being direct as a Black woman, coworkers identify people by race, and other questions with Michelle Silverthorn

I’m thrilled to welcome Michelle Silverthorn back to Ask a Manager to share her answers to some of readers’ toughest questions on race. Michelle’s new four-part interactive e-learning series, Inclusion LAUNCH — covering DEI fundamentals, unconscious bias, communicating across difference, and allyship at work –will be released later this summer. You can find out more on her website, Take it away, Michelle!

1. Being direct as a Black woman at work

In theory I believe in simple and direct communication at work, like the scripts Ask a Manager often recommends for resolving work issues. In practice, though, it’s often off limits for me because I know it will be filtered through the angry Black woman lens. When I assert myself, I’m likely to be seen as aggressive, bitter, hostile, angry, or difficult, like every other Black woman I know, including even the most mild-mannered. So I need to phrase every request a favor or cite someone else giving me permission or authority to make the request (because my own authority is rarely seen as legitimate on its own) and maybe even do it in writing in case someone later says I was aggressive when we spoke. I don’t know what I’m asking, I guess … is there anything to make this easier?

I’m a Black immigrant. I moved to America when I was 17. I learned very early on that as a Black woman, I simply could not say things that my White friends and, later, my work colleagues could. The truth is, even the most innocuous statement (“Can you repeat that?”) can come across as threatening to someone who is already predisposed to think you are threatening. If the angry Black woman stereotype is what someone already has in their head, then no matter how polite, how carefully worded, how calm I would make critiques or corrections, to some of my colleagues it would always come across as aggressive. And it’s outside the workplace too! Ask any Black mom about taking her kids to a predominantly White neighborhood or school or playground. You always feel like you’re being watched – and many times, you are. Perfect behavior is the bare minimum.

I won’t repeat what you already know. You know the phrases to use. You know the tones to employ. You know how to negotiate to reach the solution you want. You know to keep track of who has your back and who does not. You know how to find your manager allies. You know to keep your well-being paramount. You know this because Black women know this. If you grew up in America, there are no other scripts I can give you that you didn’t already start drafting as a child.

So instead, two pieces of advice. First, reframe how you think of their reaction. You say, “I know it will be filtered” and “I’m likely to be seen as…” when you mention your coworkers’ opinions of you. Are you automatically thinking that your asks and requests are going to be seen as aggressive and hostile? Do you believe that they already think you are aggressive and hostile so that’s what you assume their reaction to you will be? Sometimes (many times) they do; but also sometimes, they may not see you as aggressive, bitter, hostile, etc. They may see you as approachable. They may see you as competent. They may see you as as a dynamic leader. I can’t tell you when those situations will arise, but I do want you to try to consider your initial assumptions when warranted.

Second, keep carving out a space of authenticity and belonging for you at your job. What music do you listen to? How do you wear your hair at work? What friends and networks do you socialize with? What shows do you talk about? How much work from home time can you have? How do you interact with clients differently than your colleagues who are not Black might? But most importantly, when you wake up in the morning and you log on, or you commute to work and you enter that door, what values sustain you? Whether it is your ambition or your community or your faith or your ancestors or your excellence or your courage or your legacy, what keeps you there at this workplace – beyond a paycheck? Remember those values and hold on to them. Build your space at work that reflect the values that you have.

And for those who are not Black who are reading this, I want you to pay attention to your initial reaction when a Black woman asks for something, criticizes something, or as your manager wants you to follow her lead. I talk about bias and automatic assumption often. That split second response. What is it? Is it dismissiveness? Defensiveness? Fear? Discomfort? Because trust me, if you feel it, we see it. Be intentional about how you want to change what words, emotions, and reactions you might have, both inside and outside of work.

2. Asking about DEI in an interview

I’m looking for how to ask in an interview if the organization is truly committed to DEI. The office where I currently work gave good lip service to DEI in my interview, but now that I’m here I have found that my coworkers are openly biased about race, gender identities, etc. and it’s quite draining.

I’m in the job market again and don’t want to make the same mistake again. How can I probe deeper in the interview process to find a better culture?

Find me on TikTok, I just did a whole video on this one!

3. How can I support my Black colleague who should be paid more?

I am looking for any ideas for supporting my (black, female) coworker who feels she isn’t being paid equitably with me (white, female). We work in IT. She was hired in an entry level role, but with a degree, about a year and a half before I was, and trained very quickly and effectively on the job to take over an important and rare specialty when a more senior person left. I was hired with about 5 years of experience in that same specialty, and the same degree she has. 

All last year, this coworker and I had the same title and split the workload evenly, doing exactly the same work. My experience mainly allowed me to hit the ground running. (I took a new role this year, but we are now the backups for each other’s roles.)

She asked me about six months ago what I make and shared her salary. If her salary is X, mine is about X + 12%. The company also tends to pay large bonuses and profit sharing, based on percentages, which means my higher base salary will make my bonuses, profit sharing, and raises higher in actual dollars, so the difference will just compound.

We had our reviews on Monday and I’m positive she got the same glowing review I did. She told me yesterday she brought up to our manager that we had talked about our salaries, and his response was that she needed to be careful about doing that because people have been fired (she didn’t explain whether he meant here or at some point in his career he’s seen that happen). I made sure to tell her if there was any way I could support her to let me know, but that feels really weak. What else can I do? 

The company tends to be generous with extremely good health insurance and the bonuses and profit sharing, so it doesn’t seem make sense to agitate around pay generally. Our base salaries are in the range for our positions when you look at salaries online for our areas. It’s just the inequity and the fact that there’s a racial difference that really bothers me. Our manager is an older white man and generally a very good manager, so I was surprised that he reacted that way. From what he’s said, managers here have no control over pay, though. Negotiation on my salary when I started was with the HR Director, and the COO apparently decided my bonus. Profit sharing comes from the owners (the CEO and her family) and raises come from HR. 

In my allyship program, I talk about the difference between good intentions and real action. You seem very well-intentioned, but what I don’t see here is any ask your Black colleague has made of you. It is vital to advocate for pay equity but it also vital to center the experience of the person who is suffering from the exclusion and the inequity. You may want to do something and she may certainly want you to do something, but the very first step is to ask her what she wants to do. In your letter you write: “I’m positive she got the same glowing review I did.” Did you talk about her review? Did she share it with you? Do you yet have that level of trust with each other?

Second thing. She may not know how you can support her because she’s not privy to whatever power you may have or relationships you may have forged. So you saying something like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” means that she needs to figure out what it is you can do. Instead, offer some suggestions on what you can do based on your role and your responsibilities. Then she knows what actual help you can deliver rather than relying on your “let me know.” The ball stays in her court but now she knows what you’re bringing to the game.

One thing that is giving me real pause is the response from your manager. This is a good entry point for you. You have a “generous” company with “extremely good” benefits and a “very good manager.” It seems surprising based on your description of the company that there is this aversion to salary negotiation, especially with so many parties involved in compensation. Pay equity starts with transparency. You don’t have enough data to determine where the inequity lies. (She started earlier but you hit the ground running with 5 years more experience — is that why you have a higher starting salary?) To gather that data, you need more colleagues and/or a company willing (and oftentimes unwilling) to share. But it looks like that’s a non-starter from your manager’s perspective. Why is that? If I were offering my support, I would let your Black colleague know that you have a very positive relationship with your manager, and you received this stellar review, so you have a lot of runway right now, and you can talk to him about why he, and maybe this company, hold that perspective. Now you and your skillset have entered the game, but the court still remains hers.

4. My coworkers identify people by race

I’m struggling with how to deal with racial/religious comments in the office that aren’t outright offensive, just kind of… off? 

Some of my colleagues (junior to me but not my reports, black, immigrant backgrounds if that’s relevant) will sometimes say things to me (a manager, white, Christian) like:

– When I’m trying to direct them to a certain employee using his cube location, asking “the Jewish one?” (He wears a yarmulke, and yes, is likely the only Jewish man in the office.)

– Describing her move to a new apartment, will say it has “fewer Asians on the street, it’s more diverse.” (The tone was neutral. The old neighborhood is maybe 90% Asian, with a significant proportion being first generation immigrants.)

My default response tends to be monosyllabic (“yes”/”ok”) and changing the subject as quickly as possible, but is that wrong? I’m really not enthusiastic about policing the language of more junior, black coworkers, particularly since I think it’s more due to cultural norms than bad intentions. But this second example (today) was within earshot of my Asian-American report… will he now think I have weird ideas about Asians? Do I talk to him about it? React differently in the moment next time?

This is almost verbatim what I talk about in my TEDx Talk. When I moved to America, it puzzled me how resistant Americans were to identifying people by race. Now that I have lived in America for over two decades now, I understand why. And I understand why it is so deeply uncomfortable, as I relate in my talk, to, say, simply call the assistant you are pointing out in a store “the Black woman.” It sounds racist. There is deep well of racism and bigotry behind saying things like “the Asian American neighborhood” or “the Jewish man at work.” You don’t escape that by saying, “Well, back in my country, we always mentioned someone’s race (or religion or tribe) when talking about them.” You very well might have. I certainly did. But the reality is, in this country, with its long history of horrific racism, we don’t.

That’s changing slowly, as you can tell. Your Black immigrant colleagues are part of a broader generational shift to referring to people by their visible identities. As we get more comfortable talking about race with each other, we will get more comfortable realizing that every time we mention someone’s identity, it will not automatically result in us being thought of as a bigot. So that’s something. However, your comfort is not everything. There is another side to the story. The focus should not be on what your junior colleagues want to say or not; the focus instead should be on whether it makes your colleagues from marginalized communities who are being spoken about feel uncomfortable, excluded, unsafe, and hurt. It’s not about good or bad intentions. It’s about impact.

You don’t need to police every conversation, but in the moment when this situation arises again with you as a conversation participant, here’s what I’d like you to do. The first time you hear something like that, say this: “You mean Michael? Yes.” The second time, “His name’s Michael, why do you call him ‘the Jewish one’?” Listen to their answer and engage with it. If it keeps happening, however, try this: “I want to say something and it might be uncomfortable but hear me out. You mention people’s race a lot when you’re describing them (share other examples in addition to Michael). Sometimes that’s weird for me, sometimes it’s not, and I’m figuring it out. But really, I want to make sure that you’re not offending our colleagues by saying it. There are many people who don’t want to be referred to by their race or religion, because of their experiences or those of their family or community. And that might be especially true when they’re the only one of their identity here. I don’t want to make that decision for them and I hope you wouldn’t want to do that either.”

One more thing. As for that Asian-American colleague who may have overheard the comment about Asian neighborhoods, please do check in with them. “A few weeks ago, I was talking to someone about their new neighborhood. Did you happen to hear that?” If they did, then you can talk about it. If they didn’t, then you can decide how much you share and in what way. But don’t let it stay there because if they did hear it and it did bother them, that’s yet another way exclusion in the workplace continues unchecked.

5. Tokenism in conference networking

I (she/her, white, graduate student) attended my first academic conference during one of last year’s lulls in COVID-19. At conferences, you’re expected to network not only with whatever senior scholars you can get to talk to you, but also with your peers. When I arrived and found that 30 or 40 junior scholars in my specialty were attending, so I aimed to make a little conversation with many of them.

However, one dynamic really threw me. A few of the graduate students were Black—and many of the other junior scholars were being very weird about it! I tried to make introductory conversation with one or more of the Black graduate students a couple of times, when they weren’t already talking with someone else: what topic are you working on? how far are you into your program? Each time, some other graduate student, post-doc, or young professor would come rushing up within a minute and address only the Black student(s) within the conversational circle. Opening lines included:

  • “Oh my God, look at you! You’re all so beautiful!”
  • “Hello! Look how highly melanated this year’s conference is! Isn’t it wonderful that we’re here representing the future of the field?”

Faced with other people’s over-the-top enthusiasm about my conversational partners and refusal to make eye contact with me, I usually gave up and faded away. And so I became part of the problem: although I was trying to avoid awkwardness the Black students did not cause, my choice to flee meant that I de facto avoided the Black students! 

I like to think that if I had research interests in common with one or more of the Black students, I would have persisted in trying to make conversation with them; I also like to think that if a fellow white graduate student had been making these comments, I would have told them to knock it off. As far as I could tell, though, my research didn’t overlap much with any of the Black students’, so I was chatting for the sake of chatting. Meanwhile, most of the people making the comments were both in more prestigious positions than mine and were non-Black people of color. In the moment, I felt totally stumped!

Although I do not think I handled these conversations well, I don’t know what I could have done better, either. Do you have any advice for me? I suspect I will find myself in a similar position in future conferences, and I would like to feel more prepared.

Picture this. You walk into an academic conference. The room, like the room in many academic fields, appears to be predominantly White. You are one of the very few Black people in the room. In the past, you’ve been the only. You talk to some folks, you network, but you still feel that sense of alienation. Of loneliness. The Lonely Only.

Then, another person of color comes up and gives you the biggest smile and maybe even a hug, and says, “WELCOME! This is going to be a great conference! I am so happy you are here!” And finally, you can let down your guard because someone knows exactly how you feel, that you need the biggest, boldest, loudest welcome to feel at ease here. And that professor who did it? They did it because they knew exactly what it felt like to be that new BIPOC grad student and have to exist daily in an ivory tower.

Now knowing all of that, do you still want to say that the people of color who do this are not genuine in their interest or support?

Academic conferences are hard, especially when it’s your first one. And yes, I’m guessing their statements were a bit performative for their White colleagues there – “Look! There are more of us here! We belong!” But sometimes, we need that performance to know that we can stay and be a part of this community.

You will work with many professors and grad students in your career. You will walk into those rooms and greet people you know and that will all make this networking experience much easier. But I also want you to remember this: no matter how hard networking at an academic conference might be for you, you are still a White woman in an academic world that is heavily populated by White people and because of reasons of racism, you have a far different comfort level walking into that conference than a person of color would.

I don’t know what your field is and I never like to compare identity groups, but stick with me. Imagine if you were the only woman in a room filled with male PhD’s and professors because you work in a field that is overwhelmingly male. Suddenly, a woman, a brilliant tenured professor, say, comes up to you, and declares, “Yes, look at the estrogen! We are representing today!” Would you feel tokenized? Would you feel angry? Or, just maybe, would you feel like, “Thank goodness, there is a friendly face who can understand how bizarre this whole experience feels right now and now I don’t feel as alone.” To paraphrase Dr. Christina Yang, now, you have a person.

So, please, the next time you witness this happening – and you will – decenter yourself. When the time comes, introduce yourself and stay in the conversation. Then one day, later in your career, when you yourself are a brilliant tenured professor and you are in a space where you see a Lonely Only who reminds you of you when you started out, go over to them and give them the biggest welcome ever, so they know – as will everyone else – that they belong here too.

{ 250 comments… read them below }

  1. NeutralJanet*

    #3: “She told me yesterday she brought up to our manager that we had talked about our salaries, and his response was that she needed to be careful about doing that because people have been fired.” Just wanted to throw it out there that if your manager is saying that people have been fired for discussing salary and you shouldn’t discuss salary for that reason, that is illegal, in part because of this exact situation, when you suspect that there are pay discrepancies based on protected class! I would recommend that your coworker document that conversation, just in case she (and/or you) do face any retaliation for this discussion, which your manager seems to have implied may happen.

    1. This is a name, I guess*

      It’s also important to note that this manager might not be guilty of direct intimidation, but instead might just be misinterpreting mixed (or bad, illegal) messaging from above or might be be towing the company line that they’ve been given. When lower level managers (who are generally good in other areas) have touted bad advice like this in my life, it’s often due to a miscommunication issue between higher ups. Sometimes not.

      It’s useful for OP to probe the manager’s opinion to see if it’s independently held or just a misunderstanding. Why do they hold this view? Is it because they have witnessed someone getting fired for agitating about salary? Is it because senior leadership told them someone was fired for agitating about salary? Have they been threatened by retaliation? Did they misunderstand a memo? Do they have a dense or toxic grandboss telling them the wrong information?

      This information will help OP personally and any people who need to fight for salary equity.

      1. Lizard on a Chair*

        Seconding both of these comments. Wherever OP’s boss is getting this message (whether it’s his own perspective or a misunderstanding or a mandate from above, it gives OP a very solid opening for pushing back, and in a way that doesn’t make it about her coworker. As an employee, OP has excellent standing to raise concerns about the potential of illegal and discriminatory practices happening at the company.

        1. Pay Equity Coworker*

          Thanks, these are good ideas! My coworker and I are both aware that it’s illegal to retaliate for discussing salary, and I’m not sure why he would’ve reacted that way.

    2. Migraine Month*

      “Why yes, in the past this company has illegally retaliated against people, so watch out or it’ll happen to you as well.”

      Are we sure this person is actually a good manager? Because even saying “that’s not my department” when a report has a concern about their pay, much less a concern about *illegal discrimination* in the pay scale, is not a good sign.

      For that matter, are we sure this is actually a good and generous company, given the aforementioned *illegal retaliation* they have admitted to?

      1. Pay Equity Coworker*

        I had a conversation with my boss today that made it clear he was extrapolating from previous jobs rather than talking about anything at this specific company. That being said, my point about the pay and benefits is mainly that we’re unlikely to get much agreement from others that the pay or benefits is generally unfair. My experience compares favorably with other employers I’ve had in the area, but that doesn’t make them a good or great company necessarily.

        I came from a job where I had an extreme micromanager. This boss is very much not a micromanager. I could possibly be wrong about him being a good manager. He seems to be good at recognizing potential and providing opportunities to grow that you might not be qualified for based on your resume. I could be wrong; that might be more something my grandboss does as they work together closely. I find him supportive and helpful when I need it.

        1. Migraine Month*

          I’m glad he wasn’t commenting on this particular company’s past actions!

          Just keep in mind that, particularly in discussions about equity, “Is a good boss to me” doesn’t always translate to “Is a good boss to my coworker.” Plenty of people I’ve met are kind and generous to me (a white woman) and indifferent or awful to people of color.

  2. K*

    This has been an enlightening read and I, a white woman, learned a lot. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I will strive to do better in my interactions with my colleagues of color and keep in mind this particular stereotype, which I wasn’t aware of–I’m achingly familiar with the lens of “angry white women”, as I am a middle aged white woman whose name is literally Karen, but I didn’t know it was even harder for Black women.

    1. Literally a Becky*

      As a fellow white woman, I appreciate a lot of what you’ve said here, but I think it’s important to recognize that the “Karen” label isn’t equivalent to the prejudice that Black women face.
      No one enjoys being stereotyped, but baldly put, we’ve invented the term Karen for a reason. White people, including white women, are taught that it’s permissible to behave in racist, classist, and otherwise dominating ways in public spaces, and they have historically not faced consequences for these behaviors. Being associated with the term may be uncomfortable, but it’s unlikely to damage our careers or become a burden in our daily lives.
      This is not to say that older white women are not affected by sexism and ageism; they certainly are! I do suspect there are times when “Karen” gets misused (often by white people) to mean “older woman I don’t like.” But I don’t think the term itself is a problem. The problem is structural racism and the vastly different privileges we experience depending on our identities, which make it so hard to build trust or solidarity.

      1. Dark Macadamia*

        Yes, the Karen stereotype is more about labeling a specific type of BEHAVIOR that is often associated with whiteness. It’s not broadly applied in a way that would impact a white woman’s career, safety, etc in the same way as “angry black woman,” which describes how skin color affects the PERCEPTION of someone’s behavior regardless of how they actually speak or treat people.

        1. Rain's Small Hands*

          Oh, how I wish this were true. Unfortunately, it has become a misogynist phrase simply used to disparage white middle class women and give us an excuse to minimize some of their very real concerns. Granted, it isn’t equal to the discrimination black women face, but lets not pretend it isn’t misogynist or that its only being used to call out unacceptably rude behavior.

          1. pancakes*

            It’s not nearly as simple as that, no, but I don’t want to derail on it here; I just want to say that as a white woman you aren’t speaking for me at all, and I find it cringe-worthy to see white women trying to equate their feelings about the recent popularity of that word to what black women face.

    2. CM*

      I think of the term “Karen” as applying not just to “angry white women,” but “white women who invoke authority against someone with less power to protect themselves.”

      Even though your name is literally Karen, you’re not perceived as angry when you’re trying to just be kind to people, or just get your work done in a straightforward manner. The big difference with Black women in the workplace is that every look on their face and word that comes out of their mouth, like “Could you get that report to me by Tuesday?” can be perceived as hostile.

      1. Gnome*

        So, I’m not named Karen, but I HAVE had people take me as angry/hostile for doing things like… agreeing with them at work. Maybe it’s because I’m in a particularly male-dominated field (think something along the lines of physics), but I have literally been asked for my expertise in a specific area and then told that I need to approach Fergus “like an expert” because his feelzies were hurt by my answering the question.

        In short, my experiences leave me wondering how much the tendency to call women b**ches when they do something so assertive as calmly say, “I disagree because X” is a big part of what underpins the stereotype mentioned by the OP.

        1. Splendid Colors*

          I think some folks are conflating the relatively new “Karen” phenomenon with the longstanding misogyny of men thinking women are rude, hostile, etc. if they speak directly.

          If someone calls a woman a “Karen” because she makes a reasonable request without enough sugar on top, they’re misapplying the term “Karen” as an additional layer of sexism. “Karen” is supposed to mean a woman who is weaponizing her privilege and/or completely losing her cool over an unreasonable request. Not “Hey Phil, can you get me the TPS report by tomorrow?” but something like “I am going to MAKE SURE YOU ARE FIRED for putting 1mm too much foam on my flat white!” or “911, this man is threatening me!” when he isn’t, he just asked you to leash your dog in the bird sanctuary per the rules on the sign you’re standing under.

          Women in general face problems when trying to speak directly around men, but Black women get even more trouble about tone. I think people with the “angry Black woman” filter are more likely to take action against them, such as complaining to their supervisor, instead of just sulking.

      2. Julia*

        I’m a black woman who has worked a lot of customer facing jobs. I have non-black coworkers who make comments about how/why I always sound super cheerful. If I’m not at 150% professional and friendly I’m perceived as rude. In my experience working with the general public is when I get the most blowback for being a mean angry black woman. In my general office work it’s not as bad.

        That said bringing up racism makes me mean. Especially if I mention how race intersects with other types of oppression. I’ve stopped putting as much effort into phrasing things “nicely” because of the low return for effort.

  3. Aggresuko*

    This reminded me of an African-American friend of mine saying, “It’s okay to identify me as the black one!” I still feel bad about it anyway.

    1. Angela*

      It is important to note that just because that one black person you know said it was ok – it’s not.

      1. Mid*

        In the US, sure. But that’s not universally true, and treating race like it’s a taboo topic doesn’t help anyone. My friend in college had a very common first name, we’ll call her Ashley. She had people call her Black Ashley, because she was Black, she was Ashley, and she didn’t want people to continue dancing around the fact that she was Black. People would come up with creative ways to describe her, like “the Ashley with the big curly hair” (two other Ashleys had big curly hair but Black Ashley wore hers in an Afro for most of college) or “the middle tall Ashley” (because she wasn’t the tallest or the shortest one), instead of just saying her most distinguishing feature–that she was Black at a PWI. It is okay to use someone’s race to identify them. Pretending you can’t see someone’s race is going with the whole problematic “I don’t see color” thing that is universally unhelpful.

        1. Rain's Small Hands*

          When my kids were in daycare, so preschool age, they would talk about their daycare friends, and never describe race “Which one is Jake?” And after “he can burp the alphabet” and “he’s really good on the monkeybars” and all the other stuff that was important to them and not at all useful for me to figure out which kid’s phone number I was now in possession of, would come out a physical description, including race. Which was helpful – it was a diverse school – but Jake being a black kid narrowed it down to two boys, not eight.

        2. Just Your Everyday Crone*

          I do hope you see how calling one person Ashley and the other person Black Ashley would be problematic, though. A lot of times identifying Black people by race allows white people to be treated as the default.

          1. As per Elaine*

            It comes back to listening to what the person in question wants. In this instance, Ashley has requested to be Black Ashley for clarity; it makes sense to follow her express wishes, the same way it would’ve made sense to refer to me as “white Elaine” in my elementary school, had there been confusion in my majority-Black class.

            Aggresuko’s initial comment was about a specific person and their personal preferences, not necessarily intended to be carte blanche to refer to everyone by their race.

          2. Goldenrod*

            This discussion reminds me of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” I loved that there was Josh, and then there was another character nicknamed “White Josh.”

          1. Mid*

            Sure there is. But my friend had the same last name as 4 other Ashleys. So it wasn’t very helpful. But that’s not really the point–the point is naming some’s race doesn’t have to be this big taboo thing. Tone, intention and context all matter, of course. But pretending that Ashley Jones (not her real name) #4 was not Black didn’t make people more or less racist. And the lengths people will go to avoid naming people’s race is silly.

            1. Lady Danbury*

              There’s a huge difference between acknowledging race and calling someone Black Firstname. The former is ok with most POCs, the latter is decidedly not ok with most. It’s one thing to say Ashley Jones, the Black woman with the curly fro and red glasses, which acknowledges her race but doesn’t define her solely by it. I hope you don’t continue to double down and say that Black Ashley would be ok to most POCs when POCs are specifically telling you that it’s not ok.

            2. TPS reporter*

              I think there was a scene in Sex Lives of College Girls where literally everyone at the sorority was named Ashley or a similar name. I’m scared just thinking about it. I would be like- Ashley with the BMW not Ashley with the Range Rover!

              1. Alex*

                In my dorm of 30 people, 6 of them were named Laura/Lara and four of them were named Sarah/Sara. Most people visiting our dorm didn’t know anyone’s last names so it got very confusing very quickly. People ended up with some very creative nicknames that year.

        3. Lady Danbury*

          As a Black woman who attended multiple PWIs, I would NOT want people to refer to me as Black Lady Danbury. It’s her prerogative to offer that label for herself (a la Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect) but it would NOT be ok for other people to give her that nickname. It’s one thing to note that someone is Black, but calling her Black Ashley unless she specifically invited you to is so not ok. Your takeaway from this experience should be that one person is ok with being called Black Ashley and not that it’s ok to call any and all Black people Black Firstname.

          We’ve all attended school and/or been in workplaces where multiple people had the same name. Somehow we figure out ways to identify them without race when they’re white, so the same should apply for POCs.

      2. Migraine Month*

        To me, it seems like if that individual says it’s okay to mention race when identifying them, it’s okay to mention that individual’s race when identifying them. They’re the expert of what is okay or not okay for them.

        You’re right that it doesn’t mean that it’s always okay to mention race when identifying black people. On the other hand, having been raised white and “color-blind” (i.e. deeply ignorant), I’ve seen so many white people treat any mention of race as taboo and racist. “They’re my friend, I don’t even think about the fact they’re black,” is a problematic statement, because you aren’t paying attention to your friend’s lived experience if you erase their racial identity. You can’t see racism if you don’t see race.

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          I used to do that, then I got corrected.

          At this point I think about race as just another characteristic and identity. Black, redhead or “full sleeve tattoos” are distinguishing characteristics. Yes, there are identities around those. I’m white, over 40, non-binary, visibly AFAB, disabled, pagan, geek and an SF&F fan. Those are my “identities”. When I deal with other people, I look for intersecting identities. Several of those identities do subject me to discrimination, although not to the degree that Black folks get.

          I know some folks decry “identities”, and b!tch about “wokeness”. But being able to see and understand identities also gives me a clue about their probable lived experiences. I one worked with a guy who was Black and devout Catholic. Both of these got him shit from our manager. I would regularly cover his on-call shifts during Catholic holy days, because I respected his identity as a devout, practicing Catholic. (Our manager was East Indian.)

          It’s taken me a number of years to extract the casual racism I was raised with, and sometimes I still screw up. But pretending not to “see color” is baloney. If you can see if they are a blonde or a redhead, you can see that they are Black or Asian. (Yes, there are stereotypes about blondes and redhead too, they just aren’t as damaging as the ones about Black or Asian folks.)

        2. Mid*

          This, which is pretty much the same point Michelle Silverthorn makes. Context, tone, and intention all matter, and individual preference matters above all of that, but it’s also silly to pretend people’s race doesn’t exist.

    2. Moi*

      I’ve always struggled with the “don’t mention race” rule. In our culture it’s socially unacceptable to mention people’s perceived negative characteristics. E.g you can refer to the person with the long hair but you can’t refer to the person with acne. But avoiding to mention obvious physical differences, we’re subtlety implying these are less desirable traits. Which is dumb. The beauty of diversity is that there’s more to celebrate.

    3. Julia*

      This is going to be contextual. For instance if someone is looking for me at work they should say “Julia is the one over there in the pink dress.” If a friend is physically describing me to another person it’s reasonable for that description to include that I’m black.

    4. LittleDoctor*

      I’m racialized and I mention people’s race or ethnicity sometimes when describing them. I think it’s broadly fine to do so, in the way that I might mention that someone is especially tall, or dresses in goth or Lolita clothes, or is blind, or whatever. Earlier today when I was telling a friend who was coming to a party I’m throwing, I said “x name, you remember? She’s my cool Japanese friend.” I suspect I am sometimes identified to other people as “her mom is x ethnicity”, “she’s the woman with the foreign accent”, and/or “she’s a larger/bigger/curvier woman.” It doesn’t bother me.

      I actually think talking about race (and disability, and etc.) as something that’s okay to mention and that’s not wildly dissimilar from any other visible characteristic is good. When people dance around it, that to me feels more othering and like it’s taboo to be different. (Obviously, race and other types of marginalization aren’t like other visible characteristics in terms of how people are treated because of them, but I don’t think dancing around them helps either.)

    5. never mind where I work*

      I tell people who might be looking for me in my department “Ask for the white guy. I’m the only one.” Being a guy is a minority in my profession, being white is a minority where I work.

  4. anony for this one*

    #4 gets tiptoed around way too much. Uhh, he’s wearing shoes. Uhh, and a watch. And nobody knows which person you’re talking about.

    1. NervousHoolelya*

      I used to work in an academic environment where we had to direct students to meet tutors in a crowded room. We needed fast and effective ways to describe our diverse group of tutors, but a lot of our staff hesitated to use race or visible religious indicators as a descriptor. We ended up having a long conversation in our staff room about it, and what we landed on after a lot of discussion was that we felt OK about using race as ONE descriptor in a list of distinctive details, but that using race or religion as the ONLY descriptor felt problematic. After that, our staff would say things like “She’s a tall, Black woman with short hair and glasses. I think she’s wearing red today,” or “Look for a short, White woman with glasses, bright pink lipstick, and long brown hair in a ponytail” or “Your tutor is a tall Korean man with short hair and glasses wearing a blue button-down shirt.” or “She’s a Muslim woman with glasses wearing a blue hijab and a green shirt” or “They are a tall person with short, spiky blue hair and black glasses.” (I described real people here, and I’m just noticing now that we all had glasses!) But we wouldn’t say, “Oh, she’s the Black one” or “Look for the Jewish guy.”

      1. Anonym*

        This is really helpful, I think, and you’ve nailed what feels off in that letter. I find myself questioning the OP’s colleague’s choice to select race/religion as the only or primary descriptor. People have many visible attributes; plus, you really ought to know your colleagues’ names! But as you describe, when there’s a need to point someone out and using a name wouldn’t work, someone’s visible attributes make sense to include. And in that scenario they feel neutral and descriptive, and don’t make me wonder “but why is that the ONLY thing that comes to mind for you?”

        I’ve definitely described myself as a tall white woman with long hair (plus outfit color if unusual) to someone I’m meeting for the first time. I think those are my three most identifiable traits from a distance, in order of how easy they are to spot.

      2. Person from the Resume*

        You did this in your example, but I wanted to point it out. If you are going to describe people by their race mention that people are white too. Don’t describe every POC by their race, but don’t mention the race for a white person. Failure to do that perpetuates racist attitude that white is the default/normal/standard (and does not need to be mentioned), but any other race is enough of an outlier to be a descriptive characteristic.

        1. LittleDoctor*

          Yeah agree, I like when people (and photo descriptions for screenreaders) racialize white people as well.

        2. AcademiaNut*

          I think that’s key. Race is a very useful identifier when describing someone, but if you only use it for people who are other, it’s a problem. So “tall black woman with glasses” goes with “short white woman with curly hair” not “short woman with curly hair”.

      3. MEH Squared*

        Agreed. I’m Asian, and I have no problem with describing myself as the Asian person with really long hair (and built like a brickhouse if relevant) who usually wears black. Race is especially needed to be mentioned because I live in very white Minnesota. But it’s one of a list of things notable about me, not the only one.

      4. LunaLena*

        I completely agree that it feels more problematic when race is the one and only descriptor being used. I used to have a job where all the employees wore name tags and I was the only POC on the staff. There were several customers who had no trouble remembering the other employees’ names, but referred to me as “the Asian-American one.” My boss made a point of responding to them with “You mean LunaLena?” but even with those corrections they would never remember my name. It felt kind of dehumanizing to learn that, to them, my entire identity was tied to my race, and not to, say, my role on the team, or even the name tag that I wore every day.

      5. Lady Danbury*

        Completely agree with this approach. Avoiding race seems disingenuous in a “color blind” way, where not seeing color usually means that white is the default color. My race is no more or less relevant than my gender or the fact that my hair is short when describing me. Only saying my race feels icky because it feels like my sole/key identifying characteristic is my race and feeds into the presumption that all Black/Asian/Latinx people look alike that almost all racial minorities have experienced at some point. Both are problematic in different ways.

      6. This is a name, I guess*

        What’s also feels better about your comment (compared to the letter writer) is that you’re using people’s ethnicities when possible. Not always possible with Black Americans, but it’s more respectful to say “My new neighborhood is definitely a change. Way fewer Korean folks walking around! I’m sure going to miss those markets!” vs “My neighborhood is less Asian.” “Oh, he’s the Mexican guy with short hair, an earring, and he’s always wearing a red shirt” vs “He’s the Hispanic guy.” Specificity is respectful. Generalizations aren’t.

      7. MCMonkeyBean*

        This is really interesting! I definitely agree that sometimes it can feel more weird when people go out of their way to *avoid* noting someone’s race and it can be hard to figure out why these things feel weird in the moment. I hadn’t thought about it before but I think I agree with the general idea that it seems less “othering” and more just matter-of-fact if it is in a short list of descriptors like in your examples. Especially if you are in an environment where a lot of people are wearing similar things like a uniform or something so saying “the guy in the blue shirt” is just totally unhelpful because everyone is wearing blue shirts.

    2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Yeah, it’s ok to mention skin colour if it’s their only distinguishing feature and you need to speak to precisely that person and no other.

      It’s only problematic if you *only* see someone as black.
      Recently, I bumped into a guy who had stayed with us during the summer – the father of a friend. He saw me and exclaimed “ah the English woman” (we are in France). Now, I am English by birth and still have a slight accent when I speak French, but I was pretty upset that he identified me only by my nationality. He spent a whole week at our place, but didn’t retain any other information about me, not even my name. I can be discreet, and his daughter can be very loud, but I spoke to him on several occasions as I endeavoured to be a kind and gracious hostess. Being called “the English woman” was decidedly belittling.
      So I can well imagine how awful it must be if nobody sees anything but your skin colour, however good you are at your job, however much effort you put into working hard and being pleasant to your colleagues.

      1. LittleDoctor*

        I relate a lot to that, I was raised in another country from the one I live in now and have a very noticeable accent. It was really frustrating and difficult to feel like my voice would forever mark me out as perpetually foreign.

      2. VeggieBubba*

        My uncle was a defense attache in two different European countries. His family were always referred to as “The Yanks” even when they would run into folks years after he left those positions. When he tells me stories about those days I kinda side-eye the term (maybe b/c I’m from the south). I suppose it’s different since their job was directly tied to their nationality and the interests of a particular country, and I also gathered from him that it seems to be more of a European thing. In no way am I implying you don’t have a right to be offended. Two different scenarios with a small slice in common.

  5. Bookworm*

    Awesome read! Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, Ms. Silverthorn.

    1. Hannah Lee*

      This part as a white woman in the world, I found really useful:

      “That split second response. What is it? Is it dismissiveness? Defensiveness? Fear? Discomfort? Because trust me, if you feel it, we see it. Be intentional about how you want to change what words, emotions, and reactions you might have, both inside and outside of work.”

      Especially the “if you feel it, we see it” because even in a split second, decades of conditioning from a million different inputs probably bring up biases, judgements I rationally, and as a caring human being, don’t want to even have, much less express, share with other people. I thankfully had a mother who worked hard to steer me and my siblings through and away from the predominantly and casually bigoted family, community I came from. But some of the biases have deep roots, and need to be policed, intentionally.

      1. Helvambrielle*

        I don’t want to suggest for a second that I don’t have inherent bias and internalized racism as a white woman, because I’m sure I do. AND I would like to mention this for anyone to whom it might be useful. I am not aware of having strong negative reactions to Black women speaking their minds or being straightforward. My boss, my grandboss, my doctor and many of my colleagues are Black women. I’m sure they tone-police themselves at work, but I don’t believe (I will ask them—geez, I hope not) that my close Black girlfriends tone-police themselves with me out of concern that I’ll judge them as aggressive. I think I managed to largely escape this particular bias, and I think this is why, in case it’s useful to any parents:

        1) My parents had a diverse circle of friends, so I got accustomed to POC in general and Black women in particular speaking their minds in my presence while also being affectionate and kind to me. It’s possible, and maybe likely, that my parents’ friends were code-switching, but we were often the guests, not the hosts, and my parents friends were definitely “big, loud, political and philosophical discussion” types.

        2) My parents intentionally sent me to diverse schools—diversity among students AND faculty was extremely important to them. It’s true that my high school was private, but it was a Catholic girls’ school, and almost all the students were on financial aid. There were many Black girls and girls of color in positions of leadership (ASB president, etc.) and the school made a big point about amplifying all young women’s voices.

        3) My parents intentionally sought to put me in classes with Black women and women of color as teachers (here I’m speaking of high school, where all the teachers were women). I didn’t realize it at the time, but if I was choosing between two sections of Spanish, they would encourage me to take the one taught by the POC, if there was such an option.

        I realize being this intentional about modeling diversity in authority is extremely unusual for white parents, and was even more so in the 1980s and 90s. My parents had had their own experiences that made them very intentional about this, which is too long a story to get into. But it worked, I think, for me and my sisters. At least, it helped greatly. Again, I’m not patting myself on the back—I definitely get as much wrong as any well-meaning liberal white person. But this particular issue doesn’t really arise for me, I think because I interacted with Black women as authority figures I could trust throughout childhood.

        I’m not trying to center my experience, and if anyone finds this offensive, please alert me and I’ll request it be deleted. I’m just trying to point out that this is a problem WHITE people need to address, and it can be addressed by being thoughtful and intentional about how Black women show up in your children’s lives.

        (I also don’t mean to suggest that my parents’ friendships weren’t genuine—they were—they’re chosen careers and interests led to them having a diverse group of friends and colleagues. But they were really intentional about how their children experienced authority and whose voices were amplified in our lives.)

  6. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

    Point 1: struggled with this so much (I’m, colour wise best described as ‘where is your family FROM?’ – a question I’ve had a lot and can’t answer. I can approximate it as ‘sorta North Africa, bit of Middle East, my eyes are Asian’ we have no family history past my grandparents due to WW2 camps) and I’m by nature pretty outspoken with a clear confident voice.

    I get the ‘angry WOC/angry disabled/angry woman’ thing sometimes (with a ‘but fat WOC are supposed to be jolly!’ Sidenote) and….yeah. It’s a thing and in my younger days I’d modulate my tones, agree with racist people, do anything keep the peace.

    The only benefit I’ve had to being in my late 40s is that I don’t care anymore.

    To support my staff who are also POC I really take a dim view of anyone who tries to silence their complaints but it’s taken me getting to a position of authority here (IT Manager) to be able to enact that and even then I get pushback from my peers.

    ‘Please try to see all sides of an argument’ just doesn’t hold well with me when one side is arguing that we deserve to be shown less respect just for who we are.

    (For context I’m in the UK which has a truly horrible xenophobic culture)

        1. I'd Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

          There are two muscular characters named Josh. One is Filipino and one is white. The former is just called Josh while the white character is referred to as “White Josh”. He even calls himself that at one point.

          1. I'd Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

            But also I wonder if there is a nesting fail with the comments, since I’m not sure how it applies to your original comment?

            1. Charlotte Lucas*

              Their was a fail! It was supposed to be a reply to the “Black Ashley” post. Sorry!

    1. Prospect Gone Bad*

      With all due respect, and don’t get offended, but you have commented a few times on this which is absolutely fine. But your past comments confirm you are “ambiguous” and don’t know your background, yet you are adding a very heavy topic of camps in today. Surely that narrows down the pool of potential ancestors two maybe two groups you can belong to? I really hope you’re not lightly insinuating your family may have been in a camp when they weren’t becuase this stuff is not to be taken lightly. And if they were in a camp, surely then you know why and where and can figure out where your family is from?

      1. anonagoose*

        This seems like a pretty insensitive and historically ill-informed question. There were certainly more than “maybe two groups” who could have been in a camp–off the top of my head, there were internment, labor, and extermination camps operating in North America, Europe, and East Asia during WWII. And that’s ignoring the diversity within those camps, which matters: none of them was entirely racially homogenous.

        Secondly, and I say this as a mixed race person myself, being able to trace your family back to your grandparents doesn’t necessarily mean you can go further back than that, and tracking records becomes extra difficult when your ancestors were being targeted by their government because of their background, and who lost much or all of their property and family as a result of that targeting. Add to that the fact that many camps, for example those run by the Nazis, attempted to cover their tracks by destroying records, and what you have in effect is a genealogical wall that would take serious resources to correct–resources that, statistically speaking, people of color AND people who are descended from victims of internment are much less likely to have.

        Could this person be lying? Sure, just as much as anyone on the internet could be lying about anything. But to zero in on aspects of their story that are common for people with that background, and specifically to hone in on the ways that being mixed and descended from victims of WWII-era camps can manifest in racial ambiguity, seems particularly cruel and unfair.

      2. Nameless in Customer Service*

        Oh you might be surprised at the diversity of people imprisoned in the concentration camps due to the ethnicities. Just one link to follow, as an example.

        1. anonagoose*

          Yes! And the Soviet labor camps (gulags) took in a pretty diverse population, as did Japanese-run internment camps. The idea that only two specific groups of people were interned in camps during WWII is incredibly euro-centric, ahistorical, and very dismissive of the realities that people of color and internment camp victims faced during and after the war. It also echoes some of the language used post-war to make finding resources harder for victims (prove that you were actually a victim) that compounded the trauma of internment for many, many people and that was often particularly harmful to groups who were not thought of as “typical camp victims”.

  7. Anonymouse*

    “Imagine if you were the only woman in a room filled with male PhD’s and professors because you work in a field that is overwhelmingly male. Suddenly, a woman, a brilliant tenured professor, say, comes up to you, and declares, “Yes, look at the estrogen! We are representing today!” Would you feel tokenized? Would you feel angry?”

    Honestly…yeah. I would feel really weird about this. It would feel like not the time or place…

    1. BubbleTea*

      I feel the same, and I don’t know whether that’s because I’m British, white, or just a bit uncomfortable in groups anyway. If I were having a conversation with someone about my work and someone else came up to exclaim about my phenotype, I don’t think I’d see that as welcoming. This thought experiment has confused me more, to be honest.

    2. socks*

      Yeah, maybe not the best example here. I’m a woman in a male-dominated field, and I’m always glad for the occasions that I meet other women doing what I do, but I would find that kind of over-the-top response deeply off-putting.

      I’d be fine with something like, “It’s nice to see another woman here!” but anything beyond that is a bit much

    3. Dean*

      It’s happened to me and yes, it is weird. *shudders* I’m grateful Allison is willing to tackle these topics but I am going to have to disagree with this take.

    4. Ellen Ripley*

      Everyone has a unique perspective so thanks for sharing yours! I am a white woman in a male dominated field and I would like the comradery from a comment like that, especially in a space where I was feeling very “other”.

      Would you be more comfortable with a welcome that didn’t have “estrogen” in it (maybe “it’s great to see more women here this year”) or would you rather keep the mention of gender out of it completely?

      1. Ellen Ripley*

        I just thought of a second reason why I’d like an interaction like the one described, and that’s because it calls out the inequality/slight awkwardness of the situation, instead of tip-toeing around it. Again that’s just my own opinion!

    5. Anonforhere*

      I think I got the intended message anyway, but yeah, that’s not a great 1:1 comparison. If another woman came up to me and described me by my hormonal makeup I would assume she was a radfem type and do my best to either shut her down or avoid her. This might be a heavily US & UK thing though, I don’t know if radfems specifically are much of a thing elsewhere.

      1. drinking Mello Yello*

        Same; I get the analogy! But I don’t think this particular one makes for a good 1:1 comparison. If someone called me out by my assumed hormonal makeup, I’d feel tokenized, misgendered (nonbinary, so it happens all the time), and would wonder if they’re a TERF.

        But I do get and appreciate the overall point for this answer. :)

    6. Noelle*

      As a white woman in a very male dominated field, I agree this would make me feel uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because I hate standing out in the crowd (I am possibly neurodivergent) and I feel like such a statement would draw unwanted attention to me and my “otherness”. I didn’t choose a male-dominated field to hear songs and dances about how special I am to be in the big mean boys’ club. I understand I am an anomaly, and I really want to push other women to explore this field if they’re genuinely interested in it, and I’m a feminist. But really, what I want at events is to be treated exactly the same as everyone else there. Like of course I belong, and in that moment, I’m no different than any of my colleagues.

    7. Granger Chase*

      I feel this way too. Granted I am also a white woman, but I have heard about this experience from friends who are either fellow white women (particularly those in engineering or other STEM fields) and POC of various genders who were also in STEM, or law, or just at a PWI. The experiences they shared with me were not of being overjoyed to be singled out by an organizer of the same race and/or gender and welcomed, but that it felt othering in a different way. It felt like it reinforced the incorrect assumptions of their peers that they were only allowed in this space to create diversity and not for their own accomplishments.

      I don’t want to disagree with the advice given in the post, but I would just add the caveat to keep in mind that this is not the same experience for everyone. Sometimes people will feel tokenized even if the intention is to create the opposite effect. I think it can come off as highlighting the divide between the “Lonely Only’s” and their peers instead of bringing them into the fold.

    8. CommanderBanana*

      I would hate that because it would feel like I was being reduced to my biology.

      But, I’m Jewish, and I feel profoundly relieved when I meet another Jewish person at an event who acknowledges it.

      So, YMMV, but overall I think the advice to the LW – to stop centering yourself in these conversations that are not about you, and don’t need to be about you – is sound.

    9. Andie*

      I’m a person of color, and i would feel pretty patronized if that had happened to me. I guess I don’t like the assumption that I don’t really belong so others have to overcompensate to make me feel welcome. I think I’d rather just be treated like a person.

      1. Tex*


        Just introduce yourself to the newbie and have a minute or two of chit chat, no need to make a big production about it. From the verbiage presented, it doesn’t feel like a personal welcome, it feels too much like they are thrilled to meet their annual diversity goals.

        If you really want to make a difference as a professor or conference promoter, get to know them and see who else you can introduce them to in order to advance their research interests.

        1. Bagpuss*

          Yes, while I am white so don’t have the personal experience, I think that making an effort to introduce yourself and chat briefly to the new person is great, and is likelyto help them to feel welcome and that they are supposed to be there, but explicitly calling out gender or race would feel pretty awkward.

          (also Bristish so maybe slightly difference cultural norms)

          I would be interested to hear from the perspective of epople such as PoC who are under represented – how would you feel if a welcome was given by a more senior person who was not also part of that same underrepresented group ? If of you were one of the few PoC in the room and a white professor / presenter came over to welcome you and chat to you? I’m assuming a scenario where they didn’t single you out as the *only* person to greet, and din’t explicitly reference your race / gender, but perhaps didn’t have the same conversation with every junior person there.

      2. Middle aged white lady*

        POC readers: how would you feel if the white junior colleague responded with a statement like “Yep, here we are, junior scientists here to network and learn”? Would you feel included or like the white person was trying to draw the attention back to themselves?

    10. Keziah*

      Yeah, I would be weirded out by this, for sure. Being both women does not necessarily mean we share the same values or have anything in common apart from our sex.

    11. Captain Vegetable (Crunch Crunch Crunch)*

      Maybe I misread the example, but it sounded like the conversation was being interrupted, too! I would find it very frustrating as a woman to be talking to a person at a conference and then have another woman burst into our conversation and box the other person out, just to demonstrate some sort of estrogen-y solidarity!

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        Yeah, I’m with you. I could probably shrug off an over-the-top solidarity welcome if it was just said to me, but it would annoy me if someone interrupted a meaningful conversation for it. I would rather be approached by and talked to by people interested in my work, not my perceived biology.

    12. Sylvan*

      Yeah, this would feel patronizing. I’m not doing anything remarkable just by showing up at a professional event like all the other professionals there.

    13. TypityTypeType*

      It would make me quite uncomfortable to be greeted this way. I’m a gray-haired old lady, so I’m pretty invisible as white people go, and what I’d want to be singled out for is not my component parts, so to speak. I’d feel it undermined whatever slim chance I have to be understood on MY terms.

      No, I’m not kidding myself that nobody notices I’m a woman, and often one of very few women in the room — I’ve even moderated all-male panel discussions. But in these contexts, I’m just a colleague. I’m not representing anybody but myself and my organization, much less all womankind. Or so I fervently hope.

    14. mlem*

      I mean, I guess it would be worse if someone rushed up and interrupted my networking to merrily call me a “beautiful bitch”, but … I agree, I’d find an over-the-top declaration of my (presumed) biological attributes to be offputting, tokenizing, and intrusive.

    15. Mianaai*

      Same. I used to be in one of those fields, and had this sort of interaction a few times, as the junior woman. It was mortifyingly uncomfortable and, yes, made me feel tokenized, particularly when it was interrupting an ongoing conversation. Obviously, personal preferences vary I don’t claim to speak for every person in a similar situation, but I’m not fond of the analogy.

    16. OP5*

      I wish I had been more clear in my letter that the Black students did NOT look like they felt happy or welcomed by any of this. If they’d looked happy, I never would have written in about this possibly being a problem. Their expressions were neutral to unhappy—but not so obviously unhappy I could step in, you know?

      1. Well...*

        So if you’re getting seriously uncomfortable vibes from the students, my advice would be to sit out the melanin talk, and given an opening try to ask a question about their research. As a fellow PhD student you only have so much ability to act here. If a professor wants to dominate the conversation with race, or their favorite hobby, or how xyz topic shouldn’t be studied, then the professors gonna go off. Disentangling yourself from the conversation is your only real option, and bonus points if you can do it in a way a second person can piggy-back off of “I’m going to get another coffee/more cookies before they run out,” is a good one.

    17. I'd Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

      Well, you might feel annoyed or awkward. But probably wouldn’t feel sexist in the same way as if a man did it.

      I think that’s sort of thing with OP’s question too. If the person who made the comment about how “melanated” the conference was happened to be white, it would be a far weirder interaction, IMO. They would be coming up and proactively pointing out how that person was different.

      But since the person who made the comment was a POC themselves, it feels like they’re making an attempt at a shared connection. Not all overtures like that are going to well-recieved and some might be awkward, but shared connections are often how networking happens, whether it’s over background or education or hobbies or family.

      I think the point here is that it’s not really for OP to decide if she thinks this is an awkward way for them to connect or not. The fact that it makes her back out of conversations suggests that she’s used to a specific “script” for networking converstions, which maybe is problem with some industries excluding minority groups. (Not calling OP out specifically, I mean that it’s a broader cultural problem. OP is clearly thinking about it and writing for advice, so that seems positive, IMO.)

      1. OP5*

        I was looking to talk to them in a back and forth exchange. Does that make sense? I backed out of the conversations because the people being weird were monologuing at the Black students about how great it was to see them, and during a networking event I will back out of pretty much all monologues around the 4 or 5 minute mark. If their enthusiasm had expressed itself in a dialogue where they asked the Black students a lot of questions about their work, I would have loved to hang around and learn about the research interests of all parties involved!

    18. Ana Gram*

      As a woman in a male dominated industry, I definitely make a point to try to introduce myself to new women and chat a little so they don’t feel alone. But this example is a little cringey and over the top.

    19. Well...*

      Like many in this thread, I don’t have to imagine being the only woman in a room filled with male PhDs and professors.

      I’m going to push back a little bit though on the sentiment of this thread. I think the specific way this is being introduced makes it feel invasive (especially the emphasis on biological sex), but I will say that the gender representation at conferences does come up often among women in my field in conversation. If there are many (like… more than 25%) women speakers, it would be pretty normal for women to comment on it during the coffee break. We also often grapple with how to increase representation, and we’re always on the look out for good, available, not overworked women speakers, as we’re constantly being asked to suggest names.

      I also think we should make room for the different expressions of gender solidarity vs racial solidarity. Women have gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable and welcome and conferences, and I always try to do the same for more junior women I notice in the field. I can definitely relate to how important that it, and I would be pretty annoyed if a man came in and criticized that effort because he felt uncomfortable women were talking about the status of women’s representation in the room.

      This guest post was really nice, I was very happy to read this. Thanks for doing this Allison & Michelle.

    20. Candles*

      Absolutely! I would be furious and embarrassed to have the focus placed on my gender in that way, and I would hate every second of it. It would feel tokenising, and dismissive of my work, and minimising of my contribution. I don’t want to be treated that way and I would be deeply uncomfortable witnessing others being treated that way.

      1. Well...*

        I think you’re missing that a big part of academic service work IS working to increase diversity in the field. It’s often a topic of our actual workplace (I’m in STEM, about as far away from studying humans as possible, and it’s still true for us). Networking over shared EDI goals can be very valuable, sometimes more valuable than networking over shared research interests, since you’re gaining access to a network of people who are way more invested in helping your career.

    21. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      Agreed, sort of. I think it’s difficult to draw a comparison to gender on this — where the general population is actually skewed to my side (although not the political or cultural advantage) — and I try to imagine being a POC, especially Black, in a general U.S. population that is still heavily skewed against me (about 75% vs 25%), it would be a relief to see another POC.

      While I was often the only woman among my college major classes, and then among coworkers in my department early in my career, there were always places right around me where the numbers were more even and I wasn’t the only or the few — other college classes…other departments…the general population of my country. But if pretty much anywhere I went, I was the only or the few, I’m guessing I would have welcomed and felt empowered by it.

    22. turquoisecow*

      Yeah, I think I would, too. I think that kind of conversation is okay to have in private like your female boss or a mentor takes you aside or in a one on one says “hey I get that there’s an extra heaping of difficulty being in this position as a woman, let me share some wisdom and feel free to come to me with issues cause I get it,” but in the moment, in the middle of a group gathering? It would just feel like more othering to me, and remind all the men in the room that oh these people are different and they’re women and maybe they need some kind of special treatment. It’s cool to find your people but I wouldn’t want it to happen quite like that.

      Totally understand that other people might, though.

      1. introverted af*

        Yeah. Not everyone would feel the same, but I would not feel like this is highlighting a good thing but pushing me further into being an other. I can recognize that the intent would be good. At a minimum, doing your part to make new people welcome at a conference is a good thing, but if someone made this part of our opening conversation together, I might look for an opportunity later to ask them to reconsider that in the future.

        Thinking through this comment also has me revisiting how I think about it. I am totally confident in the idea that representing diversity in any industry/area of study is a good thing to bring new perspectives to the table, and so encouraging minority voices should be a good thing. There are areas of my life that I would be totally happy to say, “I am a woman so I think about this differently, and there should be others here that might also have different perspectives. I am proud of who I am and how I can contribute to this conversation because I am not the same.” So why would this be different? The answer I have landed on for now is my agency in putting forth my experiences (or not) and my ability to determine if it’s safe for me to put myself forward “as a woman.” I may not feel like being a woman is relevant to the issue and not want to highlight that aspect of myself. While there definitely are more safe spaces for me as a woman than possibly there are for BIPOC individuals, I am pretty risk averse, and so I would rather see genuine examples of inclusiveness before I feel totally comfortable expressing more of my feminist ideals.

    23. Calliope*

      I wouldn’t say that because it’s not how I talk and would sound artificial coming from me. But if someone said it to me and it was clearly intended to be supportive it wouldn’t bother me.

      But more to the point, I wouldn’t want a man calling someone out for saying that. It’s not up to men to police how women talk to each other about gender at professional events and similarly, I think it’s not up to white people to police how BIPOC people talk about race to each other at professional events.

    24. Anon for this*

      Honestly the main thing I would take issue with is that it’s just weirdly phrased? Does anyone actually say “look at the estrogen!”? I felt the same about “highly melanated”. Is that an actual thing people say? (Genuine question by the way).

    25. Just Here for the Free Lunch*

      I wonder if this feels weird to some of us because for a lot of us at a certain period in our lives, what we were actually told that we should be striving for is for people to “forget” we were women altogether. It’s a function of growing up with the “cool girl” trope, when “you’re not like other girls” was the best compliment that a group of guys could have given us. That was me, and it took a long time to realize that it wasn’t actually a compliment… Now, I don’t like the “estrogen” comment even today, but there was a certain point in my life where someone coming up and pointing out that I was a *gasp* woman in any way would have made me incredibly uncomfortable. (I am decidedly over that now lol)

    26. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think the analogy isn’t working for some people (which is fine!) and it’s distracting from the point being made. Let’s consider the variation of opinions on this noted and move on because it’s starting to take over the entire discussion, to the exclusion of some really important stuff on race.

    27. Adereterial*

      I’ve had this happen to me recently in a work context and I felt incredibly uncomfortable and it made me question why I was invited there in the first place – I thought it was for my expertise but it really left me questioning whether I’d been included to make sure the event was diverse.

      For transparency, I’m a white, invisibly disabled woman in an emerging field that leans pretty masculine, and neither my gender nor my disability were relevant to my presence, but both were called out pretty publicly. I can’t hide my race or gender and I do talk about my disability in a professional context, but it wasn’t in any way relevant to the event at that time. I’m not there to tick your boxes, so please don’t shove me into one!

  8. Dust Bunny*

    Our IT department has two men, one Black and one not, and a woman. If I tell someone to ask Joe in IT, it just doesn’t seem like much to expect them to ask, “I was told to look for Joe. Are you Joe?” exactly as they would if there were two or three or 17 White guys who were less easily differentiated. Joe isn’t an ogre–he’ll just say, “Yeah, I’m Joe,” (or, if it’s Mack, “No, I’m Mack, but maybe I can help you/Joe will be back in a few/do you want to leave a message? Nice to meet you”).

    1. TPS reporter*

      how is this not solved with last names? Also if you are working with people regularly you should get to know them by name, first and last. It’s not the same situation as let’s say a crowded room and you’re trying to point someone out that someone has never met.

      1. TeapotsTeapotsTeapots*

        How does a last name offer a description? My assumption is the question is in the context of physically finding someone among other people who are in the same area (e.g., the IT dept to pick up up a laptop or drop off a piece of gear) and not just sending an email or similar.

        1. TPS reporter*

          doesn’t anyone have a name tag on their cube and/or a seat map? or if you go to the section you know where that team sits- hi I’m looking for Joe Apple. also your coworker could talk you over to introduce you to Joe Apple. Instead of some random direction to just go see Joe. How is that even helpful?

          1. TeapotsTeapotsTeapots*

            But… people aren’t always just sitting at their desks? What if they are in a common area like a kitchen or a lunch room? I don’t understand the resistance to accurately describing someone’s physical characteristics, with race included among a list of other identifiable attributes and in a clearly nonjudgmental way, as others have mentioned.

  9. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    #1 is a really good all-purpose approach for any stereotype that I’m going to keep in mind.

  10. The Original K.*

    That Tik Tok was very helpful! I asked about DEI initiatives at the interview for my current role but I should have asked about the team more specifically (there are none, and it’s not a particularly safe place to be a Black person). The org as a whole is doing things; my team is not. I’ll be sure to get more granular in interviews going forward.

  11. Dean*

    I still feel like it’s icky to identify people by race because it centers the immutable characteristics of someone over their achievements or personality. I see it as mildly dehumanizing to be honest.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

      I’m kinda confused on this, can you help?

      Is this a ‘we shouldn’t refer to our coworkers by their race alone’? In which case I agree.

      Or ‘we shouldn’t make such a big deal out of colour difference at all’/‘we should all be blind to colour’? In which case I can’t agree.

      1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

        I can’t speak for Dean, but for me it’s a ‘we shouldn’t refer to our coworkers by their race alone’. People are complex, and race is only one part of that complexity (albeit an important one).

        To me, it feels like ignoring a person’s race is sort of a mirror image of referring to someone only by their race. The second reduces a person to only one characteristic while ignoring everything else, while the first ignores a fundamental part of how each person experiences and interacts with the world at large. Neither one is good.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

          Ahh okay. I tend to refer to people by their position in the room or what stuff they have on their desks (soo many geek toys) or actually lead people over to who they’re asking about but I’m understanding now I’m an extreme outside tactic.

      2. Dean*

        “Is this a ‘we shouldn’t refer to our coworkers by their race alone’? In which case I agree.“

        For the most part yes. I do agree with the other commenters that if you are trying to point someone out and it’s the fastest way to be like “ yes we can help you out, I think your looking for Dean, he is the African American gentleman sitting three rows back. Although I still wouldn’t needlessly emphasize it unnecessarily.

        The second part of your question is trickier as far as race blindness goes. I’m not ok with mistreating anyone on the basis of race or “tokenizing” them. I guess in that sense I am for racial blindness. If someone is being harassed on the basis of race then I would think that reasonable people wouldn’t be blind to it. I also feel like race is more of a biological trait than a personality trait if that makes any sense.

    2. darlingpants*

      But saying “oh the tall woman with blonde hair” isn’t fraught for white people. Listing 15 other characteristics that don’t help and then finally whispering “you know, he’s Black” is so much more awkward than just acknowledging that people are different races.

      I don’t lead with race/ethnicity/country of origin, but I now try to say it as the third try if someone isn’t connecting my description with the correct person. “Yeah, the tall engineer. He sits over there? He’s Black.” Or “She sits across from me, she just started. The one with the French accent.”

      1. mlem*

        “The tall Black guy with the Funko pops” feels very different from “the Black one”. The letter seemed to be describing the latter, in which race or religion was the *only* distinguishing factor.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          I think you’ve gotten to what makes me uncomfortable about it. A description that includes race is fine, as long as it isn’t reduced to that alone. Then you are describing an individual person.

          1. mlem*

            It can still get weird, if folks never think to say “the short White guy with the Disney collection” the same way, of course. And some folks get tangled up in that. But I do think race/ethnicity/religion can be a reasonable part of a description.

            1. mandatory anon*

              Everyone seems ok with using gender appearance as a descriptor, which is also problematic. I think the US has a lot of bigotry and discrimination to clean up before using protected class as casual descriptors will be worry-free.

            2. ThursdaysGeek*

              Yeah, if I’m describing myself to someone who has never met me, I would rarely include race. Because I’m white. Other people have to include race, because they are not white. And that’s part of the problem. Maybe we should start including race for white people too: “the short white guy with the Disney collection” would be a good start.

            3. ThursdaysGeek*

              Yeah, when I’m describing myself to others, I rarely use race. Because I’m white. But perhaps including my color would help, and if makes it weird, it’s probably good.

            4. Lady Danbury*

              The answer for this is to use race in the description for all people (if relevant to the circumstances), not to avoid stating anyone’s race. Otherwise, white becomes the default, which is problematic in a different way.

            5. Coder von Frankenstein*

              If there were a dozen black guys and one white guy, do you really think people would refrain from saying “the short white guy?” And conversely, I have trouble imagining anyone saying “the tall black guy” in that context, because it doesn’t narrow anything down.

        2. bamcheeks*

          This is what my colleagues have said about it. “Tall Black woman with the red dress and the locks, sat with her back to you” — not too bad. “The Black woman” — way to remind me that I’m the. only. one.

      2. fueled by coffee*

        Well, I think hair and clothing are almost always acceptable descriptors for other people, and even though they often indicate something about race, they are still changeable. Pointing someone out as “The woman with the braids” or “the man with the dreads” seems on par with “the tall woman with blonde hair” to me.

    3. Lab Boss*

      I see where you’re coming from, and (as Michelle says) a lot of that is going to be informed by the culture’s history with race and racism. But simply using an immutable characteristic as an identifier isn’t automatically icky or dehumanizing- At a previous job I had two coworkers of comparable title, age, and race- but one was fairly short and clean shaven while the other was nearly 7 feet tall with a mountain-man beard. “Go talk to Doug, he’s the real tall guy” is still centering an immutable characteristic, but it’s also a good way to let them know where to go. It’s only the CONTEXT of race that makes it icky.

    4. R*

      Would you shy away from describing someone as ‘the blonde one’ or ‘the one with glasses’?

      If you would shy away from that, how do you describe people when you need to? ‘The one with the phd?’ (centring their achievements, but how do I spot them quickly in the office when I need to?)

      If you wouldn’t hesitate to use hair colour or other physical characteristics to describe someone, why is using race so different?

      (Disclaimers: I am mixed race so fall into ‘too dark to be white but too pale to be black’. I live in England, so there may be cultural differences in play. I am also autistic so do sometimes miss subtler social conventions)

      1. Stevie*

        I think what makes it fraught is the context of the descriptors being used. Blonde, wears glasses, etc. aren’t characteristics associated with being on the receiving end of systemic discrimination.

        Also, if you are using Black as a descriptor, being Black must be unique in the environment you’re in if it is useful to identify someone with. If everyone in the room is Black, it wouldn’t be very effective to use that to describe a specific person in that space. (Like how you wouldn’t say “the person with glasses” to point someone out if every single person is wearing glasses.) I guess it’s kind of like calling attention to the fact that they are Black in a space where that is different and defining that as the Other against the “norm” (white).

        As you said, though, I think there cultural differences in how this is perceived!

        Also, a similar disclaimer – I’m Asian/white, am not Black, and I certainly don’t and can’t speak for anyone else.

      2. Stevie*

        Oh, and for what it’s worth, I am not saying it’s necessarily inappropriate to use someone’s race when describing them! I honestly don’t know what the right answer is. It’s certainly complicated and contextual.

      3. anonks*

        I think (in some situations) it makes people uncomfortable because the use of race to describe someone has become entangled with morality. Really it’s just a physical characteristic, same as saying short, tall, bald, etc., but the issues around it do inherently intersect with racial issues. When you only have one Black coworker, that’s a fast way to direct someone to her. If you had more diversity, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense. In a lot of cases, using race to identify someone only works because of a lack of diversity. And you’re mainly using it to identify minority colleagues, generally. (It would also work in a very diverse workplace like what Burnzie described, but that’s not when I’ve personally seen this happen in the Midwest US.)

        The obvious issue is that, in a lot of companies, different races aren’t appropriately represented, so only having one Black coworker is often problematic in and of itself, so using that as an identifying characteristic in essence highlights the lack of inclusion/fairness/discrimination. It’s practical, and not inherently wrong, but it feels wrong imo, largely because of that. Personally, I still say it, but inherently it doesn’t feel good.

      4. After 33 years ...*

        Well, I do shy away – because I’m mildly prosopagnosic. So, I don’t use hair colour, (presented) gender, race, or any aspects of physical appearance. I do one of two things:
        “For that matter, you need to see Pat Lee – Room X-322”;
        or, if I’m 100% confident in my identification of Pat Lee, but could not describe them, I would offer to walk with the visitor to Pat Lee’s office.

      5. Nameless in Customer Service*

        why is using race so different

        *gestures to the last 500 years of history*

        I’ve been “the Black one” and it was very, very different from being described as “look for NICS, she’s Black and has a silk flower in her hair.”

    5. Burnzie*

      In some situations I do find it simply the simplest way though. I worked at a doctors surgery. A patient came in one day and said he wanted to see a particular female doctor, but he couldn’t remember her name. I listed their names but he was none the wiser. So I said ‘we have four female GPs, one is black, one is Chinese, one is white and one is Indian’ as I found this the simplest way of solving the issue. I could have described them all as average height with dark hair. Also Dr Yousef is white and Dr Williams is Indian, which people just don’t expect so names don’t always help. I’m in the UK and we don’t seem to have the same norms as the US but I’m interested in how you would have dealt with this.

      1. CM*

        As a US person, I would use the same introduction people are recommending above — instead of just saying their race, you could say a bit more about them, “Dr. Williams is about four foot ten, South Asian, and wears glasses; Dr. Yousef is white with curly dark brown hair and usually wears a brooch on her jacket” or whatever. That’s helpful too because people might not accurately identify each other based on race.

      2. JustaTech*

        I have a friend who is an ICU nurse who got permission to dye her hair bright green party because if a patient ever wanted to complain about her there would be no question of who they were upset with, rather than the usual “nurse with brown hair”.

      3. Nameless in Customer Service*

        I don’t think people are demanding uselessly bland descriptions. However, one reason why these discussions are so fraught is… let me put it this way. Would it be equitable if you always mentioned Dr. Yousef as “Dr Yousef” and always mentioned Dr. Williams as “The Indian one”? I’ve seen that kind of thing done, and defended in discussions much like this.

    6. Pathfinder Ryder*

      If you’re looking for someone you haven’t met before, would you be able to visually identify “the one with a law degree” or “the one with the dry humor”?

      1. Ann. On a Mouse.*

        From what I’ve found, identifying “the one with a law degree” is usually pretty easy in the first 10 seconds of conversation. Or seeing their work space. Particularly so if they went to one of the more prestigious law schools.

    7. Ellen Ripley*

      I think it’s icky to assume certain characteristics about a person based on their race or identity! But to pretend that we all have the same physical characteristics doesn’t make sense.

      1. MEH Squared*

        I agree with this. Also, as a Taiwanese American person, if someone described me without using my race, especially in Minnesota, I’d find that really disingenuous. It’s the first thing most people will notice about me, and it doesn’t make me feel any better to pretend that’s not true. No, I don’t want to be treated differently because of it, but I don’t want it to be ignored like it’s something shameful, either.

        1. Just Another Starving Artist*

          Yeah, this is often where I come down on this, too. Mentioning race is only bad/weird if the person saying makes it bad/weird, and that’s often a matter of tone. There’s a difference between “oh, you’re looking for Artist? Yeah, she’s the Black lady by the coffee machine” and “You’re looking for Artist? She’s the — ” (looks around, drops voice to a stage whisper) “Black lady by the coffee machine.”

    8. Ally McBeal*

      In my view as a white person, I think it depends on how it’s being used. My boomer mother is racist (the kind of racist who doesn’t think she’s racist) and will randomly drop someone’s race into a conversation where it absolutely does not matter, like “I was at the grocery store and the Asian man ahead of me in line took a really long time to unload his cart and then didn’t put the separator down for me.” But in other circumstances it sort of makes sense: “My Hispanic neighbor has offered to help me practice my conversational Spanish.” The appropriateness of making those distinctions can be tricky, especially for people who have the luxury of not thinking about race too often.

      1. I'd Rather Be Eating Dumplings*

        Yeah, I agree.

        And saying “the black one in accounting?” sounds…off?

        But saying: “the tall black dude in accounting? I think he drives a Prius” sounds just descriptive

    9. Yorick*

      I think the difference is do you need to explain which specific person you’re talking about? If so, race is fine to mention along with any other identifying characteristics. If not, it’s weird. If you’re talking to someone about your new coworker, you wouldn’t mention she’s Black, unless that person needs to be able to find her in a large room or something.

      1. Yorick*

        Or there could sometimes be other context in which it makes sense to explain that she’s Black. But you wouldn’t just tell a story about your new Black coworker. If it were a new White coworker you wouldn’t mention that.

    10. Well...*

      What about identifying people by height or hair color? How do you identify someone to someone who knows very little about their personality or their achievements?

  12. Becky*

    I’m a little confused on #5

    A few of the graduate students were Black—and many of the other junior scholars were being very weird about it! … Each time, some other graduate student, post-doc, or young professor would come rushing up within a minute and address only the Black student(s) within the conversational circle.

    I could be misreading here but my interpretation is that the people “rushing up” aren’t people of color–its the “other junior scholars were being very weird” who aren’t part of the population of Black graduate students. So I was reading this as a bunch of white people rushing up and gushing about how diverse they are and being self-congratulatory about being so accepting.

    I can see both interpretations–Michelle’s and mine, but the wording of “a few of the graduate students were black” and “other junior scholars” makes me believe the “others” are not part of the minority group but part of the majority group.

    1. giraffecat*

      The wording was a bit confusing, but the OP does say that most people making the comments were “non-black people of color”

    2. Persephone Mulberry*

      The context is further down:

      “Meanwhile, most of the people making the comments were both in more prestigious positions than mine and were non-Black people of color. “

    3. Big Bird*

      I had the same impression as Becky, reading the letter to say that it was white people having an over-the-top reaction to POC attending a conference. (“Wow! Imagine this!” subtext.) I imagine that Michelle’s answer would vary substantially depending on the characters involved.

    4. Pathfinder Ryder*

      Meanwhile, most of the people making the comments were both in more prestigious positions than mine and were non-Black people of color.

      Took me a moment too.

    5. Dean*

      The self congratulatory aspect is another dimension that is a problem. On the surface embracing our diverse colleagues is a good thing but underneath the surface it’s complicated. I am seeing that undercurrent of that self congratulatory virtue signaling which is worse. At some point people need to ask them selves if they genuinely care about uplifting others or if they are just using this as another way to center them selves. It’s very difficult to call out.

    6. OP5*

      I apologize for the confusing narration. I thought I saw some groups of white people being weirdly enthusiastic, but I never confirmed that. I was a participant in the conversation at two different times when I thought someone made it “weird.” One of the people I thought brought the tokenizing energy was a young South Asian professor and the other was an East Asian woman in a prestigious postdoc. The former was talking a lot about how “beautiful” they all were and the latter made the comment about how the four of them made the room so “melanated.”

      1. Becky*

        Thanks for the clarification–I had missed some of it in one of the later paragraphs in your original wording but this helps me understand better.

      2. Julia*

        It sounds like there was a lot going on.

        The race of the people being super enthusiastic would be incredibly relevant for me (a black woman). A black person talking about the conference being highly melanated is using a phrase that is used among black people but not POC generally. A black person talking about how it’s beautiful to see more black colleagues would be borderline depending on the situation. A small group over drinks sure. Anyone other than a black person saying that would be weird as heck.

        When I’m at a conference I appreciate BIPOC colleagues coming up to chat, offer support and welcome. It really helps me deal with the awkwardness and discomfort of being in a predominately white space. I also appreciate women coming up to me to chat at predominately male events. The nuance of how they talk about women would be important to me. I don’t want someone getting TERFy at me.

        Overly enthusiastic white people commenting black students starts getting weird especially if they are strangers.

    7. Lucy Lurker*

      “Oh my God, look at you! You’re all so beautiful!” <<<- could be anybody, coming from a white person would/could be received as problematic and othering

      “Hello! Look how highly melanated this year’s conference is! Isn’t it wonderful that we’re here representing the future of the field?” <<<- I assumed this wasn't from a white person, because they rarely say "melanated" and Black people, for instance, definitely do, and as well the "we're here" means the speaker is also presumably melanated

      I also commented this elsewhere, but it's common (with Black Americans, anyway) to specifically call out and compliment when greeting each other the physical characteristics that have historically been and still are viewed negatively in this society.

      1. OP5*

        The “melanated” remark came from a “Japanese” woman. My understanding is that’s not OK—but I also had no idea what to do about it. Do you have suggestions?

        1. TPS reporter*

          I would just try to ignore it/be an observer and kind of live in that uncomfortable (for you) space while that part of the conversation plays out. Then jump in with the networking talk you were planning or had started.

        2. Lucy Lurker*

          I have a few questions instead (I’m using white/Black here for simplicity’s sake, and because America):

          You’ve said elsewhere that the Black students “seemed” unhappy – how do you know? White people often misread Black people’s facial expressions and body language. Neutral/nonsmiling faces are usually read as negative and even angry, when they could just be thinking or listening to the speaker.

          Is it possible that the discomfort you felt was the fact that you were witnessing an exchange in which you couldn’t participate? I’d offer that perhaps that neutral/potentially “unhappy” reaction you saw was a dropping of a mask that a lot of Black people in the US have to put on in professional spaces, and those students felt comfortable enough to momentarily let it go while talking to other people of the global majority. In this case I think the advice to “de-center yourself” is apt.

          If they were unhappy – how can you tell that was the reason? Black introverts exist, and speaking personally, this type of event sounds like a nightmare. If forced to do it I would, but having multiple strangers come up to me for intros/small talk/chit chat, sometimes more than one at a time, is a lot and I’d probably not be able to maintain a smile/chipper demeanor for all of it.

          If your read of the situation was completely accurate, why did you think you needed to do something? I’ve seen in other online spaces well-meaning white people asking about the “right” thing to do in a situation, and unless it’s a clear case of discrimination or an easily identifiable microagression, there’s usually too much nuance involved to get a check-list of things to do for next time. You yourself said “I also like to think that if a fellow white graduate student had been making these comments, I would have told them to knock it off” so you recognize that there’s complexity involved. In this case, introducing yourself to the new speaker and redirecting to engage with the Black student about their study or area of expertise is a signal that you feel they belong in the space.

          I lied – I do have one suggestion: ask questions. It’s a way to pull focus from your presumably uncomfortable conversation partner without necessarily dropping the issue. This won’t work for the general “you look beautiful” type of comments, but to the people who say things like the “future of the field” you could ask them what their experiences have been like at previous conferences and go on from there. People who are (intentionally or unintentionally) engaging in tokenism probably won’t have anything substantive to offer beyond that, but those who aren’t will likely be able to contribute meaningfully to the conversation.

          1. AnonForThis*

            IDK man, I’m Asian and my father was actually mixed Japanese and Koryo-Saram (so I have a Japanese grandparent) and to me, the melanated comment sounds really off. To me it genuinely sounds inappropriate for a Japanese person to say.

            1. Lucy Lurker*

              Well that’s where the complexity comes in… having a white person weigh in on the behavior of non-Black people of color with regard to race is tricky and I’d probably feel a way about (I’m Black). As logicbutton says below, that’s a lot of calculus to do for a 5 min chat with strangers.

        3. logicbutton*

          Absolutely nothing! As people were saying in a thread above, I would not love the comment from a hypothetical woman speaking to me in a male-dominated space because of the “estrogen” part, but what I would love even less would be for a man to overhear and chime in. Because then I’d be in a situation where not only was I having to think about whether the woman’s comment was benign or not, I would have to think about whether the man’s comment was benign or not too. Is he acting in good faith, is he the kind of guy who steamrolls over people under the guise of “acting in good faith,” is he actively trying to prevent us women from forging a bond, is he the type of guy who lectures women about feminism? It’s a lot of calculus to make a stranger perform.

        4. OP5*

          I appreciate that there is a consensus that the appropriate and best response for me, as a white junior participant talking with strangers, is to wait longer in the conversation next time. If I get to ask a question that turns the subject back towards networking, or if the conversation turns that way naturally—those are both good resolutions. Thank you

        5. AnonForThis*

          Oh shit, my dad is mixed Japanese and Koryo-Saram (so I’m a quarter each) and IMO from a Japanese context that is super not okay. I’d feel differently if the person who said it was maybe South Asian, for example, but between the fact that Japanese people are pretty pale and the context of antiblackness in Asia…IDK, I would find that uncomfortable. I socialize with other Japanese people a lot and I genuinely cannot imagine any of them feeling comfortable making a comment like that melanated one.

  13. Tui*

    Follow up question from #1: I’m white, and in a management position. I don’t directly manage any Black staff but there are Black staff in our wider team, and I do see Black colleagues (male and female) adopting quieter voices, less assertive syntax, and generally positions of caution and care, in ways their white colleagues don’t have to. I assume they are making those choices very consciously and I trust that they have well-founded reasons for doing so in a majority-white working environment. At the moment, I try and make sure that I’m looking out for them in wider team meetings or in one-to-one situations and making space for them. Specifically around that question of assertiveness and tone, does anyone have any suggestions for more I should be doing?

    1. Kim*

      I’m a white-passing person of mixed race who supervises other folks. Not having been on the receiving end of these interventions and not being clocked as mixed most of the time, I defer to those who’ve experienced meaningful acts of allyship, but here’s one thing I would do- directly address any indication of stereotyping or bias in your direct reports in your private moments with them. If Fergus tells you in his next 1:1 that “Ophelia is always so demanding in meetings,” you can come back with “that isn’t my impression at all- I value Ophelia’s contributions to the team in these meetings and appreciate her forthright communication. Can you tell me what makes you see her that way?”

    2. altamira*

      As a Black woman in majority white workplaces, it’s been hugely impactful for my white managers to explicitly 1) invite me to speak and 2) affirm/validate my comments and input – *in front of other people.* Every piece of the interaction shows that my opinion matters and is valued. Doing it in front of the team works as a vote of confidence in my work. Highly recommend trying to more consciously implement this whenever it feels genuine and authentic.

      Personally, I would not welcome any comments or input on my tone or syntax from a white colleague or manager. But as I grow more confident (aided by the above), my tone and manner of being in the workplace has adjusted accordingly.

  14. Big Bird*

    Another though about #5. I am a straight white cis-gender female of a certain age and many of us were raised to “not notice race.” (We are all equal human beings so race is irrelevant, right?) But as I have grown I am finding it important to recognize that POC are NOT having the same life and work experiences as their white colleagues, and that is very relevant to me as a manager as well as to me as a caring human. When I was much younger and working at an elite institution I somehow assumed that my POC colleagues were insulated from the effects of racism, but as I got to know them I realized that their positions at work did not protect them from the world outside our walls. Eating in restaurants and shopping with them was a revelation, and more than one friend had an epic Driving While Black story. Intellectually I knew this was a thing, but the impact of witnessing it with my own two eyes–and more than once–was stunning.

    1. Justin*

      What used to be called Colorblindness is now better described as “color-evasiveness” and while initially thought to combat racism actually upholds it for the reasons you mentioned. HOW to mention race can be fraught but we can’t pretend it isn’t a factor (as you said)

      1. Hlao-roo*

        This is the first time I’ve heard “I don’t see race/color” described as “color-evasiveness” and that is a such an apt name for it!

    2. Important Moi*

      Your comment makes me disappointed that Alison closed the thread above. I understand why she did it, but the thoughts being posted were…curious. I wanted to see where to comments would go. I was having trouble articulating my thoughts and was waiting for the “right” comment to post my thoughts.

      I am a black women in a space were white men are the default.

      1. Dean*

        I’m disappointed at the thread closures and deletions too. I felt like there has been a lot of great dialogue.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          There have been no deletions. (Although I expect there probably will be at some point today because unfortunately posts on race always eventually attract bigotry, and I will not host that here.) But that thread will remain closed because I’m not going to allow a post on race to be overtaken by a discussion focused on gender and ultimately not focused on the main points of the article.

    3. Lucy Lurker*

      I’d also offer this – if you were there to witness it with them, someone seeing they have a white companion might have mitigated the negative treatment. Though what you saw was bad it could easily be worse when there are no white people around to co-sign that your colleagues are “one of the good ones.”

    4. Lady Danbury*

      We are all equal human beings so gender is irrelevant, right? Most of us would recognize how silly this statement is, especially with recent supreme court decisions. Race functions the exact same way. There’s absolutely nothing with recognizing that people have different races and that those differences may lead to different life experiences and often feels more harmful/othering when this isn’t recognized. Colorblindness usually leads to white being the default.

      I would also challenge your inference that your POC colleagues aren’t experiencing implicit/explicit racism within your hallowed halls. As a Black woman who has spent most of my academic and career history in elite institutions, I can assure you that these institutions are not some type of racial utopia. If you’d like to be a better ally as a colleague and manager, the first step is to reject the belief that your POC colleagues only experience negative interactions due to race outside of these elite institutions. And if you haven’t heard about any of these negative interactions, it’s likely that they don’t feel safe sharing them with you.

      1. TransmascJourno*

        @LadyDanbury, I just want to thank you for all of your comments on this post today.

    5. Irish Teacher*

      I also feel that sometimes (and I am white and grew up in a very much predominently white society, so I may well be missing something) that “I don’t see colour (or race or ethnicity or gender)” often translates as “I assume everybody grew up in a middle-class Christian or atheist, white, English-speaking, Anglo-American environment” and that has its own problems, as middle class white Americans are just as much a specific culture as any other group and it can lead to things like immigrants not being considered to be as smart as they really are if they don’t have perfect English because the person is judging their standard in their second language against those who speak it as a first language or as has been discussed in other threads here, the assumption that things like Christmas trees and so on are just neutral celebratory stuff so long as they don’t include any obviously religious items. I know I am getting a little off the issue of race here, but there is overlap between race and immigration and race and religion. I’m not suggesting we should assume somebody is an immigrant or make assumptions about their religion based on their race because that is problematic too, but I do think “not seeing race” can lead to “assuming everybody is like me and that they all identify with my race and culture.”

    6. Nameless in Customer Service*

      When I was much younger and working at an elite institution I somehow assumed that my POC colleagues were insulated from the effects of racism, but as I got to know them I realized that their positions at work did not protect them from the world outside our walls.

      Oh my stars isn’t that true. I appreciate that you noticed this — so many people make efforts to ignore it.

  15. A Pound of Obscure*

    Re: question #1. Michelle Silverthorn said, “…but also sometimes, they may not see you as aggressive, bitter, hostile, etc. They may see you as approachable. They may see you as competent. They may see you as as a dynamic leader.” Yes! I live in a rural, northern-tier state in the West, where there aren’t a lot of Black people, but I have a Black niece. We grew up in a very small town and she was literally the only Black child in the school district. She’s an amazing, accomplished adult now and to think that someone would prejudge her, or any Black woman, as bitter or angry or too assertive hurts my heart. A couple weeks ago I traveled to a large city in the southeastern US for work. I was traveling alone and arrived late at night. Every single person who freely helped me as I tried to buy a train pass and find the right train was Black. Every single one, and I didn’t have to ask for help; it was offered. When I finally arrived at the hotel, every single staff person in the lobby was Black, and all were notably more professional and courteous than I am accustomed to. They put on a master class in… well, class. This continued at every single encounter at the hotel and other businesses all week. All but a few staff were non-White, something I realize now as I think about it. At the time my prevailing thought was only that everyone in this large city I’d never visited before seemed so friendly and lovely. Only later in the week — when I watched a white guy in a Mercedes convertible rush through a red light near the hotel and nearly knock over a pedestrian in a crosswalk — did the thought of race come to mind, in the most embarrassing and shameful way. “White supremacy,” my a$$.

  16. I'm Just Here For The Cats!*

    question on #5 was it other POC that were coming and interrupting the OP when they were talking with the Black grad students or was it another white person? I’m kind of confused by the answer

    1. OP5*

      I apologize for the confusing narration. I thought I saw some groups of white people being weirdly enthusiastic, but I never confirmed that.
      I was a participant in the conversation at two different times when I thought someone made it “weird.” One of the people I thought brought the tokenizing energy was a young South Asian professor and the other was an East Asian woman in a prestigious postdoc. The former was talking a lot about how “beautiful” they all were and the latter made the comment about how the four of them made the room so “melanated.”
      The enthusiasm was expressed through monologuing at the students, not through asking them any questions about their work.

      1. Liz T*

        In that case I think the remedy would be to calmly ask the students about their work, or to tell the weird fetishizer about the students’ accomplishments.

        1. OP5*

          Now that I know this happens, I am preparing myself to try this tactic next time. I was caught so flat-footed the first time!

        2. OP5*

          I will have to prepare myself to try this tactic next time, thank you. I was caught so flat-footed the first time!

        3. CM*

          I wouldn’t assume a non-Black POC is a “weird fetishizer!” They might be excited to see other BIPOC people in rooms where we traditionally don’t appear in any significant numbers. (And by “they,” I mean me!)

          It’s possible a Black recipient of the “aren’t we beautiful” comment would either receive it enthusiastically, or be put off by it. But as the white person in the conversation, I think your role is just to treat it like any time somebody comes up and changes the topic. Try not to focus on your own discomfort. If the person you’re talking to doesn’t seem interested in talking about melanin, then by all means continue asking questions about their work or whatever you were talking about before.

          1. Julia*

            I don’t see an assumption that a non-black POC is a weird fetishizer. I do see people saying that there are phrases that are come across differently when they are said by a black person to another black person.

            I mentioned in another comment that phrases like “highly melanated” are used by black people to other black people. Hearing it from someone who isn’t black comes off as weird. Not as weird as from a white person but still weird.

  17. ProbablyLost*

    #3 I’m about 90% sure you work for the same company big Fintech I do; if so the manager is full of it. (If not, ignore me, and good luck to both of you with the crappy manager). They can advocate to hr off cycle very easily. It’s slow, but works. There’s also a whistleblowers line listed on the internal page main menu that (shockingly) works well.

    1. Pay Equity Coworker*

      No, I work for a medium size B2B that sells telecom equipment! I would say small but apparently 400ish employees falls into the medium category for business size. It’s a privately held company, and if I wanted to talk to HR it would be a matter of walking downstairs and picking one of the 4 people who are in HR. Problem is I don’t know them and I get the impression there’s some kind of weird politics with the HR Director that I’m concerned about walking into sight unseen.

      1. River Otter*

        Oh, that is unfortunate. Can you get a read on HR from other people?
        I once got stuck with an HR person who was so bad I had to go to HR about her—coincidentally, there was a pay equity issue involved. I went to her boss, and I was lucky that her boss saw the problems. I understand the minefield that HR can be. I don’t have good advice, just sympathy.

        1. Pay Equity Coworker*

          I’m really not sure what the problem is with HR. It’s a good idea to try to find out. There’s another lady in the IT department who has worked for the company for a couple decades that I could feel out. I don’t know her politics but I could certainly just chat about the HR Director and see what the issue is.

  18. Invisible fish*

    I’m asking a legitimate, not sarcastic question: where does this “angry black woman” stereotype come from? How did it come into existence? I know there’s bound to be research on this. I don’t understand how this is a thing and how it came to be. (I know it’s real and extremely problematic, because I’ve worked with women who have had to combat it – I just can’t wrap my mind around how most stereotypes come into being, and this is one that baffles me even more. I feel like there’s a whole mindset is just don’t understand.) Can anyone point me in a direction that might help me work on learning how to help take this stereotype down? (I’m a reader, not a viewer, so articles will make more sense to me than a video, but I’m still going to watch videos!)

    1. Justin*

      The short answer to the origin of every anti-Black stereotype is essentially slavery and minstrel shows.

      But if you want resources, google the “sapphire” caricature, which is an Angry Black Woman character from the Amos N Andy show that solidifed a lot of assumptions as TV exploded.

      1. Invisible fish*

        I read “minstrel shows” and had to push myself to keep reading, because otherwise my brain would run away screaming. It’s still screaming, but I was able to keep reading. Thank you for the 411.

        1. RagingADHD*

          This is a very cogent article tracing the origins and influence of the “sapphire” caricature / stereotype from the “sassy mammy” character who was used to justify oppression as “not that bad,” through the use of ABW characters as mouthpieces for anti-Black rhetoric, and into present-day media applications of these tropes onto real people.

          Once you see the line drawn so clearly, it is both impossible to un-see it, and shocking that it wasn’t immediately obvious all along.

      2. Lucy Lurker*

        +1 So many stereotypes like this persist in our society but we’ve just let the origins fall away and, as a result, continue to include them in almost all of the media we create/consume and thus reinforce them in our everyday life.

        It’s called unconscious bias for a reason, but just knowing that it’s there doesn’t do anything to mitigate its effects. When those type of thoughts pop up (wow she’s angry, why is she speaking to me that way, ooh she’s so emotional, etc.) most people don’t do the work to stop and investigate what the basis of those thoughts is and whether it can be trusted, and thus serve to make those associations stronger.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      The closest other example I have is the way women generally are seen as b-words or “catty” unless they do a lot of labour to soften their message and soothe feelings. The difference is white women get to choose between being a “lady” (gentle, soft language, male-centering, privileged) or being called a harpy or worse names (direct, working, strong). It’s a bullshit choice, but at least white women get one; Black women don’t get to opt into the ladies’ category from what I understand so whatever is said is seen as being presumptuous and demanding

    3. Julia*

      The answer to that question is complicated. I mean, the core answer is rooted in racism and slavery which I’m sure you know. Among other things it’s a way to undercut black women’s authority, to trivialize their concerns and to remind them to stay in their place.

      The history of the angry black woman stereotype is covered here at the Jim Crow Museum website ( The whole website has a ton of information about racist stereotypes including examples and references. The stereotype also used to be called Sapphire named after a character on the super racist Amos & Andy Show.

      If you want to read more I would suggest reading black feminist books. “Hood Feminism” by Mikki Kendall is a recent book that is excellent. There is also this recent academic article that looks specifically at anti-black misogyny and erasure of black women’s knowledge and expertise is: The Jim Crow Museum also has a list of great essays to read (

      NPR’s “Code Switch,” a show with black hosts, did an episode on angry black women (transcript and show here:

      For more on the problems it causes at work you could read this Harvard Business Review article (

      1. Ellis Bell*

        Thank you so much for this clear and informative reading; the Jim Crow museum link does a wonderful job of mapping the evolution of the stereotype that you see how whenever/whatever is going on in society the stereotype is just always lurking there waiting to turn any positive into a negative. How else could someone like Michelle Obama be criticized? I particularly appreciated the depressing clarity of the phrase “in-group virtue becoming an out-group vice” How does anyone beat a system like that…

        1. lazuli*

          How does anyone beat a system like that…

          Exactly! White supremacy and other oppressive systems maintain themselves by pretending to have objective criteria explaining the oppression (“If Black people would just do X, if women would just do Y, if queer people would just do Z…., then they’d be successful/accepted/respected”). But those criteria just change, or get warped to justify new bigotry. No one will ever win in these systems except the people already in power. It’s why we have to unlearn the systems.

      2. AnotherLibrarian*

        The Jim Crow Museum is a great resource. Highly recommend it for well written easy to follow articles on these topics.

    4. Nameless in Customer Service*

      I’m glad you asked this question. As a Black woman I’ve researched this stereotype in self-defense and I found some resources in this discussion I didn’t have before.

  19. Justin*

    “I’m looking for how to ask in an interview if the organization is truly committed to DEI. The office where I currently work gave good lip service to DEI in my interview, but now that I’m here I have found that my coworkers are openly biased about race, gender identities, etc. and it’s quite draining.”

    Yeah, it’s interesting. When I was job searching this was very important to me, and basically if they gave me a generic answer I knew they weren’t doing anything of note. Frankly, I eventually looked for and found a Black-led company (there are other axes of oppression but this helped me a lot).

    In fact the more times they said they were “committed” to it, the less I believed them. I have found that the places that say “we’re working on it but we could do better” are likelier to be actually making changing than places that crow about their DEI accomplishments. Anecdotal, but being the Only has been awful for me and I’m not the Only anymore.

  20. Lucy Lurker*

    I think she was trying to make the parallel with the word “melanated” and it didn’t work as well because that’s a much more general descriptor than “estrogen- having,” and because of the different ways that gender and perceived race are treated in this society, and as well the intersection of the two. I’d also point out that it’s a cultural difference, and that level of enthusiasm in greeting is something that Black American people often do with each other that white people don’t. And lastly, it often highlights and celebrates something “biological” (melanin, hair textures/styles) because those are specifically the things that Black women get penalized and denigrated for, because darker skin/kinkier hair somehow = less qualified, angrier, etc.

    I’d also offer this: a lot of white women in male-dominated fields are one of few or the only while at work, but once they leave can easily be back in the majority in other spaces in their lives. In this particular case (academia) one would imagine that people of color who have made it to that level in the US are one of the few or the only in the other spheres of their life as well (i.e., all through their education, and potentially where they live if they’ve had to move for school/a job), and would welcome the chance to encounter someone who knows what it’s like to have gone through that stress/isolation.

    1. Justin*

      Your last paragraph is really key. It’s not just the conference for us where we might feel isolated.

    2. Naturally Tan Anon*

      Your last paragraph is spot on for a lot of us. When I think of it, even as a woman I don’t spend much time in spaces where women are the majority, and as a Black person, I’m often a minority (and glaringly so due to my accent) by way of being Canadian-born rather than an immigrant with a different sort of connection to their diasporic community. There’s also a cultural value of being “strong” that implicitly requires that some Black women dismiss the impact of being a Lonely Only and just keep it movin’.

      Another axis of isolation that due to occupational segregation, Black women (and WOC in general) are disproportionately employed in certain types of pink-collar work where race and gender dynamics play out a fair bit differently. The people you’re closest to are unlikely to understand your struggles and worse, have solutions that would backfire. White women who are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds experience this as well, which is worth mentioning because somewhat-shared experiences can help us build a bit more solidarity.

  21. Fabulous*

    I love the perspective on the Lonely Only – I’ve been that person too, even as a (very white, very blonde) white woman. I once worked in an office where there were only three white people in our department, and the other two were men. It was definitely an eye-opening experience for me starting out in my career, and I definitely gravitated toward those who were more vocally positive about my presence there. I can only imagine what it feels like on a larger and more frequent scale.

  22. OP5*

    OP 5 here. I think there have been a couple points of confusion (which I will gather from other comments into their own thread).

    Did the Black students look happy about this kind of welcome?
    No. If the students had looked happy, I never would have written in about this possibly being a problem. Their expressions were neutral to unhappy—but not so obviously unhappy I could step in, you know?
    (I appreciated fellow graduate student “Well…”‘s suggestion to ask the nearest among the students if they wanted to join me in the buffet line. I wish I had thought of that!)

    Who was doing the behavior you described as tokenizing?
    I thought I saw some groups of white people being weirdly enthusiastic, but I never confirmed that.
    I was a participant in the conversation at two different times when I thought someone made it “weird.” One of the people I thought was being tokenizing was a young South Asian professor and the other was an East Asian woman in a prestigious postdoc. The former talked about how “beautiful” they all were and the latter made the comment about how the four of them made the room so “melanated.”

    Why did you back out of the conversation instead of staying and learning?
    I back out of monologues at networking events around the 4-5 minute mark. (In this instance, listening to that instinct may have been a mistake.) Both people I thought were making it weird were monologuing at the Black students about how great it was to see them; they weren’t asking questions. If their enthusiasm had expressed itself in a dialogue where they asked the Black students a lot of questions about their work, I would have loved to hang around and learn about the research interests of all parties involved!

  23. Ellis Bell*

    The closest other example I have is the way women generally are seen as b-words or “catty” unless they do a lot of labour to soften their message and soothe feelings. The difference is white women get to choose between being a “lady” (gentle, male-centering, privileged) or being a harpy (or worse names) (direct, working, strong). It’s a bullshit choice, but at least we get one; Black women don’t get to opt into the ladies’ category from what I understand so whatever is said is seen as being presumptuous and demanding.

  24. Must Have Caramel Macchiato to Function*

    That answer to number 5 was especially enlightening for me! Thank you so much, Michelle!

  25. Pay Equity Coworker*

    #3 here. The conversation I mentioned in my letter happened a couple months ago, but today my boss had an impromptu meeting with me to let me know that I was getting a raise pursuant to the review mentioned. Toward the end of our brief conversation he said that he wasn’t aware of any policy at this company but that at most places he’s worked it’s usually a “terminatable offense” to discuss salary with other people and that in our department not everyone did get a raise while what people did get varied (which is a silly way to say they it was based on merit if that’s what he meant, sigh). I took the opportunity to let him know there is a law that protects the right to discuss salary with other employees, and when he expressed surprise, I suggested it is needed to account for fairness between different categories of employees such as men and women (I should have included race but I’m the moment I was trying to appeal to something obvious… Oops).

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      I would like to hear further updates. And are you going to discuss your pay with your co-worker again?

      1. Pay Equity Coworker*

        Yes, when I get a chance to do so discretely, I will check in with her about the raises. She and I work very closely and frequently have lunch together, so it’s just a matter of when we can talk privately.

    2. Observer*

      I think you were wise to go the more obvious route. Especially if you think it’s going to be more effective. Ultimately that the real point.

      But, I still think that a conversation with your coworker would be a good idea.

    3. CommanderBanana*

      GOOD! I hope he now knows that if your workplace considers sharing salary information a fireable offense, they are breaking the law.

  26. Abogado Avocado*

    Cis-gendered white person here who works on being an ally and who appreciates Michelle Silverthorn’s presence and
    has learned a lot from her responses today. Thank you, too, Alison, for making this possible at Ask a Manager. It’s another reason this blog is a must-read for me.

  27. MEH Squared*

    Thanks for the answer to #4. Michelle. As an Asian person witnessing what has happened to Asian people during the pandemic (the blatant racism) and in general seeing Asian issues be ignored, it was nice to see it being addressed for once. And, I agree that OP #4 should talk to her Asian American report because if I saw that exchange between my coworker and my manager, I’d be watching my manager very carefully to see what they do next (because they seemed to be condoning anti-Asian sentiment).

    1. LittleDoctor*

      Just wanted to say I love it every time Michelle Silverthorn is here, it’s always informative and thought-provoking, and I wish she were here more often! I read her blog but honestly, I would love it if she started an advice column.

  28. Time Capsule*

    As a black professional woman working in the US for over40 years now, I can attest to the issues that being direct at work cause. It is exhausting to have to carefully parse every interaction, even though if you soft-peddle your thoughts too much, you get passed over for leadership for ironically not being assertive enough. A black woman cannot win. In the Federal government, only the most acquiescent black woman move ahead, strong personalities need not apply. It’s all racism and prejudice and needs to quit. Even black men expect black women to behave deferentially, the justification they use for preferring women of other races is that black women are too controlling.

    Regarding identifying race, black folks do that with skin tone. We have so many identifiers for our color variations, red bone, high yellow, etc., in addition to the regular light skinned, dark skinned distinction. Sadly, there are sometimes prejudgements made based on this too. Race/color/nationality are noticed in the US because it matters.

    1. What's the Problem?*

      Want to add for an earlier commenter that the difference between the white woman Karen designation and the angry black woman stereotype is that Karens operate from a sense of entitlement and superiority. Angry black women are just existing and maybe have an opinion about something. Very different.

  29. Lady Danbury*

    As a Black woman, I definitely appreciate the answer to the first question. It can sometimes be frustrating to read well-meaning career advice to be assertive and take the initiative, knowing that it would likely result in negative consequences for me. The balancing act can be exhausting at times, especially when I have to take a hope for the best but prepare for the worst approach to workplace interactions.

  30. Tea*

    For 4, I (a fairly Americanized East Asian woman) also really tend to shy away from describing people by race. The biggest reason is that it feels really presumptuous to assume – especially for strangers. My Filipina roommate was constantly mistaken for being Latina – but she’s not. My white-passing black cousin in law gets her racial identity erased. A freckled, curly-haired Chinese friend is referred to as everything BUT Asian/Chinese. My mixed/biracial friends get… well, all sorts of inappropriate comments, guesses, questions. I don’t even love being described as ‘Asian’ and also hate when people try to play guessing games about my ethnicity (“Korean?” “Chinese?” “Japanese?”)

    Secondly, it feels like an easy way to single out all the non-white people in a group. Unless you say “the white doctor” as often as “the Asian doctor” or “yeah, the white/black/latino guy eating cup ramen” or “ohhh, white Lucy, not Indian Lucy – she’s the one with the braids in Accounting” then IMO like being identified only for your race among a sea of “default” (ie. white) folks.

    1. pancakes*

      Yes. I think I’ve mentioned before that a number of times I’ve seen tourists in my city trying to be racist towards someone and guessing wrong about their target. I’ve also seen people guess wrong countless times in less harmful ways. I have a friend who lives in a part of Manhattan where there are loads of Korean bars and restaurants, for example, and a lot of times walking to his place from the Herald Sq subway stop I find myself walking behind groups of tourists who can’t tell whether the signs they’re looking at are Chinese, Thai, Japanese, or what. I understand many of them will be coming from places that aren’t diverse, but what happened to the idea that the best way to learn is to pay attention to people with more knowledge and experience or seek it out oneself, why would making uninformed guesses give good results?

  31. Chilipepper Attitude*

    Thank you so much Alison and to your guest, Michelle Silverthorn! And I now have another excellent person to follow on TIkTok!

  32. CanIretireYet?*

    The DEI in an Interview Question was helpful. I can’t wait to read through your website and what the talks.

    My question is: what is the flip side to the interview question?
    Our workplace is very committed to DEI and we are constantly learning and growing and have ongoing speakers and intense training. What is the most appropriate way to ask a candidate how important is DEI to them in the workplace? What is the best question to ask a candidate of any race or back ground? Are there any legal boundaries we need to avoid?

    We have stated in our job descriptions that we are dedicated to a diversity and equity and are seeking candidates that will continue to be involved and take part in the process.

  33. WheresMyPen*

    With #5, I read it as white people coming over and saying “Aren’t you beautiful” or “look how melanated this conference is”, as far as I can see the writer doesn’t specify, which gives the story a whole different context. How would you respond if that is the case, as that’s a whole different situation to if fellow Black attendees are going over and saying those things?

  34. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    This is really valuable. Thank you, Michelle, for your perspective, and thank you Alison for including it here.

  35. Rachael*

    #1: I know that this sounds cliché, but having a black friend really opened my eyes to the tiny things (microaggressions) that black people face. Yes, I understood that racism existed and I always did my best to advocate or confront my own stereotypes, but it really are the little things that cause the most distress. From conversations before meetings (everyone tell the immigrant story of your family….uh…they were stolen), monkey decorations for an event (not directly racist but she was not taken seriously when she brought up why she was uncomfortable), to feeling like some people don’t take her position seriously as director.

    White people don’t like to be uncomfortable and react inappropriately when things that make black people uncomfortable are pointed out. No, my friend is not calling you racist. She is saying that something you are doing is making her uncomfortable. It is racist how you are reacting to her comments.

    So, OP, I am sorry that you have to police your tone. I, myself, realized when I was younger (in my 20s) that my hackles would go up faster when a black person spoke to me in a certain way than it would if the person was white. I had to confront myself about why I feel that way. People have such issues confronting that stereotype because they don’t want to admit that something they subconsciously do is actually racist. I’m not sure how this is fixed, but I do acknowledge it exists and I try to explain it to people who mention when a black person is “aggressive”.

  36. Elizabeth West*

    Thanks to Alison and Michelle for this post, and thanks to Michelle for the TikTok question video. I wrote those inquiries down on my interview question form. Many protected categories are intersectional, and although I’m white, I’m also a disabled worker. So I definitely want to know that the company I’m interviewing with puts its DEI money where its mouth is.

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