Maybe you have a hard time figuring out how much he does and doesn’t because you are not always sure what he means. Maybe you and Zach are from different religions, maybe you have different cultural heritages and expectations, and maybe you feel like you don’t connect. Maybe Zach reminds you of someone else of his racial or ethnic group that you used to work with, and you don’t even realize that you associate his accent or dress with that person. Maybe you find Zach threatening because you are afraid you will say something offensive. Maybe, because of all this, you feel kind of relieved when you can interact with someone who is not Zach. Next thing you know you are routing things that concern Zach’s work through someone that is not Zach. General “you,” of course.

      I think it’s really important to watch out for situations like this. It’s especially difficult in a case where there is only one [minority-group] employee in an organization or department. If the only non-white worker is passed over for promotion or the only woman is the only person who isn’t invited to speak at department meetings or the only gay person is never included in workplace social events, that might be indicative of a very serious problem. It’s too easy to say “Oh, well, so-and-so just doesn’t work as hard,” or “So-and-so doesn’t like to speak in front of groups,” or “So-and-so just isn’t friends with people are work.”

    5. Amouse

      I think you’re missing the point. Many people just seem to be saying that there could be other contributing factors besides racism at play here including the manager’s own newness to the position as to why this co-worker of the OP’s is not receiving the same projects as before. Even the OP said that. Those facts need to be figured out which would be accomplished through Alison’s advice on how to address it.

      By saying that no one is making any kind of statement about not acting on discrimination. of course it should be acted upon if it does in fact exist, but instead of assuming this is racism the OP should first have a conversation with the manager about it to establish the whys of the situation.

      That’s just displaying general fairness.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        But no one is suggesting the OP do anything other than what you’re saying — have a conversation with the manager of the type I described in my answer.

        They are, however, validating that yes, this behavior certainly could be based on unconscious race-based attitudes. Not that it absolutely is, just that yes, it could be. Because it could be. Even in those of us who think of ourselves as egalitarian.

        1. Amouse

          Sorry. I was responding to Anonymous’s statement: “I’m kinda distrubed that it seems that some people (not calling anyone out here) need “proof” before they will act on racism (or sexism, homophobia or other -isms). “

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            The thing is, you can’t always get proof. How are you going to prove that the African American accountant didn’t get as much feedback as she would have if she were white, or that she wasn’t given access to the same mentors that her white colleague had? There are often other factors that you could attribute those things too. But we know from our own experiences and those of people of other races that this stuff is real.

            What makes this issue so difficult is that much of these things are invisible. You’ve just got to be aware of how privilege issues often play out, raise your consciousness about their presence around you, and not dismiss them.

            1. Amouse

              Please don’t assume I am not conscious of these very real issues. I very much am. I think about these issues constantly and I am very troubled by social injustice.

              If my comment came across as naive to those issues, I apologize. All I was trying to say was that I agreed with your advice that the OP needed to have a conversation with his/her boss before assuming anything and that I disagreed that people, by saying that conversation need to take place first, were in any way saying not to act on discrimination. Also, based on the facts we have, the benefit of the doubt should also be given to the Op’s boss so I think other contributing factors in the boss’ attitude are relevant contrary to what Anonymous said.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                No need to apologize (and sorry if I implied there was)! I think this makes sense. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about these issues without people reading things one way or another, regardless of what you intended!

                1. Amouse

                  I’m really glad because I think your advice and your blog are wonderful. I reacted too quickly when I sent that. These emotionally charged topics get me.

          2. Amouse

            And also Anonymous’s statement: “And for anyone pointing out other reasons the manager could be acting this way, it doesn’t matter. The manager should not be acting this way. The other employees should not accept discrimination against anyone else. This is bad working environment”.
            I was just pointing out that yes, the other possible reasons for the behaviour besides racism imo do matter. Sorry for not highlighting my references.

    6. 10:23 Anon

      I think I didn’t make my point clear: don’t call the manager a racist MF without proof; but if you see someone treated differently, no matter what the reason, speak out.

      I got a taste of some sexism the other day, when I heard my manager (also a women), tell another person that people use accumulated sick time for maternity leave. It wasn’t intentional sexism on her part, but this is a common perception at my workplace: women who have lots of sick time will use it for maternity leave. Yes, I viewed it as sexism, even if it will never impact me if I don’t have children.

      Another example: Most of the janitorial staff at my workplace are people of color. Why? I don’t know. Is it racism? Is my workplace to blame? It’s probably racism, but what to do about it? This is how subtle discrimination can be.

      1. fposte

        On the maternity leave–are you saying it’s sexist that that’s their only option? Because if sick leave is permitted for maternity leave, I don’t see that as sexist to simply say. That happens here, and it’s perfectly legit–it’s one way people get paid while they’re out on FMLA leave.

        1. 10:23 Anon

          No, it’s sexist the assumption is that’s the only thing women use extended sick time for. Not being sick themselve, not caring for sick relatives, but just to have a kid. Or even not using it, because you almost never get sick (me).

  7. Kat M

    Guys, Alison never said, “Call your boss a racist jerkface.” She said to get clarity on exactly what is happening, and why. As the OP pushes for this clarity, it will become more and more obvious whether her/his boss is clueless, struggling to understand his new job, racist, or simply a bad communicator. At that point, the OP can move forward as appropriate.

    If you want to argue about the burden of proof and the reality of discrimination in the workplace, it seems there are ways to do that without dragging this OP and his/her request (for advice on *action,* not on discerning racism, remember) into it.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, I’m confused by this. None of my advice involves accusing the manager of racism. What are you guys responding to with these dire warnings not to do that?

      1. Xay

        Because in this day and age, the potential threat of being considered racist is viewed as worse than potentially being a vicitim of racism. So to actually deal with an issue of discrimination or prejudice requires jumping a high bar of “proof” because we all know that being racist is for cross burning, hood wearing, explicit racial slur using white men with Southern accent and not your suit wearing, friendly boss who can’t seem to find a POC employee who is “good at client relations” or suitable for promoting to a management position.

        1. Ariancita

          Yep. There’s a lot of social theory around this issue that I won’t bore people with (social theory born of evidence on the ground, so not just some fluff), but this is exactly how deep systemic disparities play out: there’s *greater* concern over the negative consequences (real and imagined) of being accused of racism/sexism/homophobia/etc than of the consequences of discrimination itself. Because people in privileged positions are more threatened by the former, generally.

          1. Zed

            It really reminds me of the way mainstream society often characterizes “being accused of rape” as worse than “being raped.” And that too comes in the form of, “Think really hard before you threaten that nice man’s reputation! Especially if you maybe wanted it, just a little!”

          2. fposte

            Short version: people who are likelier to be accused of racism than the victim of racism worry more about the former.

    2. Amouse

      Exactly. Well said.
      Alison seemed to be offering a advice on balanced mode of action for the OP that would indirectly address racism if it were present but would stick to the issue at hand which is: the OP feels her co-worker is being left out of projects that previously fell within his scope of specialization under the previous manager..

      Part of what I love about the discussion on this blog is the level of commentary and thoughtful analysis that goes on. Part of what is also frustrating is when there is a blanking effect over all else an OP has said because racism or sexism or ageism are brought up as one possibility . There are not sufficient facts here to do that.

      So for the OP: I highly agree with Alison’s advice and I think it would satisfy all the possibilities of why your co-worker seems to be being left out of the loop. Good luck!

  8. Ask a Manager Post author

    Let me jump back in and say this, because there seems to be a lot of confusion around this point. The OP is struggling with whether it’s reasonable to racism consider among a range of possible reasons, because Zach happens to be the only non-white person on the team. There are other possible explanations too, but this is one of them.

    And racism in the workplace today is often more subtle than in days past. It’s often stuff like a manager not giving feedback to a person of color because she’s not comfortable having a sensitive conversation with someone of a difference race (thus leading to that person not hearing where she could do better), or not giving someone of a different race hard or important projects because they have unconscious questions about that person’s work ethic. It’s people of color not easily being able to find senior-level managers who have had past experiences similar to theirs and who can share how they’ve navigated those experiences (something that white people can generally find pretty easily).

    It’s about privilege and lack thereof, and as Mike C. said really well above, if you’ve never had to worry about those things because your skin color gives you the privilege of not even needing to think about it, it’s easy to assume no one else faces these issues.

  9. Ask a Manager Post author

    I want to add another thing. (Sorry, I keep thinking of things to add!)

    This isn’t about being a swastika-wearing white supremicist, or someone who uses the N word, or someone who would care if their kid dated someone of another race, or whatever people think of first when they think “racist.”

    It’s about much, much more subtle attitudes than that, attitudes that even the most well-intentioned of us struggle with. Hell, even people who actively work on anti-racism campaigns struggle with this stuff. Most of us commenting here probably do. If you’ve ever been hesitant to have a sensitive conversation with someone of another race because you’re afraid they’ll think that their race was a factor, then you struggle with this. If you’ve ever bristled at the idea of being wrongly accused of racism more than the idea of someone else being subjected to racism, then you struggle with it.

    These issues are hard. They might be harder now that they’re so subtle, I don’t know. But if you haven’t done a lot of thinking about your own privilege (particularly the privilege that you get simply by being white in this society), I really recommend this excerpt of a excellent essay, where the author lists 50 “daily effects of white privilege” on her life.
    http://jimbuie.blogs.com/journal/2007/11/50-examples-of-.html

    (It’s from a larger essay that’s more academic, but the list itself — which is what’s on this page — is very relatable.)

    1. Ariancita

      Yes, exactly. The sublte-ness of it, in academic language, has been covered by people like Fanon and Foucault. But even though it’s really subtle, it has real material effects.

      This also reminds me of that Avenue Q song: everybody is a little bit racist. I think being self aware is not about saying “I don’t engage in racist behavior and I’d easily date a person outside my race.” It’s more about: “In what ways is race/gender/religion/orientation playing into how I am acting in this situation?” That’s a tough, but great, question to ask yourself.

      1. NicoleW

        +1 for Avenue Q reference!

        That was a very interesting list. I like the “invisible knapsack” image the author mentions before the list. Some points I expected to see, but some I really had never thought of. I will note that for all 50 to apply, I think you’d have to be a heterosexual male and not just white. But still, a very long list of privileges.

    2. Ellie H.

      Thanks so much for the link about the effects of white privilege. Really effective points. I learn SO MUCH from this blog.

    3. JT

      “Most of us commenting here probably do.”

      I sure do. I live in a world where there is huge structural racism and it even affects me and my attitudes toward other black people. I try to be aware of it and work on it for myself. Not dismiss it.

  10. Ariancita

    Also, in case anyone is interested, Harvard has a Project Implicit that tests implicit bias (race is among the tests). Studies show results are fairly accurate. You can google it and take the test online. It’s pretty interesting!

  11. Louis

    A some point it just become impossible to judge.

    Lets say Zach in this story was white and spoke perfect english, everything else in the story is the same. You could just assume that the boss didn’t like Zach. It might not be very nice of him but it’s just a fact of live that there will be some people that don’t like you.

    Since Zach is not white and not native english, we jump at the racist conclusion. It’s almost like it’s imposible to simply dislike an invidiual if he’s a differant color than you without getting racist.

    I dislike Bob, Bob is black = I’m a racist.

    Imho, before calling anyone racist, you would have to make sure that he acts like that consistantly with a majority of people of a certain race.

    How is the boss acting with other non white, non english people aside from Zach

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      No one is saying the boss is definitely racist, but rather that one possibility is that racism (conscious or unconscious) is impacting his behavior toward Zach. Because that IS one possibility — you agree with that, right?

      And no one is suggesting calling the boss racist. The only advice that’s been given here — by me or by any commenters — is to point out to the boss that Zach normally handles these things.

      “How is the boss acting with other non white, non english people aside from Zach?”

      The OP said Zach is the only non-white person on their team.

      1. Just a Reader

        Emily, I can’t reply to your post quoting parts of my post for some reason.

        I said that, again, as a manager because IN MY EXPERIENCE those are actions/decisions based on performance. Also note that I said they are indicators of poor management.

    2. fposte

      The question in any situation isn’t really whether X *is* a racist–it’s whether the *action* is based in racism. That’s why it doesn’t matter if X has biracial kids or parents of a different race or whatever, because that doesn’t say anything about this particular action.

      It’s not trying to find out if anybody’s secretly a witch–it’s just noting that my decision is probably involving some things it shouldn’t, and that I should be aware and correct that.

    3. Joey

      I think you’re confusing labeling someone a racist vs. racial discrimination. IMO labeling someone a racist is another topic for another hour. The only real issue that’s relevant at work is whether there’s different treatment and whether it was based on race. You can certainly be a racist at home and never racially discriminate at work. Possible-yes, but not likely. But again at work we’re only concerned with whether or not the treatment was based on race. And legally, if theres evidence to back that up.

      1. A. Dylan

        Yes! I’d also like to point out that Alison’s initial advice to the OP satisfies all of the possibilities that people have raised here.

        No one, including myself, seems to disagree with the idea that -IF- Zach is being excluded ONLY because of his race, accent, cultural differences, etc., -THEN- it would qualify as racism, however subtle, overt, subconscious, or intentional it may or may not be.

        However, as Alison, the OP, and some other posters have pointed out, there COULD be other reasons for the exclusion that have absolutely nothing to do with Zach’s race.

        Alison’s advice is astute for either situation and, I would argue, is ESPECIALLY effective if the manager is, indeed, guilty of the subtle/subconscious racism described to great effect in some of the above comments.

        -IF- the manager IS subconsciously, subtly discriminating against Zach, calling the manager a “Racist Idiot,” while gratifying, wouldn’t effectively solve Zach’s problem. As commenters have pointed out, being called a racist is particularly loathsome for people that are in majority groups (hence, subtle racism and its manifestations, such as not providing as much criticism to minority employees in order to duck a charge of racism). As such, the well-meaning-yet-slightly-xenophobic manager would most certainly be on the defensive. I can’t realistically picture him, confronted with this hypothetical evidence, saying, “You know what? I AM being racist.”

        My point here is that, arguments about what racism is or isn’t aside, Alison is absolutely right. At this point in time for the OP and for Zach, the solution is the same either way. And, yes, of course, the OP should remain aware of her suspicions and should continue to monitor in order to adjust to a more or less urgent plan as necessary.

  12. Lexy

    So… what about talking to Zach?

    I would think asking about this in the same judgment free way you talk to the boss, but direct it to Zach. Something like: “Zach, have you felt like you’ve being getting less of the assignments related to [HIS SPECIALTY]? It seems like [New Boss] is spreading them around a little more” this gives Zach the opportunity to say that 1) he is still getting plenty of assignments, no problem 2) his role is changing and he’s starting to do more of [Y] instead of [X] 3) he had noticed and doesn’t know what’s up. etc. etc.

    But it gives your coworker a say in how he’s perceived in the office instead of being discussed behind his back (even if, on the LW’s end, it’s a discussion in his benefit).

    Maybe it’s not appropriate, or maybe you’re not close enough with him to comfortably bring it up. But I think it’s worth considering. I would personally hate to know a coworker was talking to my manager on my behalf without my knowledge.

    1. OP

      Lexy, I replied to Zee below who had a similar question. I’m reluctant to approach Zach about this directly for the reasons I mentioned to Zee, but I’ll keep it in mind.

  13. K.

    My boyfriend (not really; I wish) Jay Smooth has an excellent video called “How to Tell People They Sound Racist.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc

    The premise is essentially that you have to distinguish between “That thing you did or said that time is racist” and “You are racist.” I think that’s what’s getting people jammed up – and, like Jay notes, causing a straying from the point.

    1. NewReader

      K, really good link, the speaker knows how to present. Wow.

      Yep. Keep the conversation focused on the action(s) not the person.

      1. K.

        Jay Smooth is brilliant. He’s a hip-hop radio show host by trade (he’s had a hip-hop radio show in NYC forever; his real name is John Randolph) but his vlogs cover lots of topics, both race-related and not. I highly recommend checking him out. (I have a crush on him, as I mentioned. He’s cute and smart, which is really all I need.) That video is his most viewed/popular – people use it in college curricula, from what I’ve heard.

  14. Zee

    My only wondering is “What does Zach have to say about this?” After all, he’s the one the OP believes is possibly being discriminated against. Alison: Can you email the OP and ask him to fill us in here?

    1. OP

      Zee, I’ve been reluctant to talk to Zach about it directly because if he hasn’t noticed a problem, I don’t want to rub his nose in it. That may or may not be a useful attitude on my part, but I usually try to avoid pointing out a problem with anyone’s situation unless I know the situation can be improved–no point in just making a person unhappy about something if it can’t be changed.

  15. OP

    Thank you! Alison, I really like your advice–thank you for giving me some actions that are appropriate no matter whether what I’m seeing is racially motivated or not. I was stuck dithering over whether my boss was really being racist or not, and your advice cuts right through that.

    (And wow, I should have realized this letter would open up a can of worms, but it didn’t cross my mind! Thanks, everyone, for staying civil despite the disagreements here.)

  16. Oneika

    If something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. We have intuition for a reason. If you have ever had someone abuse their authority for any reason, you know the feeling, it doesn’t just have to be about race. You should proceed carefully and maybe send an anonymous email to your HR rep (set up a hotmail account concernedemployee) if you don’t want to get involved directly. But kudos to your for recognizing that there is an issue of unfairness, racial or not. Saying nothing is tacit acceptance of a situation. Who knows maybe next it’s someone’s sex or social status or religion that gets questioned.

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