our white manager centers herself in conversations about racism — and other questions with Michelle Silverthorn

Today Michelle Silverthorn, founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation, returns to Ask A Manager! Michelle is the author of the best-selling book Authentic Diversity: How to Change the Workplace for Good (read an excerpt here) and talked with us earlier this year about the work she does to help build more equitable companies. Now she’s back to take your questions!

She’s also starting a weekly video series on LinkedIn Live answering questions just like the ones below so if you like what you read here, connect with her at her website.

Michelle: Hello friends. It’s so nice to be back here again. Let’s dive in, shall we?

My non-white coworkers are being paid less than me

Reader #1: What should/can you do if you realize your BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) colleagues are being paid less than you? My company doesn’t post salaries or salary ranges with job descriptions. But we’re a small and close team, and we’ve all recently discussed our salaries. I’m making five grand more a year than one of my BIPOC colleagues. I was on the hiring team for her position, though not part of the negotiation process, and assumed the position would have the same starting salary as my own. We’ve got similar levels of experience, and definitely the same level of responsibility in our roles. The same is true with my other BIPOC colleague. We’re all part of the same department. To make matters worse, our organization runs diversity and equality initiatives within our field!

There are a number of other issues with this organization, and this one is the last straw. I’m definitely looking for work elsewhere. One of the colleagues in question is leaving shortly as well, partially because of this. But between now and when I hopefully leave this company, is there something I can do to push for change/equal pay for my colleagues?

Michelle: Here we have two BIPOC colleagues, both of whom are making less than the writer, one of whom is leaving the organization, the other of whom is apparently staying.

My first question to the writer is whether you shared your salary with both BIPOC colleagues? Or was the sharing a one-way street? I want to start there because the work of allyship is rotten from the start if it’s centered on what the ally thinks is best, rather than what the marginalized person thinks is best. So step 1. Share what you are making and after they have had time to process that news, invite them to have a conversation on responding to this inequitable situation.

Step 2. During that conversation, find out how your colleagues would like to respond. Like you set out above, one of your colleagues is done with the organization. They could have completely checked out and are ready to leave. They might be tired, exhausted from the work, or not wanting to damage relationships before they exit. Or … they might want to start a revolution as they grab their goldfish on their way out. Whatever their response might be, center them, their emotions, and their actions, and give them the grace to respond in a way that you may or may not agree with, but that is their choice to make.

At the same time, you have a BIPOC colleague who is still there making less than you. You have an inequitable situation that you have awareness of and, based on your role on your hiring team and your higher salary, some power to address. In that follow-up conversation, open the dialogue with them. “We’ve shared what our salaries are and as a White person making more money than you for the same work, I think the pay is grossly unfair. I have some ideas of what I could do, but I want to know where you would like to start.” Center them, not you. Give them the respect they deserve by providing the space for them to share if they want to act, how, and whether they would like you to be a part of that.

Because now we have arrived at Step 3 – action. Your BIPOC colleagues may want to be involved or they may not. There are several ways to approach the solution. All of them depend on how much power, allyship, and runway you have at this company. Crucially, do not put your BIPOC colleagues out there if they don’t want to be. Try this tack. You mentioned that there are DEI initiatives at your company. If there are, then your manager is likely involved in them. Here’s how I would script this conversation. Let’s say your manager’s name is Kim.

“Kim, do you have a few minutes to chat?” [pause for response]

“I know I’m not involved in salary negotiations, and I don’t know how much power you have over them, but I’ve learned that my salary is higher than several of our BIPOC colleagues and I’m worried that might be a department/company-wide issue.”

Here’s why this works. First, you’ve placed yourself as an asker, not a teller. Second, you’ve not assumed that Kim had the power to decide on the salary. Third, you’ve not shared how you found out that information – it could be third or fourth-hand for all Kim knows, and if Kim presses you, simply respond, “I’d really prefer not to say.” Fourth, you’re not putting the blame on Kim’s leadership but rather you’re expressing your concern for the company that this might be a larger issue than here. That fourth point is particularly helpful because if after a few weeks, you haven’t received a response, you can offer to escalate it. “I know the company’s really doubling down on DEI initiatives. I’m considering taking this to the DEI taskforce for their thoughts.” You’re applying more pressure to Kim without throwing her under the bus. As you continue, you can decide how much more pressure, and accountability, need to be applied.

I hope that helps with what you will choose to do. Here’s one last tip for your next job. As you interview at new places, look up their public commitments to racial equity. Then ask the person interviewing you what progress their team or department has made over the last 18 months. If they say, “Well, I’ll need to find out,” that’s a sign that while they may say it matters, the day-to-day reality in the department might be quite different. I hope you find a place worthy of your talent, and your allyship.

Feedback on tone

Reader #2: I am a Black woman working in government. Throughout my career, I have constantly gotten advice about my tone. I tend to say what is on my mind in a polite, yet professional manner. I am outspoken, presenting questions and thoughts during meetings as they are requested, and setting the stage for further questions (and lively discussion) from others on almost every occasion. As I have advanced, and I’ve been promoted several times, I have achieved the role that I have been working toward my entire career. I plan to continue advancing within government.

My management tells me that my communication style is very blunt and that I tend to dominate conversations. I’ve been told on a few occasions that I need to temper how I speak. It has become a performance metric of mine. I have gotten much better at not being the first to speak, and better at not dominating conversations. My manager has remarked that there is a notable positive difference in how I behave during meetings, trainings, etc.

My colleagues, the majority of whom who are white, say so very little and (in my opinion) tend to depend on my risk-taking to bring forth complaints and concerns (and solutions). I know for a fact that this occurs because after I lodge a complaint or express a concern to higher ranking persons in management, people literally tiptoe toward me when management is out of sight to thank me profusely for bringing a problem or question to the forefront.

I feel that it’s very disingenuous to be told that I need to diminish my presence; however, it does make sense given that my management has explained to me that (now that I am reaching higher levels) I’m going to be speaking to people who don’t have to do what I want and so I need to present myself in a way that makes them want to help me. How do I balance the dissonance of being told to hold back, knowing that this tends to be the standard type of advice for marginalized people like me, while acknowledging that perhaps my manager has a point?

Michelle: I will preface this by saying I am not an executive presence coach. I think you’ve received some solid coaching advice on how to be better heard and understood. That is good. Here are my two cents. I believe that if you have been promoted with the personality, insight, and change leadership that you’re bringing to the table, then your tone is putting you in the right position for success. The question I have is whether you have allies in the corner to back you up.

I don’t love hearing that people are “tiptoeing” to you to thank you for what is being done. If they’re only thanking you in private then they’re also not speaking up for you in private. I want to make sure that the people who are benefitting from your courage are also supporting you when promotion time comes again and defending you against any backlash that might arise. You shouldn’t be the only one who puts yourself out there so your colleagues can receive the safety of your cover.

Instead of focusing on your tone, I would encourage you to focus on your leadership as well. Who are you cultivating to also do the work of challenging actions and speaking up for change? Given the power and platform you have in the company, who can you coach who may have a different communication style than those in the majority so you are not always the only in every one of these meetings speaking up and out? They could be your peers, they could be your direct reports, and frankly they could be people who you report to. They have already coached you to speak the way they speak so your communication with them can improve. Then they also need to step into your shoes and start communicating the way you do so you can also be a success at work, especially when that communication style – and I cannot stress this enough –benefits them.

Start with one person, or two. Show them how they can also make the same comments or interjections in meetings that you do. Make it part of the feedback you deliver to them. Make it part of the comments you share with your manager. Real equity and inclusion is a two-way street. Essentially you’re saying, if you’d like me to diminish my personality to meet you at your level, then I also need you to raise your personality to meet me at mine. We learn to play each other’s game and we both succeed.

Read an update to this letter here

Responding to offensive remarks as a white person

Reader #3: My question is about how to handle witnessing instances of “casual” racism at work as a white person. I work at a fairly large national company in the U.S. We have a pretty diverse, partially remote team with a mix of races, ages, genders, and locations. Despite being spread out, we are a pretty close-knit team and talk frequently. The other day during a Zoom team call (on which our boss was NOT present), a very young, white coworker was talking about the town she recently moved to and referenced “the hood” of her town with some discussion of how it compared to “the hood” of her previous town. She also described one of the restaurants in the town as “ghetto.” It came across as extremely ignorant. There were several people of color on the call, but no one said anything about it. While it was secondhand embarrassing to me, it may have been actually hurtful to others.

This is the first incident I’ve seen like this from anyone on our team, but the company as a whole certainly has room for improvement. 

As a white person, I don’t want to be a gatekeeper for what should or shouldn’t be offensive to people of color at our company or speak over anyone, but I also don’t want to watch these things happening without saying something simply because it’s uncomfortable for me to speak up. How would you suggest handling this type of situation in the future? Should I try to talk to the coworker even if I don’t know that anyone was offended? Should I raise a red flag to our boss about it? Thanks for any help you can provide!

Michelle: There aren’t many hard and fast rules in racial equity, but here is one! A White person calling something ghetto is always offensive. Period. This isn’t a “call-in” kind of moment. I don’t need you to consult with your Black colleagues first. This is a call-out. I would speak directly to the young, White woman and say this: “I know you just started, but what you said on the call about the neighborhood and the restaurant is not the language we use here.” You can measure your level of comfort at re-using the words again when you’re speaking with her, but this is absolutely a line in the sand. This is one of those microaggressions that a lot of Black employees will experience and still see this young White woman get promoted despite her use of those words. Absolutely not. This has to stop.

Now, she might pretend she never said it. She might genuinely believe she didn’t say it. She might laugh it off and think it’s not a big deal.  Those are all part of her privilege as a young, White woman. And let’s be clear, privilege doesn’t make anyone a bad person. Unchecked privilege, however, can be destructive. You have the power to check it. Do it. She has a long career and you have a potentially long mentoring relationship that might result.

Addressing racism toward a Black employee who didn’t want me to escalate it

Reader #4: I work in a field that has a massive public service element and is not known for its diversity. This was true in our organization; we had two people of color in my department, which was one of the largest. I was co-supervisor, and my boss, Phil, managed both supervisors, professionals, and paraprofessionals—it was all a little nebulous but we worked well as a team, though he was the official boss.

Our organization was in a self-proclaimed liberal town, but in my daily life I witnessed tons of racially based microaggressions, usually in the form of tone-policing Black women. Which leads to the thing I cannot let go: Our one Black employee, Diana, received the most complaints from customers and was often accused by other staff of being “lazy” and having an “attitude.” I understand that employees act differently around their bosses, but I never witnessed her being anything but great with the public, and other staff would tell me when she did something particularly good. We also had security cameras without sound, and there was one incident where she went to help a male customer with his computer, and though we couldn’t hear what was said, he grabbed the keyboard from her and slammed it down and stomped out of the room, and another customer complained to the supervisor on duty (who was on a different floor).

I suppose it’s possible Diana said something incendiary without revealing body language, but that is not what it looks like—it looks like a white customer freaking out at a Black employee for no reason. She and I had a relatively close relationship so we were chatting one day and she told me that Phil had disciplined her (not formally) because she “must have said something to set this guy off.”

I was f**king livid. The fact that he wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that racism was a factor in how customers respond to her…grr. She and I spoke frankly about it, but she also said she did not want me to go to Phil to reconsider his assessment of the situation. So I didn’t. The biggest part of me thinks I did the right thing by respecting the request of my employee, and I can totally empathize that she did not want to be a “teaching tool” for someone who makes at least twice what she does (and who, in her view, did not respect her). But I wonder if I should have somehow brought it to his attention without naming her—even though I’m not sure how I would have done that because she was literally one of two Black employees in the entire building.

Should I have handled it differently? How could I have brought it up to Phil while maintaining Diana’s anonymity—or should I have brought it up anyway, even if he knew I was talking about her?

Michelle: How awful. That customer disrespect is reason enough to be angry. But I want to offer another perspective. Diana has agency. She has exercised her agency to say that she doesn’t want an intervention. You performing an intervention that she has expressly stated her opposition to is infantilizing her and treating her like her agency does not matter.

There is a reason “white savior” is so loathed by the Black community, and such a beloved trope in books, TV shows, and Oscar-winning performances. It feels great to stand up on someone’s behalf who is being clearly wronged when you know you are in the right. But here’s what’s wrong with being a White savior. You are centering you. You are centering yourself, your anger, and your outrage, rather than centering the person hurt. There could be many reasons why someone has asked you not to do anything: their fear of reprisal, their fear of embarrassment, and, frankly, their fear that maybe they were in the wrong too. And, this may be hard to hear, but what has been truly exhausting for many people of color these last few years is the fervent emotions of White allies – anger, outrage, tears, sorrow, more outrage. It can feel like we’re on a runaway train of emotions where we end up being the ones in charge of slowing it down, “It’s OK. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” How does that change anything?

Now, there is another perspective where Diana may not feel comfortable speaking up because racist structures have exhausted her and silenced her voice. But what I haven’t heard from you in this letter are her thoughts on any of what you have noticed. The microaggressions you have witnessed. The way she is spoken about by customers and colleagues. What does she think? What is her opinion? What are her thoughts? Where is her agency? As an ally, what I would like you to do is build a trusting enough relationship where she can share those challenges with you, you can offer your own perspective as to why you think this also might be the case, and unpack some of the racist internalization that so many Black people have suffered over the years – “Maybe it is me” – when it is not. That’s what I would like to see from you as a colleague and friend.

But that is not what I would like from you as a leader. Why are there only two people of color at this company? A company that has a (checks notes) “massive public service element” and is in a (checks notes again) “self-proclaimed liberal town.” Are there trainings for antiracism? Are there opportunities to report microaggressions? Are there reframing role plays for racist interactions? Are there equity hiring plans? As a leader, what is your responsibility for ensuring that your current and future colleagues of color feel safe in the space in which they work? At the very least, there should be more than two of them.

Our white manager centers herself in conversations about racism

Reader #5: My manager identifies as a white, gay, cisgender woman. She talks a lot about how much she is an ally and how committed she is to social justice. She supervises a team comprised of all people of color. Our organization is in the beginning (and very delayed) process of addressing racism both in our work and in greater society. As part of this process, we are all encouraged to be able to openly talk about race and our experiences.

Here is the problem. Whenever any of us staff of color talk about race with her, she immediately steers the conversation to how oppressed she feels as woman and/or as a gay woman. While we recognize that her identities and experiences are important, it doesn’t diminish the racism that we have experienced. For example, we had a conversation with her about how white staff kept mispronouncing the names of staff of color. She immediately began to tell us how she doesn’t like when people assume she is heteronormative or refer to her with gendered language. Attempts to refocus the conversation on racism at work were quickly dismissed as she continued to talk about her own experiences – not related to racism. Our conversation got nowhere and we reached no solutions.

How can we tell her that her tendency to center her identities during conversations about racism doesn’t help and is rather harmful? In fact, it’s actually offensive given she self identifies as an ally and social justice advocate. We’re not trying to deny her own experiences or silence her but we’re also not trying to play oppression Olympics either. 

Michelle: I am a Black cisgender straight woman and if I sat in a conversation about homophobia and kept steering it back to my Blackness, they should escort me right out and they would be correct.

Part of the reason I’d be doing that might be why she is doing it –  because she feels comfortable talking about her sexual orientation and less comfortable talking about her racial lens. Her network might be predominantly White and acknowledging that truth is painful for many. Bringing up her own marginalization because of her sexual orientation is a way to dissociate from that reality and find solidarity with a marginalized community instead. Now she becomes part of the marginalized, rather than part of the privileged, and that is comforting. That, however, is not the way forward to change.

She is your manager, so that adds a whole other spin on the situation. You don’t want to burn bridges, but there is a whole lot of bridge between walking away and setting it aflame. Is there anyone who is of a similar seniority level to her, or who has a stronger relationship with her, who can share that feedback? Here’s how I would frame it: “I’m going to be honest. I really love talking to you but it’s hard for me because I’ve noticed in these conversations, you tend to steer it away from race and toward sexual orientation. I know there are struggles that are similar but they’re not all the same. I would love to have a conversation with you about your experience as a gay woman, and mine as a straight woman, but in this conversation, can we focus on your experience as a White person?” You’re steering the conversation back to where it needs to be and giving her a space to share her own experiences of marginalization without making this space that one. Try it and let us know how it works.

That’s all from me! Keep sending your letters into Alison and we’ll do this all again.

Alison: Don’t forget Michelle will be answering questions weekly at Inclusion Live starting in November. If you liked what you read here, make sure to follow here there!

{ 261 comments… read them below }

    1. Anonym*

      Truly! I’m white and have responded clumsily to racist comments from a manager in the past, and have often thought about how to handle it better. He never said it again and another colleague appreciated it, but I don’t think I actually changed his POV and definitely got hit in a performance review for it.

      Really appreciate the nuanced analysis and the tools to handle things effectively and thoughtfully!

  1. Justin*

    Hope these comments are respectful (though I know Alison won’t stand for nonsense).

    Anyway, this is really useful stuff. Actionable ways white employees and managers can push back on real issues. It’s the sort of work I try to do, too, so I’m glad it’s getting highlighted here.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        I agree! I appreciate Michelle’s time and such thoughtful and helpful responses – the scripts are excellent resources.

  2. Pool Lounger*

    I have a question about the racist pay gap. I recently read a letter here from a hiring manager whose new employee didn’t negotiate salary and if they had they could have made at least 5k more (of course, the company didn’t just offer this higher salary). I’ve read that white men tend to negotiate salaries more than women and POC, and that when women and POC do negotiate they’re often looked at negatively compared to white men doing the same thing. So how do we address these salary gaps at the root? Should salaries be non-negotiable? Should companies just offer the highest salary they can, no matter the candidate?

    1. Laney Boggs*

      I wouldn’t hate if we did away with negotiating altogether.

      I think there was a letter a while back that the company allowed 0 negotiation. If you had 1yr experience with X & Y, you got “50K”; if you had 5 years experience you got “55K.” I think that’s entirely reasonable, and commits to fair salary.

      1. Atalanta0jess*

        This is how my workplace works. The only “negotiation” is that there can be some discussion about what counts as applicable experience.

      2. Echo*

        My company takes an even stricter approach and I like it. If you get hired for X position, you make $Y. There is no range at all. We do have merit increases but if you get promoted to a new title, you make the exact same salary as a new hire with that title. (That said, I wouldn’t be totally shocked if there are demographic disparities in who gets merit increases, and I wish we would also do cost-of-living increases.)

        1. Darsynia*

          Can I ask, does your company ever do COL increases? Because what I’m hearing is that someone who possibly joins the organization multiple years after another person with the same salary makes that same salary because that’s where it was set at some specific time in the past. Without COL increases, *everyone’s* salary is eventually out of whack with what it should be! I like the idea in theory, but doesn’t this eventually cause you to suffer for good job candidates, depending on how long between salary adjustments you go?

          1. Bibliothecarial*

            I’m not Echo, but my workplace has an almost identical pay structure and we get COL adjustments to the structure every couple years as the budget allows. (I love the structure!)

        2. Greg*

          This is what I do, pay the job plus experience. Employees all enter at the same level, then get a set increase after their third and fifth years. Other than that the job pays the same across the board (plus a yearly COL bump or even higher if I’m projecting a considerable sales increase).

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          Yep. I inherited three similarly-experienced people who all produced in roughly equal amounts. One of them came in low and then got on the bad side of our terrible former HR head. Despite performing substantially the same as the other two (she was the weakest, but by a small margin), her salary was substantially lower, which compounded over time. I worked around the Terrible HR Lady and started slipping in market adjustments on top of merit to catch her up. When we got a new head of HR, she took one look at the salary discrepancy and (finally) agree to do an immediate fix to bring them all to parity

          But, yeah, she got paid a lot less than her peers for about a decade before it got fixed.

      3. Paris Geller*

        That’s pretty much how all of us in the public sector operate, and I prefer it. You know right away that this position makes X. After a year, you know that you’ll be eligible to make X + Y increase and so on and so on.

        1. H.C.*

          It may seem that way, but there’s definitely wiggle room for negotiation too. I did it when I first joined and got moved up a few steps (which translated to a $10K+/year bump).

          1. Mm*

            Yep. I attempted to negotiate a salary when I was hired for my current state government job. I went $5,000 above the range thinking they would go down, instead they just reclassified the position and gave me the salary I asked for.

      4. LabTechNoMore*

        Keep in mind this rubric salary method can be open to interpretation. What counts as relevant experience isn’t always clear, and often the administrative folks making the calls are white. This could still result in a situation where white candidates’ related experience are “rounded up” and count towards a higher salary, while BIPOC folks’ previous experience is considered irrelevant and not counted. (I think part of this also falls on the hiring manager to connect for the dots for the admin staff making this determination what experience is considered relevant and why, and be willing to push back when it’s not right.)

      5. NotAnotherManager!*

        This is generally how we do it. Starting salary for X position is $x and starting salary for Y position is $y with a set premium for a relevant graduate degree or each year of directly relevant work experience.

        Hard-to-recruit, specialized positions are different because we’re typically competing with other offers or have to get them to place it’s worth leaving their current position for and often have no actual peers for comparison within the organization.

        Salaries are also discrimination-tested annually – this doesn’t mean we can’t pay stronger performers more, but we have to be able to say that someone gets paid more because of a specific above-and-beyond AND it has to be a criteria on official job description. Jane got a bigger bonus than Bob because she exceeded the revenue target in the position’s JD and Bob only met his, not because Jane lobbied for a better bonus.

    2. Smithy*

      This one sticks out to me as well.

      I’m in the nonprofit space where for those in more mid-level jobs, it can be very difficult to assess the salary you should be requesting. Titles between organizations can vary wildly salary wise depending on countless factors, in particular the size of the organization more so than the work. Someone coming from a smaller organization and applying for essentially a parallel role at a larger organization is often entirely in the dark on what their salary request should be. To see a candidate put their desired salary as $X when the lowest level of salary band is $X+$10K isn’t uncommon. When women/BIPOC applicants then receive the offer of $X+$10k, it puts them in an even a more awkward place of negotiating – when truth be told that number was ultimately identified more so out of understandable ignorance rather than what their experience or talents merits.

      Having seen ALL of this play out as both the non-negotiating applicant and on the hiring team, HR often recommends that the lowest number of the salary band is offered in case of negotiation that there’s room to go up. And in one case, I was even told by HR to go below the lowest band number because of the applicant’s desired salary. At which point I was put in a position to fight for the most base parity of my preferred candidate.

      All of which to say, it’s a real problem and particularly one in industries merit raises are generally pretty low and/or difficult to come by.

      1. Alina*

        Nonprofits are definitely an interesting space. I had a situation where I (BIPOC woman) was paid more and had a slightly better title than others at my level because I negotiated and others didn’t, probably because they thought they should just accept the pay “for the mission”

        1. Smithy*

          I do think that this raises another reasonable question of whether a $5k difference in salaries is truly a substantive gap. Again, nonprofit worker – while this is not a case of talking about $350k vs $355k, I do respect that maybe this doesn’t count as large enough of a disparity? I’m not sure.

          However, where I think this hits particularly raw for nonprofits is that raises also are not always consistent or common depending on the organization without receiving a promotion. So when someone’s at that level above you, it can feel like it’s etched in amber unless you leave or identify a significant promotion.

          1. KHB*

            Of course $5K is a significant disparity. If you earn $5K less for each year of a 40-year career, that adds up to $200K. (Simplifying for things like inflation and compounding, but basically that.) When you’re on the cusp of retirement, surely the difference between having $200K and not having $200K is a significant thing.

            And if the employer’s giving the extra $5K to all the “people who negotiate,” but not to any of the “people who don’t negotiate,” that adds up to a significant pattern of inequality.

            1. joss*

              Add to that salary increases are often given as a percentage of your salary and the fact that if you do less than the maximum taxed for SS, this disparity will follow you for the rest of your life (till death do you part so to speak)

          2. Your Local Password Resetter*

            It usually is? Especially for non-profits, where the pay tends to be low.

            AFAIK, US federal minimum wage is about 15k, so 5k extra would be a 30% increase.
            Even if your salary is as high as 50k, thats still a 10% increase. That’s at least several years of raises and COL increases.

      2. Claire*

        As an executive recruiter I hire for entry level up to CEOs for a variety of clients in a variety of sectors. I see both sides of the offer negotiations as I perform the service for my client but also advocate for the best for the finalist candidate. For more senior roles in the private sector, there can be a wide range of what the client will pay, dependent on their needs and what the candidate brings to the table. Not infrequently, the role can shift and compensation can shift as we go through the process and look at candidates the client is interested in. Maybe they realize an up-and-comer could be developed/mentored into the role so compensation will be lower. Maybe they realize someone brings extra skills and can on a role larger than first advertised, so compensation will be higher. Compensation can be fluid in these, more senior cases.

        I always advise clients to go in with the most competitive (highest) offer they can, because if they like the candidate and want them on their team, why start off the relationship trying to lowball them? At the same time, I can advise candidates that the offer is truly competitive and that they can certainly negotiate but that the employer is making this offer in good faith. Of course, throughout the process I would have had multiple conversations on compensation expectations with that candidate and also the client.

    3. Reba*

      Some companies do this! I’ve seen included in the job add that X role earns $Y salary and that’s that; in at least one case this was explicitly framed as a move toward great fairness, for the reasons you note. In principle, future raises and promotions would be based on actual performance. Though ofc bias is still a factor in those decisions. But I think it’s good for transparency.

    4. Anon this time*

      I don’t have the answer, but I have an anecdote. When I applied for my current job, I said my salary requirement was $60k. I didn’t know what the salary range for the position was, but I knew it was at least $58,240 because I knew it was an exempt position in California. I asked for the bottom-of-the-barrel amount because: A) it was still more than I had previously earned, B) it was sufficient, C) I really wanted the job.

      If it’s relevant, I’m a brown, mixed-race and male.

      In my interview, the hiring manager, an older white man, said I was the front-runner for the job and asked “are you still comfortable with the salary requested.” In retrospect I realize he was prompting me to increase my request. But foolish me simply said, “yes.”

      When I got the offer, it was for $65k, which was $5k more than I had asked for.

      So in response to anyone who might say, “but they never negotiated! We had no choice but to pay them less,” at least in my case that evidently wasn’t true.

      1. KHB*

        I had a similar experience. (I’m white and female.) When I was hired for my current job, I didn’t have any idea how to evaluate the “market rate” for this type of job, nor did I realize I was supposed to. When asked for my salary requirement, the only thing I had to go on was what I was making at the time (about $40K), so that’s the number I gave. The HR rep nodded thoughtfully and said, “That’s within the range for this position.”

        They offered me $61K.

        Sometimes it seems like it’s some kind of immutable force of nature that employers need to hire people for the absolute least amount of money they can. They do not, in fact, have to do this.

        1. Claire*

          Exactly! I always advise clients hiring to go in with their most competitive offer. Why start off your working relationship lowballing someone just because you can, even though you know market rates are higher/they are underpaid/you value this role at $61k. At some point, they will probably find out they are paid under market then they will leave. Why not avoid that altogether and just pay them the reasonable salary up front?

        2. KHB*

          (Of course, it’s possible, as Smithy’s comment above points out, that $61K was still a lowball salary. But at least they didn’t try to lowball me even more?)

        3. Mr. Shark*

          Haha, I bet you must’ve been incredibly happy with the $61k offer! More than likely if they gave you 61K when you were asking for $40K, they probably could’ve paid you $65K easily.

    5. KHB*

      The way for companies to address salary gaps at the root is by taking internal salary equity seriously from the start, rather than waiting for employees to find out about it and complain.

      A couple of years ago, my organization hired three new entry-level Teapot Inspectors right in a row. Teapot Inspectors 1 and 2 were both hired at a salary of $X. Then Teapot Inspector 3 came along, and negotiated a salary of $Y. Rather than sweeping the inequality under the rug, my boss proactively bumped all three of their salaries up to $Y.

      I know not every case is as clear-cut as that, because people doing “the same job” can differ in experience and skill, so they don’t all necessarily need to be earning exactly the same salary. Still, employers have a responsibility not to be paying wildly different salaries to people doing comparable jobs. It’s a legal responsibility when the inequality cuts across protected-class lines, but it’s still a moral responsibility even when it doesn’t (e.g., in our situation, Teapot Inspectors 2 and 3 are both white women).

      1. NW Mossy*

        This brings up a good point – to solve a pay gap, you first have to notice it exists and resist the powerful temptation to write it off as morally justified for other reasons.

        Many organizations have such a fractured hiring and compensation process that it becomes really easy for pay gaps to persist because other seemingly neutral factors obscure the issue. Those “neutral factors” are assumed to be the cause of the pay gap, when in reality deeper structural biases are contributing significantly to the discrepancy.

        It’s terrifyingly easy for a company to think “Oh, Amanda (a BIPOC woman) makes less than John (a white man) doing the same work. We’re definitely not hood-wearing racists, so it’s not because she’s a woman of color. How can we explain this result? Let’s see…. oh, she was hired during a recession, she’s the only person we’ve hired for that job in 5 years, she’s calibrated against people doing different work, she didn’t negotiate, a few years of her experience are outside this industry, she wasn’t promoted as quickly, etc., etc.”

        Every single one of those points might be demonstrably true, but the conclusion is the same – not only is Amanda paid less, but her lower rate of pay is considered intentional and justified by the “neutral factors.” The conclusion then stops the self-examination process that, if pursued to its true end, reveals that the influence of systemic racism also shapes our ideas about what’s neutral or unbiased.

    6. kittymommy*

      There are times that working in government in Florida is helpful and this is one of them. All our salaries are public record. Heck if you work for the state you can look them up online via a person’s name. The agency I am at has a range for salary, on our website, and very much notifies that SOP is hiring at base with the ability of negotiating up to 6%. Everything higher has to have formal board approval and you better have a damn good reason for it.

    7. Ashley*

      When I saw your post I immediately thought about the letter from the Black woman who said that she’s received feedback that her tone and communication style is too dominating and blunt. I’m Black and extremely conscious of being perceived as aggressive in the workplace so my work personality is purposely more subdued. And I am hesitant to negotiate salary because I’m not confident that I could do it in a way that would not be perceived as aggressive.

      1. marvin the paranoid android*

        I think this is exactly why salary negotiation should be recognized as the cultural relic that it is. It only benefits people who are allowed to be aggressive in the workplace, and people who have the most freedom to risk losing the offer. In other words: the most privileged subset of candidates.

    8. Mid*

      I think transparent pay bands, and doing something similar to the government, where Salary = Grade = Experience with very little room to negotiate. I think starting everyone on the same salary is also an option. Entry level = $50k. Also doing regular salary equity checks to make sure that there aren’t pay disparities.

    9. Selina Luna*

      Salary schedules are the way to go, I think. Get rid of negotiation entirely. Instead, choose a set of objective criteria (college, continued education, certifications; years in this or a similar job; things like that) and measure according to that. Advertise both the criteria and the salary schedule as a part of your job application system.

    10. TIRED*

      Agree with the other commenters who pointed out when people find out about the pay gaps they leave. I worked at a company they proclaimed they did all this DEI work. Turns out they did “internal” pay gap analysis every year, but wouldn’t share it with anyone not a supervisor in the company. I’m not even sure that supervisors knew, it may have only been shared with directors.
      So we were just supposed to trust that HR was doing a good job. LOL We didn’t even really know if they did the analysis or not. Yeah, great way to prove your commitment to DEI company.

      1. Linley*

        My old employer did this and they did share them with employees but in a crazily secretive manner. The ranges for each position were literally written on bits of paper that manager kept in envelope and would whisper to employees one on one behind closed door. We weren’t allow to see the papers, let alone keep them. And the cherry on top was that all the ranges were so wide that they were effectively meaningless (e.g. 40k to 70k).

  3. Stitch*

    I think the calculus in #4 changes a bit because the LW is a supervisor. If someone on your staff is being mistreated for any reason, you really don’t need to approach them first before standing up for them and in some ways doing so places the onus on the employee. I don’t think that’s white knighting so much as just managing employees. Any manager has a duty to protect their employees under any circumstance.

    So, next time don’t treat this as “Diana told me X” treat it as “I saw the video footage of that customer mistreating Diana. I think we need to have some policies in place for when the public behaves badly.”

    1. Expelliarmus*

      That’s a really good point. Even if Diana and the customer were the same race, this conduct would be bad, so why not approach it like so?

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        I had a similar thought — this is relevant to the job performance of the person who wrongfully disciplined Diana as well.

        1. Stitch*

          And what I really want to emphasize is, don’t put the burden on Diana to decide when you stick up for her. Just stick up for your employees when you think something isn’t right.

          To be clear the calculation is different for a peer/coworker. The reason this is different is because it is LW’s job to manage these situations. That doesn’t mean you don’t stand up for peers but it’s different and really situation dependent.

      2. Kiki*

        Yes! Especially when managing a staff that deals with the public, it’s important that management accounts for the ways the public can be crappy and how that intersects with identity, race, gender, age, etc. When I worked in retail, I definitely had customers who felt that they could misbehave and mistreat me because I was a young woman of color. None of them would dream of speaking to my white, male counterparts the way they spoke to me. Having a manager who was proactive about acknowledging that and ensuring I knew I didn’t have to acquiesce to terrible customers made my job tolerable. I guess I would consider accounting for that to be the baseline of decent management in a job like this.

    2. kittymommy*

      I agree in theory, but if this person and/or agency doesn’t have a strong record of standing up against the previous microaggressions it’ll be hard doing it in the specific incident without Diana being open to possible exposure.

      1. Mental Lentil*

        I think the suggestion is that it is less “we need to fix this so this doesn’t happen to Diana” and more “we nee to fix this so this doesn’t happen to any of our employees” the POV being that this isn’t a problem Diana caused, but that it’s a problem the customer (and other people like them) caused.

        1. marvin the paranoid android*

          Yeah, in addition to examining the hiring practices and looking at antiracism training, it seems like there is also an opportunity for the LW here to look at whether there are ways to better support customer-facing staff to minimize incidents when they’re getting mistreated by the public, and also whether they can reexamine the procedures for addressing customer conflicts to give the staff some backup if another conflict comes up. That way the people of colour on staff don’t have to face off against Phil and his unexamined biases whenever there’s an issue. I’m not surprised if Diana had low expectations of that working out.

    3. Lotus*

      Yeah – doesn’t Phil need to be disciplined or let go because of his behavior? It’s not just up to Diane, he could do this to other Black/minority employees as well. It’s unacceptable.

    4. Green Beans*

      Yes, that was my thought. This is an opportunity to get zero-tolerance policies in place for aggressive/violent actions.
      And it’s easy to redirect from Diane – “This isn’t about a singular incident; this is about policies that any public-facing/customer-service based organization needs.”

    5. LabTechNoMore*

      I was wondering about this too. I’ve been in a situation where a coworker was harassing me because of my race/religion/nationality (yes, all three), and my boss just asked me what I wanted him to do about it. I don’t really feel comfortable telling a manager how to do their job, and particularly not for a difficult management decision like this. At one point he literally asked me if he should fire the guy (because I really want to be the person that got my coworker fired!). I really shouldn’t be doing the manager’s job for him, and was resentful of being put in that position.

    6. Robert*

      Yeah I think #4 isn’t great advice at all because “don’t act unless the aggrieved party gives their consent” seems far more likely to entrench discriminatory practices in the long run. If I as a minority was told by a manager that there were problems with discrimination in the past that weren’t dealt with because they wanted to respect the agency of another employee to not deal with it, I’d be livid, and probably assume that the manager is bullshitting to cover up their laziness/inaction at best, or actively protect their bigoted colleagues.

      1. tinyhipsterboy*

        The problem with that is, if Diana has already specifically said they don’t want to go further with it and then LW does, that could end up with even *more* racist blowback on Diana. Escalating it would likely not backfire on the LW (being non-Black), but on Diana herself. Black women being seen as difficult, as angry, as unwilling to let go of things, as playing the “race card” are all stereotypes that are used to denigrate Black women and push back on them when they stand up for themselves.

        Approaching it as solely a “this happened to an employee after a customer lashed out” thing could still end up centering Diana since she was the one involved in the incident, too, but at least it’s a way to de-center her and focus on the incident itself. I get what you’re saying about other BIPOC being frustrated with a lack of action–I would be myself–but pushing back after being explicitly asked not to may very well end up causing even more difficulty for Diane as the sole Black employee. We don’t know if Diane has tried to bring up the racism in the past, but if she has, she could have come to the conclusion that change isn’t possible at this time (whether due to a specific higher-up, blowback on her, weird policies) and/or be exhausted from trying at all.

        Sometimes all you can do is survive through something. LW could resolve to, in the future, push back on microaggressions and macroaggressions in the moment, for example, or bring up issues when Diane has left the company. Those might be better ways of approaching this while respecting Diane’s agency.

        1. Robert*

          I would have liked to have seen the guest writer address this: how can I respect the wishes of my employee whilst actually dealing with the root of the problem.

          I think #4 might have benefited from being a collaborative answer: I think that Michelle and Alison would be able to counteract each other’s blind spots.

  4. Lucious*

    This topic brings up one of the challenges I see with this topic- I call it “isolating the biases”. I’d like to hear some thoughts on this scenario:

    Example: company X pays women in general less because of a sexist bias. Company X doesn’t necessarily care about race – they pay all women a lower wage than equivalently qualified men for the same work. When a female BIPOC encounters this bias , theyll rationally see the conversation as a racial discussion – which sadly doesn’t address the actual root bias in play. Even if her case is resolved, the firm continues to discriminate against the other women in the organization.

    It puts employees in the role of Detective Columbo , trying to sleuth just how their organization is misbehaving – which I view as structurally unfair. However, it’s also counterproductive to hold the tough dialogue of addressing organizational problems from the wrong starting position. What’s the solution?

    1. Expelliarmus*

      As a WOC myself, I don’t think we should necessarily assume that a female BIPOC would automatically assume the pay gap was about race and not consider gender at all. I agree with you that they shouldn’t need to do that sleuthing, but it’s possible that said BIPOC will give credence to both possibilities.

      As for the case resolution, ideally the people working on her case would do their due diligence and sleuth if the pay gap is gender-based or racially motivated.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        WOC here too and basically I never quite 100% know if the discrimination in pay/respect etc. at a firm are down to my colour, my gender, my disabilities, my age and size (over 40 and fat) or a combinatory factor of them all.

        I just approach it as a ‘what’s more likely given what I know of my managers?’. In my experience people who have latent racism/homophobia/sexism/ableism etc. tend to let it slip out in little ways beforehand.

      2. American Job Venter*

        Thank you. As a Black woman my reply was going to be a little sharper (the idea of racism blinding us to sexism is… hilarious), but I’ll just agree with yours.

    2. Laney Boggs*

      Well, tbf, it rarely works like that.

      However if “Alice”, the BIPOC woman, is speaking with her white coworkers “Bea” and “Cedric” about their respective salaries it should be very easy to suss out that this is a gender thing.

    3. Aquawoman*

      Biases don’t usually work that way, but I also question your premise. If a person knows they’re being underpaid compared to equivalent roles, that’s all they need to know — they can address that without knowing why they’re being underpaid. BIPOC and women don’t have to fight the fight for every one in the organization (unless they want to), so they don’t have to address organizational problems, just their problem.

    4. Anon today*

      I’m a queer WOC and you are vastly underestimating how deeply and viscerally we understand intersectionality and how it works.

      And, respectfully, by presenting “isolating the biases” as an assumed scenario in this fashion, I think you are also very likely underestimating just how much more likely it is for companies and society to not isolate biases, but compound them.

      1. ThatGirl*

        Yeah, I’d say most BIPOC understand intersectionality very well!

        And the initial comment seems to think most bias is purposeful, instead of ingrained and institutional.

        1. Tupac Coachella*

          I’d add an asterisk to that-most BIPOC understand intersectionality, but may not know what it’s called, and often don’t know how to apply it to get a functional view of a situation. While I know that being non-White and female (and queer, but being in a long term heteronormative relationship means that most people aren’t aware of that, so I don’t experience quite as much bias around it) makes my life harder in a lot of ways, I haven’t always understood the compounding effects. It’s like a bunch of bricks casually stacked on top of each other instead of one big block made of many bricks cemented together. From that understanding, it’s really easy for even BIPOC themselves to get stuck in the “isolating the biases” approach that Lucious describes: do I need to try to manage my blackness in this situation? My femininity? My lack of femininity? (My gender presentation is very damned if you do, damned if you don’t-I can be considered very feminine presenting or somewhat masculine depending on your cultural context and how I look on a particular day.) Which brick do I need to move or fortify to get through this? If I can just figure out what part of me is going to be marginalized, I know whether to adapt or flee. I understand what intersectionality FEELS like in this mindset, but my understanding of how it behaves in the larger world is still fundamentally flawed. No matter how much damage control I do, it never gets better.

          Building a more academic understanding of intersectionality not only acknowledges my lived experience, but contextualizes it to point out that there’s never one particular identity that I can adapt for until I’m not impacted by bias around it anymore; they exist inseparably both to me and to those who perceive me, whether those perceptions result in discrimination or not.

          It didn’t hurt that one of my first introductions to the academic approach to intersectionality came directly from a lecture from Dr. Crenshaw herself, though. This is complicated stuff! I imagine that someone who doesn’t experience discrimination regularly would have a really hard time seeing it organically.

          1. ThatGirl*

            All great points; thank you for your reply.

            On a personal level, I understood intersectionality in the sense that once I heard about it, I thought “oh, sure, that makes perfect sense”. But it wasn’t something I thought about a lot until more recently.

      2. Anon for a sec*

        Yes on the compounding biases. A different, tactical version of that: a division-head ranked person at my job is both sexist and racist (and female, which helps disguise her sexism a lot to people who don’t want to see it). She knows this can’t be made obvious all the time, so her go-to tactic is to pick a couple of Black women to advantage in really visible ways, beyond what’s available generally, which then gets brought up when someone raises concerns about racism or sexism toward, say, a Black man or a White woman. And it’s very hard to call out because the Black women in question are great and do merit good treatment! And anyway, why shouldn’t they take advantage of benefits available to them in a system that otherwise discriminates in lots of ways? The problem is with the division head, but she’s set up enough camouflage to give her own superiors an out for claiming they don’t see a problem. It sounds convoluted, I know, but we’ve been watching this happen for years and it’s exasperating and demoralizing – especially because her “advantage” gestures toward a few individuals do nothing to reduce a biased workplace environment, including for other BIPOC women.

    5. anonymath*

      From my perspective, employees should never be in the role of Detective, trying to sleuth out bias or misbehavior: it doesn’t matter the intent. What matters is the value the employee brings to the company and that it’s compensated fairly. I don’t need to know if “my company is sexist” or if “my company is racist” — and what do those statements mean, anyway? Companies are collections of people with different views, shaped by societal, market, and regulatory pressures. I and my colleagues need to show up and play our role in shaping the company as well.

      For me right now that means reviewing the pay of all my reports, paying attention to possible inequities, and rectify inequities as they occur. If needed I can bring up race or gender or other demographic characteristics, but I am starting with the value the employee brings to the business. If I were higher up and could see more salaries, I could look on a more systemic level, but I’m just middle management and this is what I can do concretely at this time.

    6. JB*

      The way you’ve worded this is very bizarre and almost seems to imply that your main concern here is that WOC will improve their own standing and leave white women behind. Why would WOC be unaware of the existence of sexism?

      Leaving that aside, the answer to your problem is ultimately the answer to any other pay inequity problem: employees need to discuss pay. If your hypothetical WOC who thinks of herself only in terms of race were to talk to other people at the company and compare salaries, it would quickly become clear where the inequity really lies.

      1. marvin the paranoid android*

        Weirdly, it seems to be the inverse what actually tends to happen: that discussion of the problems faced by any marginalized group often focuses on the most privileged of that group.

        1. Jennifer*

          This is true. White women tend to dominate the discussion surrounding sexism. Black men get precedence over black women in discussions about race.

    7. Gerry Keay*

      I think most people who sit at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities usually realize that any one of their identities could be why they’re being discriminated against. The solution is an intersectional lens, where you acknowledge the way that marginalized identities stack on top of each other.

    8. Jennifer*

      In my experience, sexism and racism go hand in hand. If white women are paid less than white men, I can almost guarantee the black women are being paid less than the white women and the black men are making less than the white men. The pay gap between white women and women of color isn’t discussed as much because I think the focus is always on sexism without recognizing that WOC deal with both forms of discrimination.

    9. Valbonne*

      The investigation never belongs to the employee that’s been discriminated against, it belong to the EEOC, lawyers, and to the company’s internal investigators. If this is a thought exercise, and not a genuine question, I would say that we are already talking about real nuanced problems in today’s blog and elsewhere, not theoreticals. Making up stories about what could be, when there are already thousands of examples of what actually is, will not help progress.

      If this is not a thought exercise, and is a genuine question, I would say that discrimination and bias don’t always cut across clear lines. There will always be intersections of biases that affect some people more, and disproportionately more than others. The goal is to have structures in place that prevent people from exercising their biases no matter how they intersect, rather than trying to be surgically precise with exactly what kind of bias it might be.

    10. Maxy*

      I want to reiterate other people’s points about intersectionality, and add that there is actually a specific word for the kind of combined misogyny and anti-Blackness that Black women face: misogynoir. For more about the theory of intersectionality, I highly recommend Kimberle Crenshaw’s writing – she is widely known to have coined this idea. She has a book called On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. For a historical lens on how misogynoir affected Black women in the Civil Rights movement, I would recommend At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire.

      Also, I think that you were proposing that scenario as a thought experiment…but I want to point out that it’s not realistic. Company X does care about race, and statistically, it probably is a big factor in salary disparities. Plus, white women have a long history of leveraging their whiteness against women of color. (And McGuire’s book definitely addresses this too.) So I think we should be careful about framing, even casually, a scenario in which a company magically doesn’t treat white women and Black women differently, because in reality they most certainly do. There’s also a lot of convincing scholars out there who would argue that the “actual root bias” of sexism (and homophobia and transphobia and xenophobia and…) is white supremacy.

  5. Sleet Feet*

    Thanks for the advice.

    I will warn people though that I have had sharing my salary turn out very poorly for me both times I’ve tried.

    One time afterwards the manager was mad at me for sharing and put a nasty note in my performance review about “not keeping confidential information” The POC coworker wasn’t given a raise.

    Then my underpaid coworker shifted to being bitter at me. She stopped chatting with me and she stopped taking on any extra tasks – because why should she if she is paid less? If I asked for help with a project or task she refused – you’re paid more so you should be able to handle it on your own.

    Very quickly despite having the same role I was doing 70% of the work and the social dynamic was really nasty (I was not paid 40% more either, I was paid 3% more).

    I had a very similar experience when race and gender wasn’t involved. I think managers are really good at deflecting the blame away from “we don’t give enough” to “your coworker takes to much”.

    Just – be prepared. Know it may not be a positive experience for anyone despite the intentions.

    1. Lucious*

      Thanks for sharing- it’s tough to see the backlash.

      Unfortunately, if an organization is discriminating on pay that’s already a self evident sign of major dysfunction. Regrettably, no risk = no progress. If you raise these concerns and get obfuscation and deflection, it’s a sign the apple is rotten to the core and more drastic measures are in order.

    2. Therese*

      You know, I think this is very telling. Sure, in a systematic way, minorities are underpaid. But on an individual level, it’s possible someone’s underpaid because, you know, they add less value to the org. So if you tell somebody individually they are paid less than you, it’s like a telling a kid at school that your report card was better. Believe it or not, a minority person might see themselves first as an individual, rather than an oppressed minority class.

      1. ThatGirl*

        huh? But the person being underpaid only started doing less because they knew they were underpaid – it had nothing to with “adding less value”.

      2. Dino*

        You can’t compare “value” when society determines who is valuable and who is not. Racism causes opportunity loss. I’ve worked sales and my BIPOC colleagues numbers were not a reflection of their value or how hard they worked, since plenty of customers simply wouldn’t do business (or as much business) with nonwhite salespeople. It may not have even always been conscious, but it was there.

      3. Bagpuss*

        My guess would be that Sleet Feet was in a position to judge whether her coworker was working at a similar level to her, and that if they did less and had fewer skills she wouldn’t be seeing them as underpaid.
        It’s less easy of you don’t work closely with someone but I think if you do essentially the same job and work together, you’ve generally got an idea as to whether coworkers are doing a similar level and standard of work to you .
        Definitely very poor that your manager treated it as a breach of confidentiality and that your coworker took it out on you instead of the people who were actually to blame.

      4. American Job Venter*

        Believe it or not, a minority person might see themselves first as an individual, rather than an oppressed minority class.

        I was waiting for someone to say this. Being cognizant of the bigotry one faces is not at all a failure to see oneself as an individual.

      5. Sleet Feet*

        Before the pay discrepancy was discovered my coworker and I were on equal footing. There was no good reason for her to be making several thousand a year less then me.

    3. Reba*

      I just want to note that your manager punishing you for discussing your salary was illegal retaliation (just as much as the pay disparity was likely illegal.) Easy for me to say, I know, but I just wanted others to also know that the NLRB would not agree with your boss that your own pay information is “confidential”! Sorry that happened.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        I had the same thought – your manager retaliated against you for something you are legally allowed to do (discuss salary as a non-management employee). Then they set you up for further punishment by not making things right for your coworker and perpetuating this awful dynamic. Your manager was the real problem and I’m sorry that happened to you.

      2. Sleet Feet*

        I know this was illegal but frankly it’s practically impossible to prove. They could easily claim the confidential information in question wasn’t my salary.

        Also have you read your employee handbook? Almost every place I have worked has a. Ote about salary being confidential despite it being illegal. If they are getting away with something so blatant I am sure the retaliation I experienced happens all the time.

        1. pancakes*

          They could indeed claim that. If they did, the proper response would be something along the lines of, “it was salary, and here is the name of the coworker I talked to about salaries, so you can have her answer questions in a deposition if you want to keep claiming it was something else.”

          In some places it is illegal to try to prevent employees from discussing salary. Saying otherwise in the employee handbook wouldn’t supersede the law.

          1. pancakes*

            (I should clarify, doing something like making the names of your witnesses available and getting into providing proof would be something that would happen as part of the process if you were going to get into litigation about this and had a lawyer advising you, not necessarily something that would also be useful for you to do on your own, or before litigation seems to be on the horizon. My point is just that an employer claiming something that isn’t true is just that, a claim. It’s not necessarily the end of the discussion.).

      3. Linley*

        While I know this is true, my first thought when I read the question and (excellent) answer is that I could never have used the proposed script with my old manager because not only would I have been retaliated against but I would have been interrogated mercilessly (along with everyone in the company who I had ever exchanged so much as a hello with) in an attempt to find out who I got the information from and whether others had likewise committed the crime of discussing salaries.

    4. RabbitRabbit*

      I’ll note that if you’re not a manager yourself, it is absolutely not legal in the US to forbid discussing salary, though it may be disallowed to do it during work. It sounds like the during work part wasn’t your manager’s complaint, but somehow I suspect the manager doesn’t care about legality either.

      1. JustaTech*

        I had an HR rep try to tell me that it “wasn’t allowed” for a former coworker to tell me her salary. When I quoted state law at the HR rep she changed her tune slightly to say it was “unprofessional”.

        Mmm hmm.

    5. American Job Venter*

      I think managers are really good at deflecting the blame away from “we don’t give enough” to “your coworker takes to much”.

      This is absolutely true. I am very sorry that a combination of systemic bigotry and personal malfeasance caused your efforts to help to blow up on you.

      I’m reminded of the old joke about politics in the US. There is a plate of 12 cookies, and three men sit down: a wealthy man, a White working class man, and a Black working class man. The wealthy man puts 11 cookies in his pocket, leans over and whispers to the White working class man, “watch out for that guy, he’s trying to take your cookie.”

      This process doesn’t just show up in what we think of as politics, but in other places such as the workplace. (And on other subjects too, as can be seen by the recurring parents vs nonparents fight currently erupting in the last post’s comments — instead of hiring more workers, management sets parents and nonparents fighting over the last cookie.)

  6. Ali G*

    #4 struck a chord with me. I recently had to take harassment training for leadership (anyone that supervises staff). Our process is very clear: if an employee reports harassment in any form, I am to report it to HR, while respecting the employees privacy. I initially bristled at this because what if the employee doesn’t want anything to be done at the moment? But as I thought about it, I realized that it is my duty to at least document it (but take no action) anyway to protect the employee down the road.
    Also, and more important, I trust my employer to handle something like this by the book and with great care. Michelle’s final paragraph in her answer sums up the reason why Diana was so adamant the LW not do anything. She doesn’t trust your employer to do the right thing. She’s alone in a sea of Whitenss and has probably experienced other instances of racism directed at her that make her wary of standing up for herself. This is a huge company-wide problem for you and I hope you will take Michelle’s advice to start trying to change it.

    1. Stitch*

      I definitely think there are some red flags here on organization issues. The murky chain of command between LW and Phil, Diana’s fear of retribution, the fact that LW feels the need to ask Diana before taking a management step and frankly the fact that a public facing organization who should know that the public is full of people who behave badly would say “she must have done something wrong”.

      You’re a supervisor, LW. Let’s push for some better structure, policies, and trainings.

      1. PT*

        That is SUPER common in customer service positions, though. “The customer is always right!” so whenever the customer is upset, even if it’s for a discriminatory reason, the employee gets blamed for not making the customer happy. Even if the customer is just batpoop nuts and they cannot be made happy in a way that is within the legal bounds of operating a functional business.

  7. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    Thank you Michelle! I’m bookmarking this and adding Inclusion Live to my agenda. Reader #4’s letter addressed an issue I encountered in the past and it is tricky, especially if you are close to the person being discriminated against. In the situation I encountered it was really hard to bite my tongue but I did because my friend and coworker asked me not to bring it up. I had to remember that as hard as it was for me not to speak out, it was harder for her to have to live with this crap day in and day out. If this wasn’t a battle she wanted to fight, it sure wasn’t up to me to decide for her.

    There is one part of this situation where you can speak up, though. When “Our one Black employee, Diana, received the most complaints from customers and was often accused by other staff of being “lazy” and having an “attitude.”” You can absolutely 100% address that with a, “That is not something I have ever seen. I think she’s a really hard worker/delightful to be around/whatever is opposite of what they said. Can you justify/explain what you mean by that?” 99% of the time they can’t or bring up behavior everyone does, which leads to way of addressing the attitude such as, “But White Jimmy over there is doing exactly that lazy thing. Do you think he is also lazy?” etc.

    1. MissMeghan*

      I agree! We’ve all learned it’s important to pick our battles, but Michelle really drove home that it’s also important to remember we don’t get to pick other people’s battles.

  8. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    Michelle, thank you so much for your wisdom, and thank you Alison for amplifying Michelle’s wisdom!

  9. Considered Secularist*

    Echoing others, thank you so much for taking the time Michelle, this is incredibly helpful and actionable. Thank you too Alison for providing the space. I hope this is not a one-off.

  10. Emma2*

    Thank you Michelle and Alison. I read Michelle’s book after Alison posted about it a few months ago – I thought it was very good and very readable. There were definitely a few points that made me stop and reflect on something from a new perspective. I also liked the way Michelle made certain points through short stories about individual experiences- some of those really stuck with me, which has been helpful in keeping those points in mind.
    For anyone who has not read it, obviously I would recommend Michelle’s book.

  11. City Therapist 12345*

    Thank you Michelle for taking the time to share ways anyone can take action to help combat racism. I especially liked the importance of checking in with the BIPOC person/person at a disadvantage to confirm how they want to proceed, respect their limits. I am checking out the Inclusion Live website now!

    Thank you Alison for facilitating this/offering it on your website. Is there anyway that Michelle and/or others can continue to come back/post on things we can do to combat racism/increase equality?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! Michelle is welcome back here as often as she wants! (Truly, that’s a standing offer and I’m making a note to check back with her later on to see if she’s up for doing it again.) But also, don’t forget she’s going to be answering questions live every week over on LinkedIn Live, so definitely plan to follow her there for lots more advice like this. I’ll remind people once that starts too.

  12. Wandering Anon*

    Thank you! This piece was excellent. I found the scenarios very helpful in delineating the difference between ‘white savior’ and ‘helpful ally’. Thank you again.

  13. Caroline Bowman*

    I love this chat. I’m white and privileged and it is a powerful and salutary reminder to *ask how a marginalised person (be it race, sexuality, whatever) wants to deal with bigotry* and NOT just wade in as though the person is a child and has no agency.

    Quite humbling.

  14. Empress Matilda*

    My workplace is also starting a DEI committee, and my goal is to avoid centering myself as a Well Intentioned White Woman. Thanks to Michelle for doing all this work to educate us!

      1. Magda*

        I think it’s fine to still have a personal goal for your own conduct, especially if it’s to listen more! Don’t beat yourself up too much.

  15. Duck*

    Confused by the goldfish comment in letter 1. As in the fish or the crackers? Is this a really common thing when workers leave a company and I’ve just never heard of it?

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think it’s an established trope–she’s just using the image in talking about a departing employee packing up. It could probably mean either, but the fish is funnier.

      1. Michelle Silverthorn*

        Yes, it is a Jerry Maguire reference! I actually wondered if people would get that when I wrote it … so thank you!

  16. Alina*

    #2 is making me think. I’m a brown woman, not black, but otherwise it applies pretty closely. No one has really commented on my tone, but I’m sure some people have thought it. Tbh, I don’t mind being the one who brings up issues because I can’t stand inaction. I work in a predominantly white male field. I do think that my attitude/style/whatever you call it is what has gotten me as far as it has.

    The point about encouraging others is a good one. Ive always known that for example i am comfortable bringoing up stuff to the big boss, and haven’t wanted to force anyone else to do it.

  17. maureen johnson*

    I appreciate this point “I am a Black cisgender straight woman and if I sat in a conversation about homophobia and kept steering it back to my Blackness, they should escort me right out and they would be correct.”

    …Though I am not sure it’s practiced widely in general social justice conversations. It feels like sometimes (in this comment section and elsewhere) conversations are completely shut down by comparing relative oppression/number of intersections, rather than engaging with the issue at hand.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      I was thinking that the manager is probably trying to identify with the Black employees, but doing so in a way that isn’t helpful. At a guess, the manager is one of those people who has to personally identify with something in order to understand how someone else might feel. For people who aren’t automatically empathetic, this is often a way for them to try to connect with what others are feeling.

      The manager needs to go beyond reflecting on how she feels about her own situation, though, to put herself in the shoes of her employees, whose perspective and lived experiences are very different.

      She might get the picture if the employees tell her she needs to look at things from their perspective of being Black, rather than from her own perspective of being female and LGBTQ (eg. she could present as non-LGBTQ if she wanted, whereas a Black person can’t present as not Black. etc.)

      1. mel*

        “she could present as non-LGBTQ if she wanted”

        Whoa. I don’t want to derail, but I need to say — that is a) not the case for everyone, and b) a really bad yardstick of how to categorize oppression.

        And, “whereas a Black person can’t present as not Black” — also not true for everyone.

        1. Jennifer*

          “And, ‘whereas a Black person can’t present as not Black’ — also not true for everyone.”

          I get where you’re coming from, but this remark kind of rubbed me the wrong way. When black people are talking about their lived experience, typically they are discussing their experiences with racism because of how they present to the world.

          Someone that is white-passing and his to tell people that they are black is going to have a totally different lived experience. Not saying that they can’t also have negative, racist experiences but typically they have a lot more privilege than someone who is black-presenting.

        2. Jennifer*

          And maybe learnedthehardway didn’t phrase it perfectly, but this white manager does have more privilege than the black employees, just because of the color of her skin, even though she is also part of two other marginalized communities and she’s using it to speak over them.

        3. littledoctor*

          Yeah, hard agree, I’ve been perceived as gay by everyone since I was a toddler, and I literally cannot avoid being perceived as and treated as gay in daily life. I lived for a significant part of my youth in a country where homosexuality is illegal, so I had significant reason to attempt to hide it, but I consistently failed (and suffered for that failure.)

          I think the discourse about how gay people can hide being gay really misses that there’s a significant group of people who cannot hide that they’re gay and who’ve been perceived as gay by everyone around them for their entire lives. Those people are the people who’ve suffered most from homophobia, who are most heavily policed and punished for their orientation in daily life, and who’ve been at the forefront of every fight for gay liberation in history and in the present.

      2. pancakes*

        In addition to what mel said, I want to point out that your last paragraph is a bit of a departure from what Michelle Silverthorn and other experts on this topic are talking about. The manager can’t actually look at things from the perspective of being Black because she isn’t Black. She can de-center herself in these conversations, though, in the ways Michelle described. I know there’s a lot of resistance in some places to people adding new words to their vocabulary, but some of these concepts don’t benefit from being translated into more familiar language.

    2. Some dude*

      Yeah, in my experience intersectionality is often used to shut down conversation rather than open it up. I think there is also an issue we have in the U.S. at least of being really focused on the individual and our own underdog story, so that anything that doesn’t center us and our experience can become threatening. It is very easy for social justice conversations to just become “well what about ME and MY experience being marginalized???” I know this is often framed around white fragility, but I see it across the spectrum.

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        Tangentially, I have some experiences that give me insight into what it is like to be “other than” the majority in an environment.

        However, (1) “insight” =/= “the same experience.

        (2) My insight might help me understand, but sharing it is more likely to derail a conversation that might be more constructive if I resist the temptation to present myself as “tone-deaf.”

        Walking 100 yards in shoes that resemble someone else’s is not the same as walking a day in that person’s shoes. Ergo, I should use the insight for my own edification, and let the conversation remain focused on the issue actually being discussed.

        And I hope that comment isn’t a distraction.

  18. Foundation Blues*

    I have begun to think a lot about these issues in my new role because I’m doing more grantwriting. A lot of our grants specifically ask to list the names and race of our staff and leadership (sometimes it’s literally a table they want us to upload). I realize they are doing it because they want to make sure their grants are going to BIPOC organizations, which is great, but it is a weird and uncomfortable situation for our org. I don’t want to pressure new staff and new board members to tell me their racial identity, which would likely make them immediately feel like that’s why they were added to our roster, and it is extremely uncomfortable trying to “guess” based on appearance or names or whatever. I wish there was a different way to handle this without feeling like I’m being a jerk.

    1. m. scritt*

      I think you could absolutely just tell them the truth! “As part of my grant-writing role, I am often asked to provide the racial identity of staff and board to our potential funders. Could you send me an email with this information (White, Latinx, Black, AAPI*) by 10/2? If you don’t feel comfortable doing this or have more questions, please let me know. Thank you!”

      *Obviously lay out whichever categories are asked for in your work

      1. Sara without an H*

        This is good advice. Most organizations that regularly solicit grant funding will understand that they’re going to be asked for this kind of information. If your organization is big enough to have an HR department, they may already have this information.

        But whatever you do…DO NOT GUESS.

    2. nonprofiteer*

      I work for a funder, and I have been hesitant to add demographic questions for this reason. They seem invasive to me, kinda illegal (in that you are essentially making funding decisions based on peoples largely immutable identities), and reductive. I definitely believe that orgs need to have deep engagement with communities to be effective, but that may or may not be reflected in the identities their staff hold. And dinging organizations because their staff don’t hold the right identities just feels…wrong. We fund locally, so it is easier for us to have a sense of how connected to the community an organization is, but yeah, it’s a real thing.

      1. Asha*

        In case you find this useful: what I’m seeing from the major government funding agencies in Canada are requirements for EDI descriptions of how the grant holders (propose to) recruit and train (etc). They explicitly say they do not want demographics.

        It’s only been a few years and not all of the agencies require it, but it’s really focused on thoughtful and iterative improvements at all levels instead of checking boxes.

        1. Some dude*

          We’ve had success with asking about how grantee’s are engaging with the communities they served. It becomes very clear when it is authentic and deep, and when it is surface. And this doesn’t require disclosing any identity information. There are even cases where the org leadership reflects the identities of those served, but their engagement is very paternalistic and so they are not as effective as a group where the identities of the staff may not match up with the community, but they are very authentically engaged with them.

    3. Gloucesterina*

      Can you approach those awarding the grants to ask them for strategies for collecting sensitive information like this? A kind of “return awkwardness to sender” approach?

      And yes, it feels super weird to send a work colleague an email containing a statement of my racial identity. Could staff members respond to questions in a survey form–that is, ask the questions in format that is deliberately designed to code as detached and bureaucratic and paperworky, as opposed to a personal communication? A form with radio buttons, etc. may also be important if the funders specifically want US Census-type responses as opposed to however people talk about their race in their real life, which can be more varied and textured than what’s on the census.

  19. m. scritt*

    I think you could absolutely just tell them the truth! “As part of my grant-writing role, I am often asked to provide the racial identity of staff and board to our potential funders. Could you send me an email with this information (White, Latinx, Black, AAPI*) by 10/2? If you don’t feel comfortable doing this or have more questions, please let me know. Thank you!”

    *Obviously lay out whichever categories are asked for in your work

    1. Foundation Blues*

      (assuming this is a comment to my question above) – I’d love to hear others weigh in on this. As a cis white person I’d worry a lot about sending a message like this, but maybe I’m totally off-base.

      1. Gothic Bee*

        Since it’s specifically for demographics purposes and part of your job, I don’t think it’s weird (granted, I’m also white), but if you just send them an email asking their race/ethnicity and explaining why you need it, I doubt most people would have any issue with it or think that you were suggesting they were hired only for diversity purposes. Also, I’d say it’s way more offensive to just try to guess at someone’s race and/or ethnicity than it would be to ask (so if you need to, remind yourself of that as a way to get over the weirdness of asking for the info).

        Also, if you need more than just their race/ethnicity, you might feel less weird asking for all the info at once in a list, even if you just ask them how they’d like their name listed along with race/ethnicity, or you could ask for info that you need only occasionally or could find out through other channels.

      2. Hope this helps*

        I’ve approached people privately and asked them, explaining why I needed the information. It’s a small org – I’m not sure how I would approach it with a larger one.

      3. Salsa Verde*

        I think being very clear and not editorializing is important here, if possible:
        I’m filling out this grant application for our organization, and they want to know (copy and paste exactly what the application asks for). Could you please reply to me by X/X/XXX with this information?

      4. Zelda*

        As others have said, just being absolutely forthright about telling everyone why you’re asking is step one. Also, I would tend to phrase this as “What would you like me to report?” rather than “What is your racial identity?”

        I don’t know if that makes a difference to anyone else, but to me it feels a bit more like returning agency to each person for their own presentation. Not “bare your intimate details to me,” but “tell me whatever you would like to make public.” I’m white, though, so… Don’t know if that phrasing is a real distinction, or of any real use, to those who are not.

  20. SwampWitch*

    I worked for a boss very similar to Reader #5, except we were all white and AFAB-het. It was uncomfortable to see her center podcasts and marketing outreach all around herself being such a good ally and how the next person she was hiring was going to be BIPOC and how she was never going to hire white or straight people again. She was on a panel about allyship and sucked all the air out of the room and made the event so uncomfortable. That’s some great advice for Reader#5.

    1. American Job Venter*

      and how she was never going to hire white or straight people again.

      Oh nooooooo I hate it when people say things like this. 1) it gives people who oppose broad hiring the ability to cry “reverse racism! reverse sexism! 2) employees are not collectibles to be assembled in a One of Each set 3) the point is to open opportunities to those who are denied them for bigoted, thus irrelevant-to-job-performance reasons, not to close them down for people. You have my sympathies for having to deal with that.

      1. LabTechNoMore*

        Right? By stating that it nullifies the professional validity of any future BIPOC or Queer folks hired on that team (or any other teams, because racism and homophobia/transphobia doesn’t actually make any sense).

      2. SnappinTerrapin*

        When I was in college, we used to joke that my fraternity had “at least one each” of any male stereotype on campus. We were diverse, but not because we were building a collection. We just happened to be a group of men of diverse backgrounds who chose to closely associate with each other.

        We even had a few men who would have met the general stereotype of wealthy Southern frat boys.

    2. Gloucesterina*

      Ugh, that really smacks of “marginalized people will solve all the problems at my org! I will never have to lift a finger again!” type thinking. Not a surefire recipe for treating those employees with respect.

  21. learnedthehardway*

    OP#3 – I would personally talk to your younger white coworker in private and let her know that her comments about hoods and ghettos is an offensive way of describing traditionally black (or in the area of ghettos – Jewish) neighbourhoods. I’m guessing that she has no idea that what she said was racist, and that she will be horrified that she has been offensive. Ideally, anyway. I would suggest that she do some reading up on the racist implications of those terms. I would also suggest that she address her mistake in the next group meeting, apologize, and let people know she didn’t mean to be offensive, and that she has educated herself.

    This is one of those situations, I think, where you’re better off to assume ignorance, and to treat the situation as a teaching opportunity.

    1. Harvey 6 3.5*

      Yeah, when I hear the word “ghetto”, I think of Jews being murdered by the Nazis in Warsaw, or shunted into walled enclosures as in Venice (where the term was first applied in this context, though it means foundry). While the usage here probably was racist towards black majority locales, that isn’t how it lands for everyone.

      1. pancakes*

        Right, but doesn’t it also land as offensive to people more familiar with that usage to hear the same word used to refer to a local restaurant? I feel like it’s going to be pretty offensive to any thoughtful person no matter what the speaker’s primary frame of reference is.

    2. Some dude*

      There is a whole list of slang terms that maybe were common in a collegiate or high school setting(at least when I was that age) but definitely need to be retired. “Gay,” “retarded,” “ghetto,” “hood,” top among them.
      It doesn’t need to be a huge deal, but definitely correct it because they are offensive and will make the person saying them seem bigoted and out of touch.

  22. A question please*

    This is great. Thank you Michelle and Alison.

    [One question. Apologies if I’m overstepping. Why is ‘white’ being capitalised? I was under the impression this is an error and not the correct thing to do]

    1. Polar Bear Hug*

      A lot of news sources are now capitalizing both Black and White (which styles them the same way as other races are, such as Chinese).

      1. ThatGirl*

        Chinese is an ethnicity/nationality(/language), not a race, but yes, in response to the widespread capitalization of Black, some people/organizations are also capitalizing white.

        1. Michelle Silverthorn*

          Great question. I capitalize because a racial group that has long been able to see itself as the default race (ask yourself why White people in books are never described by their skin color, but BIPOC characters always are) should no longer be seen as the default race. Others don’t capitalize it, for one, because that capitalization has been commonly used by hate groups and those who want to demonstrate their supremacy and power. I wish I could tell you this is a situation where one is always right and the other is always wrong, but I can’t. I can explain why I choose to do so, and others can explain why they choose not to. I have to say, based on what I’ve seen, it is very likely in a decade, White will be capitalized in all writing as well.

  23. Dramatic Intent To Flounce*

    Awesome column! Thank you Michelle for answering these questions, and thank you Allison for hosting it!

    As someone whose sensory processing issues make watching live videos trickier, I also definitely appreciate having these in text format. Much easier to absorb information.

  24. korangeen*

    I understand the logic of #1 and #4 of checking in with your colleague to see how they feel and how they want the situation handled, and respecting their agency. But then #3 is pretty much opposite advice, saying you 100% need to call it out and there’s no need to check with colleagues to see if they were offended or how they want it handled. How do you figure out if you’re in a situation like #3 where you should definitely call out a colleague’s behavior without checking with someone else first? Michelle said this is a rare example of a hard-and-fast rule where a white person calling something ghetto is always offensive. Is there, er, a list of the hard-and-fast rules? That’s probably a silly question. But I honestly don’t know how to differentiate between “obviously you should check in with your colleagues and respect their agency for how they want it handled” and “obviously you need to call it out immediately and not check in with anyone.” Personally if I were in situation #3, since I’m not in a leadership position, I probably would have brought it up with our manager and let her handle it, and/or if I was thinking quickly enough, acted offended/confused in the moment, like “wait, why would you say that?”

    1. Anononon*

      I think a difference may be that 1 and 4 are scenarios where the racism is ongoing and being specifically directed at/experienced by a specific person. That’s when you should defer to that person. In 3, it’s a general racist comment.

      1. korangeen*

        Hmm, yeah that’s a good point, racism specifically targeting/affecting a particular person(s), vs racist language not directed toward anyone in particular. Do others also see that as the major difference between these scenarios and the cause for the opposite advise?

    2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      I am white and I’d call it out because I find it offensive. Those terms aren’t racist just when BIPOC hear them. They are always racist and no one should have to hear that at work

      1. korangeen*

        Agreed, the term is racist. The situations in #1 and #4 also dealt with racism, and in those cases the LWs were advised to check in with the affected Black folks and respect/support however they wanted the situation handled. So I’m trying to understand when to check in and when to immediately call it out on my own. Anononon above suggested the difference is a racist situation affecting a specific person versus racist language not targeting a specific person. Do you agree with that assessment?

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          That’s my thinking, too. One person being a jerk to another is terrible, but ultimately the person who’s affected gets to choose how to address it. Offensive language is offending everyone, & anybody can address it.

  25. American Job Venter*

    Michelle thank you so much for coming here today, and Allison, thank you for hosting and promoting her. I found the examples personally relevant and I’m really looking forward to Inclusion LIVE!

  26. BigHairNoHeart*

    Just wanted to say thank you Michelle for these responses. The scripts and step by step instructions you provided are all fantastic. I’ve been thinking more lately about the best ways to center minority voices/BIPOC people and your responses have provided some incredibly practical and straightforward examples of how to do that!

  27. Cringing 24/7*

    Posts like this are absolutely everything. Thank you so much, Michelle, for taking the time and energy to answer these questions, and thank you, Alison, for posting them!

  28. DefinitiveAnn*

    This is so excellent! Is Michelle going to be publishing transcripts of her Inclusion Live show? Because I am a reader, not a watcher/listener, and I would love to add this to my list of Things To Read Every Week.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      I cosign this question, for a different reason: I’d love to assign pieces like this to students in several of my classes, but I literally cannot if the video isn’t transcribed, because I have a legal and ethical duty to ensure accessibility of all course materials to students with visual and/or auditory disabilities.

      1. pancakes*

        There are a number of free video transcription apps you can try if there are particular videos you want to use that don’t come with one. You can also open a new Google doc, select the voice typing tool, and play the video in another window. The results would almost certainly need some proofreading, but it might be worth a try.

  29. Seeking Second Childhood*

    Michelle I love your vibrant writing. Phrases like “…grab their goldfish on their way out” made me grin even though the subject matter is grim.
    The “centering” language will be useful for me as an ally.
    And this is simply brilliant reminder for many situations: “…a whole lot of bridge between walking away and setting it aflame.”
    For those of us who see a too monochrome company but don’t have any say in where or how the company advertises, what can I do to help reverse that other than send relevant listings to black friends and family members? Obviously I’ll do that if it’s relevant to their career but when I don’t know anyone who “designs teapots”, how to proceed without asking them to funnel them to black people? That sounds awkward and it should, because I’m feeling awkward!

    1. Data Nerd*

      Following this–my field is very monochrome, and so are the school programs for the degree(s) relevant to the field. How do I start helping to build a pipeline? I could be wrong about this, of course, but I really don’t think that BIPOC students are being managed out, I think it’s that they don’t even know about the field enough to get in (to be fair, field appears pretty boring at first glance and most available jobs are in government).

      1. Michelle Silverthorn*

        Designs teapots, lol. That person will probably be the star of the next Netflix holiday movie. I’ll add that to my Inclusion LIVE question but my response would be, “What do you have power over?” Start there, look at your tiny sphere of influence – is it in conversations with people, is it in what catering is used, is it in whose names you can speak up in meetings, is it in what hotels you choose to put interviewers in, is it in what stock photos are chosen – I’m not sure what your job title is but equity can work at various levels of responsibility. You have more power than you think you do.

      2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

        One thing you can do is make sure that you’re connecting to communities of color on your own, with an eye toward expanding your network of BIPOC family and friends. Don’t wait for BIPOC individuals to reach out and be your friend before you help them. For example, taking an hour or two digging for local BIPOC organizations (e.g., community action groups, mutual aid groups, BIPOC student/alumni organization of local colleges/universities, etc.). Get yourself a list of the info contact emails and every time a job is posted for your employer, forward it on to those folks. Offer to be a resource for individuals who have questions about your profession.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood*

          I like this idea. I wouldn’t feel bad asking my friends once for comments and additions to a list of places to forward. And I’ll be doing the work after that.

        2. marvin the paranoid android*

          Another thing you can do is volunteer as a mentor for people entering your field who don’t have access to traditional networking methods. Often there are programs to set mentorships up for refugees, non-traditional students or other groups who don’t have the benefits of an established professional network. Part of the deal is that you provide access to your own network and vouch for the person.

  30. WoodswomanWrites*

    Thank you, Alison and Michelle! This is so helpful. I’m definitely going to check out Michelle’s series on LinkedIn Live.

  31. Worried*

    I have a question for the readers !
    I work in Europe and one of my coworkers, who is gay, is having a baby with his partner. The paternity leave is not that great and he has to juggle a lot of time off, remote work etc to prepare for the arrival if the baby.
    I think the lack of paternity leave is a political failure. So I went to HR and asked whether I could give him anonymously one of my day off. It is possible so it will be done. I asked that my name is left out of it and that no one knows about it, because I don’t want him to feel he owes me something or for people to think I advocate palliating the lack of rights with employees giving up their days.

    But reading all these comments about not assuming what the person would want… I wonder if I did the right thing.
    What do you guys think ?

    1. zebra*

      I think it’s very kind of you to offer. However, one extra day off doesn’t really make a difference in the big picture besides helping you feel better about giving it. If people find out and this becomes a more widespread practice, you don’t want to set the expectation that all your colleagues should choose to give up part of their benefits in order to give them to someone else subjectively. That’s something your company should be doing, not each individual. Your energy would be better spent advocating for a policy change that will benefit all employees who become parents and create more equitable leave policies for everyone.

        1. pancakes*

          I tend to think people trying to change structural things like this at the individual level undercuts the idea that structural change is necessary. Maybe it seems different outside the US, but here the media loves to feature stories like, “these people donated sick time to their coworker with cancer, isn’t it heart-warming,” and many, many people seem to have gotten lost in thinking it is, or thinking that’s the best we can do.

      1. Worried*

        @zebra I entirely agree on the benefits question. I actually already put the question of paternity leave on the table at a management last year. It was received kindly but it definitely won’t go anywhere and I don’t have the weight to push it right now.
        I definitely hope it won’t come out that I did that, because I just want my colleague to have his baby, get one more day off and think nothing more about it.

      2. SimplytheBest*

        I hate when people say that. “One extra day doesn’t really make a difference.” “$5 doesn’t make a difference so why should I donate to this cause I believe in.” “I am just one person, that doesn’t make much of a difference. It doesn’t matter if I speak up.”

        It’s a whole day of difference. It’s a whole $5 of difference. It’s a whole person of difference. Don’t tell people their contributions don’t matter.

        1. banoffee pie*

          Seems like a nice gesture to me, I’m sure even one day off will give him some rest when he’s tired out with the baby.

        2. zebra*

          I was speaking more generally. Clearly one day means a lot to this one person. But if this commenter donates one day to one colleague and considers their job done, that’s a net negative for *everyone else at the whole company* except the person who received it. I guarantee there are other colleagues this person has who would really benefit from one more day off; if they’re not quite as vocal about their struggles around the water cooler and Worried doesn’t hear about it, they’re not getting an extra day. If someone is struggling but for a reason Worried doesn’t sympathize as much with, they’re not getting an extra day. If someone is struggling but Worried doesn’t have any extra time of their own at that point, they’re not getting an extra day. Heck, if Worried themself needs more leave time for something someday, they’re not going to get one extra day from anyone.

          My comment was not meant to diminish the value of one day. It was to illustrate that *individual solutions to systemic problems are inherently unfair, inefficient, and wasteful.* The issue at hand is not that Worried’s colleague couldn’t use the day or that the donation isn’t valuable for the recipient, but that Worried’s employers are not giving adequate benefits to their whole staff. Putting Worried in the position to individually choose who to donate their own hard-earned benefits to is inherently unfair and not targeting the real problem. If Worried truly wants to help, there’s a lot they can do to benefit EVERYONE and I think it’s ok to push people to think systemically instead of individually.

  32. Valbonne*

    The question I have is whether you have allies in the corner to back you up.

    Thank you so much, Michelle, for answering my question (#2). My direct manager (the one asking to change my tone) has advocated me for me to have access to opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have and is the one who specifically recruited me to join the team that they manage. I have received two very high ranking performance awards based on the nomination of this person.

    Additionally, my direct manager has told me during conversations and performance evaluations that other high-ranking individuals in different departments sing my praises when it comes to the high quality work I do, and told me that was one of the reasons why I was sought after to join my current team.

    I have helped coworkers develop initiatives (literally introducing ideas to help solidify their goals) that have since been instituted, while my own initiative has been halted indefinitely because it has the potential to conflict politically with another departmental initiative. While other managers talked about how important my initiative is, it was my direct manager who gave me the news that it wouldn’t move forward.

    When I think of my peers and colleagues, I’m starting to feel sad as I think about the ways that I have risked my political capital and reputation to help make substantial changes, and I am realizing that literally no one else has done the same for me. I hope this is not rambling, but this question has had me thinking deeply about whether to reduce the help I provide to my peers if it means that I’m the only one who suffers from any of the risk.

    Again, I appreciate your attention to my question. I have a lot to think about.

    1. Valbonne*

      I forgot to add, to the tune of your letter, that I have been trying very hard to mentor my my peers and newer coworkers to be active and to be vocal because it has brought me so much success, although I have had some failures. I think it’s the failures that they are afraid of, but I consider that part of the path to success.

    2. Michelle Silverthorn*

      “When I think of my peers and colleagues, I’m starting to feel sad as I think about the ways that I have risked my political capital and reputation to help make substantial changes, and I am realizing that literally no one else has done the same for me.”

      THIS RIGHT HERE. Minda Harts, who is fabulous, has a great new book called Right Within: How to Heal from Racial Trauma in the Workplace. I cannot recommend it enough. Someone else succeeding because you have done the work to fix systems that they won’t do (and they might also think, well you’re so much better at it, people actually listen to you, you’re not uncomfortable doing this, you know the right thing to say), it is all part and parcel. I am so sorry that you are dealing with this. I am thankful that you have allies but most of all, I hope that this company is worthy of your time and dedication and that they will recognize, especially your manager, the enormous benefit that you are delivering to them.

      1. Valbonne*

        Wow, all those phrases are almost verbatim what I’ve heard from colleagues. I don’t know what to say at this point. I love my job very much and I think the goals of my department are worthwhile. It is unlikely to get better anywhere else.

      2. TIRED*

        Thank you for your work on this, it’s so important. I’m WOC and this book looks really great. Thank you for recommending it. (ALISON – is there anyway this recommendation (and really all of Michelle’s comments on this post, not sure how many there are… ) can be added to the main body of the post?) ofc also writing down the name of your own book.

      3. Toxic Workplace Survivor*

        Valbonne, that frustration of supporting others and working to fix systems while not receiving it in return really resonated with me and I just want to say how sorry I am that you are dealing with the situation and the toll it takes on you. Hugs! I had some similar issues at Toxic Workplace #2 and it wasn’t until I realized that the lack of a sponsor, or anyone who as Michelle says will speak up for you quietly when you aren’t there, was too big a problem for me resolve and I couldn’t stay there.

        My hope is that your situation is a bit better, since you are already seen as a leader and have a good reputation (deservedly of course). Michelle’s advice of asking people to meet you halfway is a good one and I like the concept too of reaching out to coworkers laterally and up/down from you. Good luck and keep us posted.

        Side note: if you ever solve the conundrum of being the go-to person to voice the unpopular truth, please share! I don’t mind being that person either but I think particularly for women it traps you into being perceived as the difficult one over time, and I have no idea how to escape from that trap either!

    3. Candi*

      Valbonne, I want to mention something I’ve heard of in discussions, read about, and witnessed once myself.

      There are people who, when they are complaining about the “tone” of someone who is not white, male (and usually straight and Christian), they are not talking about “tone” in the objective sense of the word.

      They are talking about how the person is not acting like a “proper” member of their race or gender. The person is not being “properly” subservient or compliant. They are being assertive, strong, dominant.

      The same goes for “dominating the conversations”. In studies, men have stated that women dominated a conversation by 2/3s or more -but recordings of those conversations show the woman spoke less than 50% of the time, with an average of 48%.

      Bigotry is still grossly ingrained in our culture, and we are still hacking away at the poisoned roots and vines. A person’s perception is questionable against that background, particularly the subconscious effects. If they can take a recording and say, “Here, here, and here, there are things you need to work on,” that’s one thing, although still mildly subjective. But when someone can’t identify what’s “wrong”, and just says your “tone” or other quality is off, it’s likely to be very subjective and biased -and the person may not even realize it.

      I have personal experience with this. My parents raised me to be colorblind -I don’t “see” color or race unless I make the effort. But they also raised me to hate homosexuality and people who are homosexuals, and that is a burden I have struggled hard to shed. There’s many a time when I have a reflexive reaction I then have to stomp on. I have to be conscious every day to wrangle and root out my own ingrained prejudices.

      Many people are not so self-aware, even when it’s pointed out to them. (The commentariat here are very self-aware; it’s a good place.)

      1. Valbonne*

        Wow, I never thought of it that way. I’ll definitely make it a point to ask for specifics whenever a conversation regarding my “tone” surfaces again.
        I have worked with a brand new BIPOC colleague, who has probably been on for about a year, whom I’ve been asked to relay messages to regarding tone. The dissonance is now starting to make a little bit more sense to me given that I don’t agree at all with diminishing my colleague’s tone. You’ve given me something to think about because my colleague could probably be buffered from some of that nonsense if it’s an expression of bigotry rather than a true evaluation of performance or professional development.

  33. I've been missing out*

    THANK YOU! Michelle, you are awesome. This is the first I’ve heard of you, so please forgive me for missing out prior. I really thought I’d read one of the questions and move on, but I read every word above, despite the big project I have waiting for me… I was recently assigned a book, a national best seller about racism written by a white woman, for a conference. While I found some of it interesting and informational, I also found it hugely problematic. I’m eager to read your book to get a better perspective. Thank you.

  34. zebra*

    Just wanted to say thanks, Alison, for running this. I found Michelle’s advice very direct and thoughtful and it’s definitely making me reflect on some things. I’d be very pleased to read more posts like this here in the future!

  35. Beth*

    I may have come in too late to get this question answered, but I can hope, anyway.

    When I was in college and graduate school, the part of town where many of the cheap apartments were, where many students lived, was generally referred to as the “student ghetto”. This was in the 80s, and we were mostly white, and definitely privileged and clueless — we used the word “ghetto” as if it didn’t mean anything more than “a place where people without much money live cheaply”.

    Reading this column, I can see that was clueless. I was going to ask, “Do I need to stop using the word “ghetto” in this specific casual expression?” — but now that I’ve actually written this comment out, I can see that the answer is “Hell, yes, stop using it!”

      1. PT*

        I believe the origin of the term “ghetto” was an anti-semetic slur in Europe centuries before it got applied to Black neighborhoods in the US. So it’s really just a terrible word all around.

        1. European*

          I might be wrong here ; I am European but not Jewish. What I have learned in history class is that the word comes from the place in Venice where Jewish people were forced to live. The word in itself is not antisemitic or a slur (although obviously the reality it depicts is very much so), and it is used as a historical term in Europe (i.e ‘Jewish people lived in the ghetto in Warsaw’).

            1. European*

              Just above : “I believe the origin of the term “ghetto” was an anti-semetic slur in Europe [in the past]”

              1. pancakes*

                Sorry, I mis-read the comment you were responding to.

                I find it a bit odd that people are focusing on the historic origins of the word when the usage described in the letter plainly has nothing to do with Venice. Likewise the idea of appropriation, which really doesn’t have much to do with why thoughtless contemporary usage like the example in the letter is offensive. There’s no shortage of thoughtful writing on how it has evolved over the years, but so many people prefer to guess.

          1. American Job Venter*

            There’s a thing people do, you know, at least in the US.

            Person A: *says offensive thing*
            Person B: That was offensive
            Person A: according to this etymology or historical fact that does not include modern context, it’s not offensive at all. Checkmate, snowflake.

        2. UKDancer*

          Yes to me as a British person “ghetto” makes me think of antisemitism and my immediate mental image is of the Nazi ghettos during WW2 rather than something contemporary. I tend to associate them in my mind with the horrible mistreatment of Jewish people throughout history.

          I wouldn’t use the word other than in the historical context e.g. “I visited the site of the ghetto in Lviv when I was in Ukraine” or “I read a book about the Warsaw ghetto uprising.”

    1. Some dude*

      As an aside, there is a movement to rebrand the area in berkeley known as the Gourmet Ghetto something else. I hope they succeed. I get why that title was used forty years ago, but it is beyond time to rebrand.

      My thought with stuff like that is to not fall on my sword about it, but if I can take small steps to not add to the ugliness in the world, awesome.

    2. ThatGirl*

      There are, unfortunately, things I’ve done or said in the past that my current self is extremely embarrassed by, and my use of the word “ghetto” is definitely one of them. So, yes, stop using it – once we know better, we should do better (as a manager once said to me, in a more work-related context).

  36. Big Sigh*

    Thank you, Michelle! I’m LW #3. I’m happy to report the employee in question has since been let go for performance reasons; I do regret my hesitancy to call out the behavior when it happened and potentially stop her from repeating this behavior in the future. I found it really hard to tell the distinction between situations where I should gauge reactions before commenting (like in #1 and #4) and situations where I should take the initiative to address certain behaviors immediately. Seeing multiple examples here together definitely helps, so thank you again!

  37. DJ Abbott*

    Re #2, if the Reader’s white colleagues have had experiences like mine, that’s why they’re not speaking up and might be why they’re whispering.
    I was involved in activism last year and more than once encountered situations where anything I said was perceived as racist by some of the more emotional activists. It didn’t matter what I was actually saying, even if I was talking about another topic and they knew some of the people involved in that topic are Black, they attacked me as being racist.
    I’m currently looking for a good job and when I find one, I will never take a chance on such things at work. I won’t say anything about race or social problems in any way because someone there will have that attitude that a white person mentioning those things equals a racist.
    I’m sorry that puts more of the burden on you, but I can’t afford to lose my (future) job and I’m sure your colleagues don’t want to lose theirs either.

    1. ThatGirl*

      I feel like you got the entirely wrong lesson from that experience. You should 100% back up your BIPOC colleagues. You should not buy into the idea that being called racist is somehow as bad as or worse than actually being racist. And, you should examine your own internal biases to figure out why it bothers you.

    2. Dino*

      You didn’t ask for advice, but I wonder if it wasn’t what you said but how you said it. I’ve seen White people take up all the air in the room and not let other people get a word in edgewise. I’ve also heard White people say things that are… in the right direction but also problematic and reflect underlying racist assumptions of the speaker. Those things can be racist and rightfully should be shut down.

      1. DJ Abbott*

        And instead of attacking me, these activists could have politely corrected me. But no, they go from zero to attack instantly, leaving me bewildered and hurt.
        What I learned from this is that biases about racism and social issues are deeply entrenched and rigid. If I said something that didn’t fit their biases they weren’t open to hearing a different point of view, they simply attacked. It’s been this way since the 70s and this is why there has been little progress.
        In any case I moved on with my life and I don’t have time to debate this now. I was posting to the reader about why white people don’t speak up.

        1. Maxy*

          I’m starting to get the sense you’re using “activist” as a placeholder for “Black and brown people who called me out on my racism.” And if that is the case, you should really consider that even if it was the first time you specifically had been called out on doing Racist Thing X, that you are not the first (nor will you probably be the last) clueless white person who a person of color has had to call out for their behavior. It’s exhausting.

          You’re also really, really heavily centering your (white) feelings in a way that is inappropriate. You accuse them of going from “zero to attack” and hurting your feelings, but you haven’t acknowledged that you said a racist thing first! I understand that you feel that you deserve to be politely corrected, and I would argue that other white people should be as gracious as possible (because alienating people doesn’t make them less racist), but if the folks you were in community with were BIPOC, then they have every right to be upset with you if you say something racist. Saying or doing something racist is much more than hurting someone’s feelings, and I think you’re missing that part too.

          One last thing I want to urge you to think about: you ended this with “I moved on with my life and don’t have time to debate this now.” You don’t get to “move on” from this. You have an obligation, as we all do, to unlearn white supremacy and all the crap that goes along with it. And I hope you can see why your BIPOC community may have been upset with you/your attitude on these things – they never have the opportunity to “move on” from being Black/Indigenous/POC. They don’t get to “not debate racism now.” Racism affects every single part of their lives, and I hope that you can recognize the privilege that it takes to be able to “move on.”

    3. American Job Venter*

      Well, if you watch racism enacted in front of you, have the power to say or so something about it, and instead do nothing but dispassionately watch people of color suffer, won’t you be proving the point of the “emotional activists”?

      1. DJ Abbott*

        The point is, at work I don’t have that power. I am an entry-level person and I have enough experience to know that I’ll get shut down for anything, anytime, that annoys the bosses.
        This happened many times when I was young and clueless and it had nothing to do with racism. I’m old now and trying to prepare for retirement and I’m not taking chances with my job.
        Of course if I saw a way to intervene in racism without risking my job, I would absolutely do it!

        1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

          I understand exactly what you’re saying. Your losing your job and risking retirement security isn’t going to help anyone else.

          1. Maxy*

            The point is though that as white people we are NOT powerless in these situations. Yes, your standing in the organization as an entry level or junior person is not the same as someone in leadership, but it doesn’t mean you have no power. And I would also argue that risking losing your job actually DOES help other people. At my last job we wrote a letter of no confidence to the board after our (white) executive director was repeatedly and egregiously racist (including firing a Black woman without cause) and my job was threatened over it. But in the end, the ED was allowed to “retire,” my colleague (a Black woman) is still fired (and fighting a legal battle over it), three other women of color (in leadership!) were fired/pushed out for defending her, and not a single white person lost their job (including me).

            1. pancakes*

              I don’t disagree, but I want to point out the way discussion in this thread has shifted from “I fear speaking up about racism at work because my coworkers might think I’m racist too if I don’t use the right words, or if they’re ‘emotional’” to “I fear I’ll lose my own job if I speak up about racism at work.” I think a lot of white people overstate the likelihood of both of these possibilities. The first one isn’t on par with losing one’s job, though. Wanting to be seen as an ally and wanting to remain employed aren’t quite the same thing. Likewise wanting to be consoled about the awkwardness of having to speak and act with care. “I won’t say anything about race or social problems in any way because someone there will have that attitude that a white person mentioning those things equals a racist” is wild (but rather common!) deflection, as if the main problem isn’t racism itself but insufficient appreciation of how upset some white people get when they have occasion to talk about it.

      2. DJ Abbott*

        BTW, This is hell a late maintain the status quo. They have the power over our livelihoods and almost all of us, white or not, have to think of that before we act.

        1. Gerry Keay*

          Actually, dividing the working class along racial lines and destroying working class solidarity is how the elite maintain the status quo. And you’re letting them do just that. Have some solidarity, ffs.

          1. pancakes*

            Yes, thank you. And this should not be new news to people. Start with the “Southern strategy” wikipedia entry if it seems like it is.

          2. TM*

            Yes, exactly. And this tactic is endemic in all “Western” nations right now. Divide-and-conquer is as old as politics itself.

    4. Gerry Keay*

      lol yikes, I promise you, you have more job security than your colleagues of color who are experiencing the racism you’re staying silent about. Might want to reflect on your morals here — “save my own skin and everyone else be damned” is certainly not the society that I want to live in. You’re letting your own feelings of discomfort stop you from speaking up against racism when you know that’s wrong. That’s uh, pretty bad!!

      1. TM*

        Yep, and just saying one thing politely is better than saying nothing at all.

        I was in my current job one week when my now-departed senior colleague showed me an incredibly racist “joke” about Prince Harry and Meagan Markle. I simply said, “Eh, I don’t think that kind of thing is funny.”

        Thankfully, he didn’t show me anything like that again, and got over his slight sniffiness in a day or two. If he’d persisted, I would have used the broken record technique and kept repeating that phrase. If it was a boss, I would probably do the same or potentially go the stony-faced unamused expression depending on the circs.

        You do what you can according to the amount of leverage you have. If all you can do is say, “this is not cool”, say it. If you feel like you can’t even do that bare minimum, contemplate how that might feel to a Black person in your exact same professional position. And honestly, if you think it might be professionally risky to calmly say “please don’t” to that kind of garbage, I’d think about where I’d want to keep working there at all.

  38. Allornone*

    Thanks Michelle!

    I’m happy to have just begun work with a non-profit that really values justice, integrity, diversity, and inclusion (VERY sincerely, it’s not just lip-service). I admit, I’m a white cis-gendered woman, and while I’ve always tried to be an ally, I know I have a lot of listening left to do. Thank you for the opportunity.

  39. Heffalump*

    Phil’s assumption that Diana must have set the customer off is outrageous even if she were white. What happened to “two sides to every story”?

      1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        Exactly! Even now some of our staff/management are very concerned that our customers might be “upset” or “offended” at being required to wear a mask when we reopen the office. Can you say “pandemic”? Who cares if the customer is upset or offended, the employer also has a responsibility to ensure a safe workplace.

  40. Paperdill*

    Coming from an Australian cultural context as opposed to an American one: sometimes we may copy phrases/colloquialisms/idioms from things we see on American media with out fully understanding the cultural connotations that have (and certainly not intending to carry any cultural implications with them!).
    Can someone please explain to my _why_ “ghetto” and “hood” are hard no’s?

    1. SnappinTerrapin*

      “Hood” is appropriating slang from some black communities in the US. For several decades, it was a self-reference to the neighborhood in which poor blacks lived. I’ve never lived in California, but I understand some Hispanics used that term, as well as the term “barrio,” to refer to neighborhoods populated by less affluent members of their ethnic group.

      In the US, the word “ghetto” is almost exclusively used to refer to neighborhoods populated by black people with little money. As others noted, the term originated in Europe to refer to segregated neighborhoods in cities that Jewish residents were limited to. Although very few US neighborhoods were explicitly segregated under penalty of criminal prosecution, there were a number of legal structures in place, along with economic structures, that essentially forced disfavored minorities to live in neighborhoods that were de facto segregated.

      Even if an American is using one of these terms in order to ironically make some other point, as was discussed above, they do so in the context of these longstanding usages. At best, it comes across as tone-deaf, if not intentionally disrespectful of people who were mistreated.

      1. Student*

        Bad news for you on this part of your post: “Although very few US neighborhoods were explicitly segregated… ”

        I recommend googling “racial covenants”. This was done from from ~1900ish until it was finally outlawed in 1968. It was very explicit racist segregation, in legally enforced documents, and it was widespread. The feds required them for a time in federally-financed housing. They are not legally enforceable now, but you still stumble over them in housing deeds occasionally, even though it’s been a bit over 50 years since they were banned.

        1. SnappinTerrapin*

          “under penalty of criminal prosecution,” as the European ghettoes were at one time.

          The rest of the sentence referenced “a number of legal structures in place, along with economic structures, that essentially forced disfavored minorities to live in neighborhoods that were de facto segregated.”

          Thanks for clarifying to our Australian friend one of the many legal and economic structures I was referring to.

          I am also aware of the existence of “sundown towns,” where it wasn’t technically a crime for a black to be present, but some means could and would be found to impose some penalty for being “out of place,” even if it meant a false charge for violating some other law.

          It was an embarrassing era. I lived through part of it, and actually studied the applicable laws in school several decades ago.

    2. SnappinTerrapin*

      Another slang expression you may encounter, with similar connotations, but a slightly broader coverage, is “the projects.” Government subsidized housing is often called a “housing project.” Depending on the context of a local community, these neighborhoods may or may not be de facto segregated by race, although legally they are available based on income and strict laws regulate intentional discrimination.

      As always, many factors (benign and otherwise) can affect whether one of these neighborhoods is actually segregated.

    3. TM*

      Sometimes I trip over some stuff like that myself – for example, I had no idea that watermelons are a weird racial trope against Black people in certain contexts in the US till quite recently (being a kiwi).

      As well as the other explanations here, the way I twigged onto it was hearing when people in the US say, “that’s soooooo ghetto!” It’s never a compliment. Then when you think about who sterotypically lives in ghettos in the US, the racial thing becomes evident.

      Things like that can be used affectionately if you’re in the community – I’m queer, we have our own poking fun at ourselves stuff too – but if you’re not in it, it can be offensive and deliberately weaponised by outsiders.

      What’s tricky is when something is innocuous in one place isn’t in another. I used tr*nny till relatively recently because that’s why my trans friends called themselves and it was fine in general use in our queer community. However, a lot of people in the US started objecting to it (I think perhaps because it wasn’t such common slang there in an innocuous sense before it started being used as a porn category and as a slur). I was kind of annoyed the first time I was critiqued over it in a majority US context (when it was still fine where I lived), but when younger people at home started to feel that it was offensive (and “trans” has superceded it anyway), it was obvious that its time was done, even in NZ.

      Basically, if someone in a community tells me that X is offensive, I don’t really need to know the whys in great depth – I simply adjust accordingly. If it’s a term that’s undergoing change and I’m not in that community, I keep to the least offensive option that I’m aware of. And while my personal friends might give me a “pass” to labels they use themselves, but I don’t assume it applies everywhere.

      It’s a good reminder to be cautious about slang where you don’t know its origins. We don’t have ghettos here (not in the US sense), so it’s often best to be careful about phrases in other forms of English that might have baggage we’re unaware of.

  41. Blue Horizon*

    #4 is actually quite helpful for me in thinking about how I handled a past incident (sexism rather than racism, but otherwise similar). One of the managers we worked with received some fairly blunt (but well justified) criticism from a female member of my team in a meeting, threw a huge tantrum over it, and declared that he would not work with her in future. She declared that she would bow out and let me deal with him from now on because I was “more diplomatic” (true, but also skating over some of what was happening). I went along with it, but felt guilty about it, and have thought about it from time to time since. It sounds like I can let go of that, and that what I did (respecting her decision) was the right call.

  42. CM*

    This is awesome, thank you Michelle for the constructive insights and Alison for sharing your platform! As a POC it is so refreshing to see advice that doesn’t question whether workplace racism is real, but instead provides concrete guidance for how to deal with it.

  43. Stalking Sarah*

    This is such a great series. I’m a white woman and a manager, and this is 100% the kind of content I need in my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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