A Question For Readers: Faced With Overhearing Racist Remarks, What Would You Do?

Between Christmas and Epiphany, my family took a vacation. Days of pleasant family togetherness were marred only once: by comments my teen-aged son and I heard in the lobby of a chain hotel in central Virginia. He and I were  working at the hotel computers, around the corner from the reception desk. A white clerk behind the desk was telling jokes to another white clerk – using liberally the “n word” as punch lines. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. I am still struggling, as a Christian, on how best to respond.

My son understood what the woman said was wrong, but didn’t think we should respond at all. I explained to him that it is important to respond to wrongdoing we encounter, and that we don’t need to do so in anger. Later that afternoon, I approached the front desk and asked to speak to the manager. Turns out the “jokester,” who had finished her shift, was the assistant manager. Well then, may I speak to the manager? Turns out that would be her husband. Well then, who is his supervisor? “The owner but he won’t get involved,” the clerk replied. She suggested I call the corporate offices.

Later that day, our room phone rang. It was the same clerk, apologizing on behalf of the assistant manager, to whom she had spoken, and refunding our money because she had offended me. The following morning, as we were checking out, the assistant manager apologized to my husband for offending me and went on to say none of her African -American employees found her jokes offensive that morning.

Now then, should I call the corporate offices? My inclination is to do so. The Catechism teaches that racism is “Unjust discrimination on the basis of a person’s race; a violation of human dignity, and a sin against justice.” Refunding my money feels like the sin was just against me, in the fact I happened to overhear some racist jokes.

To me this is a jarring reminder that sin, though seemingly a solitary action of one person, affects others in ways that we sometimes don’t realize. This incident brought these words from the Catechism (1869) to life for me,

Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn.

Our entire family was distressed by the jokes. My husband and I let our sons know that this woman has every right to her own thoughts and feelings about the world, but that when she speaks, she should be carefully considering how her words could damage others. As Christians, we cannot condemn her as a human being, but we can speak up when someone’s words or actions are sinful.

I am meditating whether my obligation is to let the corporate offices know I heard the jokes. After all, the assistant manager supervises employees and welcomes guests of all cultural backgrounds. One could also argue, however, that I have made my views known, and received an apology fitting to our relationship, which is purely a business transaction.

What would you do, and why?

  • Grace

    No, I would not pursue it. What is your objective? To make the person lose their job?Or to make them think about racism? You have probably already done that. I would say you are bordering on meddling unnecessarily in the affairs of others. I think we (in general in society) are going overboard on policing people's words and thoughts. Just my opinion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15724518800430532026 Sandy C.

    I would call corporate. The remarks were made while she was on duty and representing the chain so her inappropriate remarks cause a negative reaction on the "brand" of the hotel. I think corporate would want to know. Yes, you received the apology (and that was very fitting for the assistant manager to accept responsibility and apologize for her comments) but the apology does not undo the remarks. For a professional in the service industry to make such remarks while on duty is completely unacceptable, inappropriate, and inexcusable, in my opinion. The fact that she mitigated her behavior by claiming "none of her African-American employees found her jokes offensive" disturbs me most. Would an employee honestly admit if he/she were offendeded?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07181529277715646835 Fran

    What a thought provoking post. I think that you were right to speak up as you did and I actually do think that you are well inclined to contact the corporate office.It is a fine line, razor sharp at that, but one that must often be walked. What really gets me is that the rejoinder included the remark that none of the African American employees found the joke offensive. How do we know this? Would they speak up, even if they did? In this economy, why risk employment via standing up to this? The hotel represents a larger chain and they should know what is up. If people do lose their jobs over their own actions, then that is part and parcel of responsibility. Policing words would be imposing on a personal conversation that was overheard. When one is at the front desk of a hotel and having that conversation it is no longer personal or private.Having said all that, there is much to pray with about this and I join you in doing so. Imagine all the good people who have politely ignored all manner of slur and how the consequences of that have played out in history.Thank you and God bless.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with what Sandy C and Fran said.Let me share an experience and perhaps you can get something out of this with regards to coworkers who were of the race of the "butt of the joke."I am Latina. My mother is Spaniard/Mexican born in America as her father was too, my father Mexican (born in Mexico.) I got, shall we say indelicately, the "white" genes. I have light hazel eyes, light brown curly hair, and very fair skin. Because I looked "Americana," my mom would not speak to me in Spanish. She wanted me as American as I could be (and I am! :) ) Many hispanic mothers did this – to give their children as much of a chance in America as possible since they themselves experienced the racism of being Hispanic. We could "fit in" more.I mention this because now, to this day, people would never guess I am Mexican-American. I look "white." Many coworkers are surprised (and trust me, this annoys me because not all Mexican-Americans are dark or speak with an accent) when they find out my heritage.Some even FORGET that.I was at lunch with a bunch of coworkers at the corporate cafeteria. (I'm in Dallas, TX) btw. There was one other woman there who IS the typical "dark" looking Mexican-American. She knows Spanish, and has NO accent when she speaks English. She was born and raised in America. The rest of the people there were white (various heritages.)As we left the cafeteria back to work one of my team members (who has a Germanic heritage and is very white skinned) said aloud, "I bet if we yelled 'La migra! La migra!' in that kitchen the whole staff would go running out."Now, one other guy kind of laughed, the other hispanic woman kind of laughed too (she claims that did not bother her), the rest of the "white" people got VERY uncomfortable.I stepped and said, "You know, R, why don't *I* do it? Want me to go in there and yell 'La Migra!' and see what happens?" He stopped for a moment. My comment brought him back to his surroundings and tried to play it off. I then said, "Because in reality, R, the human beings in that kitchen would probably look at you and just laugh." (Yes, I chose my words carefully and purposely used "human beings.")I'll tell you what. He NEVER made another racist remark around me. I'm sure he's probably said things around other people, but as far as I know, he watched his remarks around me and maybe some other coworkers.I'm not innocent in comments, I am ashamed to say, but once I realized how what it is I say around others CAN AND DO hurt others I watch what I say. It is a lesson we all need to learn. Some learn it later in life, others, earlier.One note I thought of while typing this. Most corporations have harassment policies in place to prevent situations like this from occurring. (IMO, it's mostly to "CYA" so they don't get sued.) I'm sure corporate would like to know so they could step up their harassment policies training. I'm not trying to control someone's thoughts or ideas or beliefs, but I don't have to tolerate what they do that is wrong.Peace,J.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10740611327082314715 Sean

    Tough call. I'd say Grace is right. You've raised the issue, and a one-time incident isn't big enough to bring up to corporate, and possibly cost the guy a job.I'm a freshman in college right now. I got friends both in college and in high school that liked racist jokes. I've heard some nasty ones. Based on what I've seen, it seems people tend to… not think when they tell the jokes. Jokes like that are controversial and offensive to some people. That raises it's appeal, especially for young people.Basically, bringing that up, especially in this fellow's work environment, may prod him into turning around. I doubt he took the time to consider those "n-words" before he said them. If you hear them again in that hotel, though, that might be a case for corporate.

  • Anonymous

    I am inclined to agree with Grace here. It is not pleasant to hear something offensive, even "second-hand". That said, corporate policies nowadays are "zero-tolerance" and the person would surely face punitive measures and perhaps lose their job – a most uncharitable outcome. Yes, people should think more about their words and how they affect others – that goes both ways here, Allison.As for the corporate policies being a CYA to avoid litigation; a very sad by-product of the American culture.I honestly believe that the offending person has reflected somewhat and modified behavior is likely the result. I am optimistic about people that way.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04886116438383281567 FaerieMama

    I would absolutely call the corporate office. THe actions of those who chose to offend reflects on the entire organization. As a business owner myself, I would TRULY want to know if my staff was doing something I deemed inappropriate. I woyld handle it very gently and step up my training in the future,,,but how could I do that if I didnt know?You can even preface the conversation by stating that you were hesitant to call because your objective is not to get them in trouble, but to shed light on a concern.I think it is imperative that corporate be told, but in the end, you need to do wht your heart tells you after prayerful consideration.God blees you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18424965880525462194 Dave

    Matthew 18:15-17[15] But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. [16] And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. [17] And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16021781602272064901 Allison

    Dave: Exactly the passage I have been pondering. But where does this lead me? Her apology wasn't truly an apology. It was – others were not offended. And I do agree with what Fran said. This wasn't a private conversation I overheard. It was said by the assistant manager behind the desk at a chain hotel so loudly that apparently the African Americans in the back office heard her as well as everyone in the lobby. That makes it different for me than again overhearing a conversation.

  • http://www.allisonwelch.com/ Allison Welch

    At the risk of putting too fine a point on it — what was the tone of the comments? Can you tell if it was one of ignorance portraying itself as humor? Or was it more malicious (intending to keep others down–subordinate them–knowing they and others could overhear)? Neither are acceptable. Both should be addressed. One may require more of a response than the other. I hope, and sincerely pray, that you made the assistant manager aware that her words were unacceptable and that she will refrain from making jokes like this in the future. (Based on your interaction with her do you believe this to be true? Can you tell if her (lame) excuse that the employees were not offended seemed to be more of a defensive attempt to justify her behavior after being caught doing something wrong (in order to save face), or a sincere belief that there was genuinely nothing wrong with what she said? I too would want to know if an employee of mine was behaving this way. If you don't want to risk getting the employee fired, is it possible for you to call corporate and make a comment without naming an individual — with the hope/intention that they will address it with general training?I applaud your sincere effort to do the right thing and I will pray for wisdom and guidance!

  • Anonymous

    Allison, not sure how it works there, but could you not inform the Corporate Office without specifying which employee actually made the remark? If the objective is to get the organization to be stricter / give more training, then maybe you can achieve that without jeopardizing a job. You can mention, as said above, that you do not want to harm the person in question, but you would like to see such events prevented in the future. From another perspective, as an HR professional in an organization, I would want to know if this was happening in my organization and I would want to know who was involved. Although it would be handled with a basic warning only at first. Loss of job would be only for repeat offenders. But I don't know how strict the policies there are. Rose

  • Anonymous

    I see that many people are concerned with someone possibly losing their job.Realize that there are consequences to one's actions. And if, in this case, losing a job is the consequence of doing wrong, then let's hope the person learns their lesson and telling racist jokes in public is wrong.I would not feel badly if this person lost their job and, in fact, it may even be the MOST charitable thing done to this person. Anyone can quote any passage in the bible to make a case for their actions. They need to learn a lesson. And like Allison pointed out, it wasn't truly an apology. And apology is, "I am sorry I did this. I was wrong. How can I make amends?" To add ANY. THING. ELSE. is not an apology.Perhaps having been on a "peripheral" receiving end of such jokes I take a different view on it. The company did nothing in my situations, therefore, I took it to mean that the company did not really mean what they said about RESPECTING ALL employees. I eventually left. It was their loss.– J

  • Anonymous

    So we're a nation of jerks. Not that one bad turn deserves another, but do any of you really think that a black or a Latino would have come to the defense of a white person in a similar situation?How about a fatty, or a homely? They get poked fun at all the time.We all need to get over ourselves and stop being so thin-skinned. What ever happened to "sticks and stones"?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16021781602272064901 Allison

    I really appreciate all the responses. I really prayed about this and also carefully considered your thoughts too. What tipped it for me is that these "jokes" happened in a workplace setting – loudly and that employees and customers heard. That is illegal. I did end up calling corporate yesterday. The man who I spoke with was very concerned that such comments happened in the company's workplace. The hotel is a franchise and has to sign contracts that they will follow federal employment law. The chain is taking this to its executives and will let me know follow up.Racism is a social sin, according to my faith and my Church. When we sin, we all face consequences, both temporal and eternal. Blessings to all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09322135500288738561 Bender

    What to do??How about simply following the spiritual works of mercy? That is, bear wrongs patiently and forgive injuries.How about not jumping to conclusions and judging and automatically convicting people of racism?Use of the "n-word" is not ipso facto an act of racism or racial discrimination. What if the workers had been black? Would you automatically accuse them of being anti-black? Or would you say that it is impolite, but "OK" because they are black and, in some black circles, that word is used frequently (as many social commentators, e.g. Bill Cosby, have noted to dismay).Is their being white what automatically makes this "racist"? In fact, while many a racist have used that word in a racist manner, or even racial manner, it is not necessarily so, as evidenced by its usage by some black people. To be sure, it is frequently heard in comedy, from Dave Chappell to Chris Rock to South Park.What to do in such a situation? Well, what NOT to do is to jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts or otherwise judge and condemn people or presume to be someone's mommy and teach them manners.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16021781602272064901 Allison

    @Bender: Whoa. I can see you have strong opinions on this. It is hard to tell from a written response, but you sound angry about this. I do not presume to know anyone else's heart. But I was deeply offended by what I heard, as was my teenaged son. I do not believe the appropriate Christian response is to ignore this. What does one do when, as a customer, one is subjected to racial slurs in a public place? This isn't about "manners." How should one regard the situation? The Christian response is, as you have noted, different than the response of someone for whom Christ is not central to their lives. Ot at least should be. I do believe it was correct to call corporate and actually corporate was thankful to hear from me. And now, I will continue to try to suspend judgment on someone else's heart. I can't possibly know someone's else's inner motivations. Above all, let's to pray for each another, okay?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07181529277715646835 Fran

    "Above all, let's to pray for each another, okay?" Thank you Allison, isn't that the point of all of this. I don't frequently comment here, but I do appreciate being a part of this thread and certainly am grateful to read this blog on a regular basis.Peace and good to all.

  • Anonymous

    Came back to see what happened. I agree, let's all pray for each other. :)– J