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A Dilemma in the Workplace

By Molly C. Ziske, Ph.D.

If you are old enough to remember Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, then you might recall a skit of his where Murphy goes undercover as a white man.  He finds (after successfully transformed into a white person with makeup and costume) that white people have a huge secret they are hiding from the rest of the world.  The secret is that everything is free and fun when the whites are alone – white people have an implicit understanding that as soon as the “blacks” leave the room, the fun begins and everything is free of charge.  In the skit, Murphy (undercover as a white man) goes to a bank for a loan.  He is being turned down for the loan by a black bank worker. When a white bank worker sees the transaction transpiring, he suggests that the black bank worker take his break and takes over the transaction.  The white bank worker then pulls out a lockbox filled with cash, pushing it toward the white Murphy telling him “pay it back when you want – or don’t!”  In another part of the skit, the last remaining black person gets off a city bus, leaving about 12 white people.  After the driver assures that the black person is out of earshot he turns up music as food and drink begin circulating among the remaining (white) riders.

I remember seeing this skit when it originally aired and thinking it was pretty funny.  I’d seen it since and continued to think of it as funny.  However, I couldn’t help but think of the skit again this past week. But, let me start at the beginning.

The Trayvon Martin case was getting increased national attention and race relations were on my mind.  As a mother and a person who likes to think of herself as not a racist, this case has my stomach in knots, my mind reeling and my ire up.  I’d like to think I am not unlike most people in that regard.  I tell you this because my antennae were up – race was top of mind.  Then, one day during the week at work, a conversation began about Chinese food.  I told my standard story of the teaching assistant I had for an accounting class at MSU in the 1980s who got so much flack for his inability to distinguish the letters “R” and “L” in the English language.  I told of how he finally wrote on his overhead projector the letters “R” and “L” and began to explain that he often confused the two because English was not his native language.  His appeal for sympathy fell on mostly deaf ears, but it stuck with me for the rest of my days (especially those when I was a Ph.D. student at MSU teaching my own classes with my own challenges).

After telling this story, I figured the conversation was ended and turned back to my desk.  However, a co-worker decided I had opened the door to the secret world of whites – that world in which we all make fun of the minorities.  She came over and began to share her (hilarious to her) story about her husband yelling “(insert N word here)” at the black kids that have to walk past her street in her new home.  I was mortified and said something stupid to the effect of “Does he say that out loud to these kids?” or something. I was tongue-tied and flabbergasted. She continued and I sat quietly with a look on my face that I assumed was horror.  She seemed to have recognized that she lost me at that point and walked away.

Since that exchange with my co-worker, I’ve realized I did not do the right thing – but what IS the right thing?   Ignoring her?  Giving her a lecture on racism?  Asking her politely to not spout her racist crap at me (in a very open office environment)?  Reporting her to HR?* Keeping quiet?  My first reaction is that I should let her know her viewpoint isn’t welcomed or appreciated but what does that get me except a co-worker I can no longer work with?  (*I do feel the need to defend myself somewhat here by telling you that in a past job, I reported a manager to HR for his blatantly racist comments; and the result?  He was promoted shortly after – so, you see my hesitation in thinking doing the right thing results in justice)
Sadly, I can’t end this post with a resolution.  Race relations (and office relations for that matter) aren’t a tidy play-by-the-rules game.  My hope is that this post, like this past week and the Trayvon Martin case, will get you thinking.

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Molly C. Ziske, Ph.D. is many things – mom to the most fabulous three teenage girls on the planet, Consumer Insights Manager for Autoweek Media Group and Super Spartan fan (she was once heard saying in a meeting “I just hope they invent Spartan coffins before I die”).  BA (Advertising) from MSU ’87, MS (Advertising) from U of Illinois ’91 and Ph.D. (Mass Media) from MSU ’03, Molly’s two remaining dreams are for her children to forever be happy & healthy and to one day meet Javon Ringer.  You can follow Molly on Twitter. Go Green!

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