A Catch-22 Situation

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?


4 Responses to A Catch-22 Situation

  1. Jessica says:

    That just sounds ridiculous & confusing!

    I don’t think some truly want to let our differences disappear. And talk about bias – why are the Black Colleges, Black Entertainment Network, & scholarships for minorities? We’d get in so much trouble if we had a “White Entertainment Network.” I’m just saying…it would’ve been nice to be able to get a scholarship just because of my race.

  2. Kristin says:


    I wish it was a non-issue because it’s just plain ridiculous. But, it is. My sisters boyfriend has been discriminated against many times & she’s told me some horrible stories about poor service they received only because her boyfriend is a black man.

    People should just get over it already!

  3. Chas says:

    I think there’s a lot of truth in the book, even if it just makes everything seem more confusing, because truthfully it’s a very confusing topic. Of course, a person shows bias when they are outwardly racist/agist/sexist. Yet, I can see the point that a person is also being a bit biased when they outwardly acknowledge bias. I don’t necessarily think acknowledging bias is a bad thing as far as morals go, but it does make a person stand out…like your husband stood out when he mentioned the situation with his coworkers.

    When I was teaching, and you’ve been there too I assume, I had a very mixed group of kids. They were mostly black and white, but we had a fairly large Hispanic/Latino population, as well as Asian. When I’d hear the black kids speaking to each other in a way that wouldn’t be appropriate for a white/Hispanic/Asian person to speak to them…I just ignored it. I figured it’s their culture and mentioning it would only draw attention to the fact that I was not in the mix. I honestly don’t feel like I was ever biased toward any child in a negative way. I really feel like I was a fair grader and disciplinarian, and I was never called out for being racist or sexist. So, I guess the safest way to get through diversity is just to try your best to treat everyone equally and ignore cultural differences as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.

  4. Kayce says:

    Jessica–I totally agree that there is a double standard there. I remember all the clubs in high school used to bug me. There was one for every race represented in our school (and I promise that’s a LOT) except for whites. Isn’t that kind of backwards discrimination?

    Kristin–It’s hard to imagine that people are still discriminated against like that because of their skin color. Except that while we are more shocked that it happens to a black person, it happens just as much to other races. Even I have been in that position of being treated badly because I am not of the majority race around here.

    Chas–Personally I think the book takes it too far. There is definitely some truth to it, some truth I’d never considered before, but some of the examples given only scare me. It’s so easy to offend others, both by your words and by trying not to offend. Like you said when teaching in a diverse group, it’s important to be fair to all the different kids. But I can remember teaching books in which racist issues came up, and suddenly all I saw was color. I had to work so hard when addressing those issues to not say something that my African-American students would take offense to, even though I truly had no bias against them. Yes, that was guerrilla bias, but had I not been careful, I would have lost my job over any slight misinterpretation of my words.

    But I think your summary is dead-on. I’m going to quote you here, if you don’t mind, because it sums up pretty much the point I was trying to get to: “I guess the safest way to get through diversity is just to try your best to treat everyone equally and ignore cultural differences as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.” It’s not a foolproof method to stay out of trouble, but it’s the best we can do.

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