A Catch-22 Situation

June 10, 2008

Recently M was required to read a book about diversity for work.  It was easier for the company to buy a bunch of books, make everyone read them, and then test them on it than to offer a company-wide diversity training.

After reading the book, he suspects a recent action of his could possibly be the cause of the urgent need for diversity training.  In an interview with HR in which he was asked about some inappropriate actions of a co-worker, he was forced to relay an unsavory conversation he overheard.  A near-quote from him: “He [the co-worker] called her–pardon me for using his exact word–his n****r.”

According to the book, M’s mistake there was not using the offensive word, if you can believe it.  It was because he felt the need to excuse himself for using that kind of language.  This is something the author called “guerrilla bias.”  Because it was said in front of an African-American worman, assuming she would be sensitive to such language is implying that she is weaker and therefore needs to be protected from having her feelings hurt.

M insists that he would have excused himself for using that kind of language in front of anyone; I believe it because he excused himself for using that term in front of me.  Still, apparently while that is okay to do in front of people who are like you, it is not okay to do in front of someone whom that could actually offend.


Clearly it is inappropriate to say something racist, especially around people of that race, but according to this author it is just as inappropriate to watch what you say because attempting to avoid offending someone is just as offensive.  Along the same lines, you also show bias if you take offense to someone’s words.  When you take offense, you are assuming that the other person was intending bias, and since that is not necessarily the case, it is biased of you to think so.

So you’re showing bias if you’re blatantly racist (or sexist, or agist, etc), you’re showing bias if you try not to show bias, and you’re showing bias if you think someone else is showing bias.  The book’s tagline out to be “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

To take it a step further, companies are in a heap of trouble with this affirmative action stuff.  Let’s say a company has two equally-qualified candidates for a job, but the two are different races.  According to affirmative action, they should hire the minority (or the one of the race that is less represented in the company).  Theoretically, the candidate that was not chosen could sue the company because they did not get the job solely because of their race.

In addition, the candidate who was hired could say that the company was biased by hiring them and could also sue.  Clearly this candidate is weaker and therefore needs the preferential treatment to get a job.  Talk about a sticky situation for a company.

The author’s solution?  Keep your own nose clean whenever possible and try not to take offense when it appears as though other people are being biased towards you.  And pass off any major decisions that involve race or sex or age or disability to avoid being held personally accountable for them.

Is it any wonder I get so fed up with racial issues sometimes?  I can do everything possible not to offend, regardless of whether or not I have any bias against each person, but by not offending I’m being just as biased.  And even when people are clearly showing bias against me, I have to pretend like I’m not offended so as not to offend them.  But by working to not offend them, aren’t I showing bias after all?

Argh.  The only way race (or gender, etc) won’t be an issue any longer is for EVERYONE to stop even noticing people’s differences when they look at them.  Yet that will never happen.  I don’t think we even want that to happen.  Aren’t our differences what make our world so interesting–and complete?

So I’m baffled.  It sounds like that book M was forced to read didn’t clear up the matter at all.  If anything, it only muddied the waters.

While I know I’m opening myself up to a heated debate here, I’m curious about how all of you feel about this.  Or, like me, are you nervous about touching this topic with a ten-foot pole?