Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry

What Can I Do About Casual Comments?

'Have You Had Diction Lessons?'

An African American businesswoman in the South writes: "I was speaking with a white co-worker when, midway through the conversation, she smiled and said, 'You speak so clearly. Have you had diction lessons?' — like for an African American to speak clearly, we'd have to have diction lessons."

A manager writes: "One of my employees constantly makes 'jokes' about people being 'bipolar' or 'going postal' or being 'off their meds.' I happen to know that one of our other employees — within earshot of these comments — is on medication for depression. How can I stop the bad behavior without revealing proprietary information?"

One co-worker asks another if she wants to go out for lunch. "We're going to get Ping-Pong chicken," she says, faking a vaguely Asian accent.

An Italian American woman's co-worker makes daily comments about her heritage. "Are you in the mafia?" "Are you related to the Godfather?" There are only six colleagues in the office, and the Italian American woman doesn't know how — or if — to respond.

Interrupt early. Workplace culture largely is determined by what is or isn't allowed to occur. If people are lax in responding to bigotry, then bigotry prevails. Speak up early and often in order to build a more inclusive environment.

Use — or establish — policies. Call upon existing — too often forgotten or ignored — policies to address bigoted language or behavior. Work with your personnel director or human resources department to create new policies and procedures, as needed. Also ask your company to provide anti-bias training.

Go up the ladder. If behavior persists, take your complaints up the management ladder. Find allies in upper management, and call on them to help create and maintain an office environment free of bias and bigotry.

Band together. Like-minded colleagues also may form an alliance and then ask the colleague or supervisor to change his or her tone or behavior.