Wedding Woes

Boorish, sexist, racist trainee

Dear Prudence,

I am a white, queer, cis woman who has recently moved from a temporary, contract-based position to becoming a full employee in my office. A new contract employee has been brought on to take over my projects, and I am responsible for training him regarding the process. He is also new to the area and trying very hard to befriend me. I do not want to be friends with this man. He is a younger, straight, cis white man who is very “nice” but has also internalized a lot of racist, sexist, and toxically masculine ideas and gives me the impression that he has never been challenged on any of them (or challenged on anything? Ever?) in his life. I’ve seen the engagement photos he had taken at a plantation. He told a black female co-worker she reminded him of Wanda Sykes (she looks and sounds nothing like Wanda Sykes) and asked what I would consider to be a rude question about her hair. I’ve had to stare blankly in response to “jokes” about co-workers with “funny-sounding” names and teenage girls who “had no business” driving large trucks.

How do I maintain a professional relationship with this guy I have to work so closely with, who periodically leaves me dumbstruck with the casual way he says and does racist things? And what is my responsibility to challenge him when this happens, particularly on behalf of our nonwhite co-workers? But he’s very nice, you see, everyone in my fully white department likes him, and my frustrations aren’t exactly something I could take to HR or articulate easily in an office environment. What should I do?

—Not So “Nice”

Re: Boorish, sexist, racist trainee

  • Ask him questions when what he says is clearly off.   "Why do you think she looks like Wanda?"   "Why can't the girl drive a big truck?"  

    "Oh that's an interesting photo.   Where was it taken?  What did they do in the past?  They did?  Why are they still open knowing they did something so bad?"  

  • Sounds like this guy could use some training not just in the job, but on life. While that’s not in your job description I think gently challenging him on what he’s saying is for the good of the team. Maybe he really doesn’t know? Maybe he’s an ignore racist who knows what he’s doing (although it doesn’t sound like that to me). If what he’s saying is bothering you (and it would absolutely bother me!) you need to speak up. 
  • I think that challenging him in a firm but polite way is the way to go. It's not your job to change his mindset completely, but it is your job to train him for the job and the office, and part of that should be insisting that he is professional and respectful toward coworkers. He needs to understand that making fun of people's names and asking black women rude questions about their hair is not part of that. 
  • Lol everyone is suggesting challenging him... i would actually go opposite, if it were me.  Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.

  • I think when this gets put into a work environment, it is a little harder to deal with.  I tend to just go with, "Please don't make comments like that around me" and stick to it, repeat over and over.  I've had some people who will try and justify their comments, but just continuing to say "I don't want to hear it" seems to achieve the results I want.

    I completely agree and recognize that it's a privilege of mine to be able to do that and that allies/accomplices are supposed to do this when no one is watching; I also know that work is an environment that can be fraught with tension and you're there to do a job, not change people's mind/lives/hearts.  If there was a comment that went to far, I'd try and push it a bit harder that I don't want to hear that around me and I will report it to HR if necessary. I've never had it escalate beyond that point.
  • I had a trainee last year who would say things like that. He was more homophobic than racist, but was generally tone deaf about his comments. (I'm not out at work, so he probably assumed "safe" for homophobic jokes.) He was this same level of "it's just a joke" or "not everything has to be so politically correct." My tactic was just to respond to off-color jokes with "that's offensive" or "not appropriate here." 

    He wound up not being able to do the work and being let go for cause before I ever escalated anything beyond our team. I don't want to see anyone lose their job, but I was pretty relieved that problem solved itself. 
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