“Did he just say that?” – surviving racist comments in the workplace

The sad truth is that when someone in the workplace throws a racist comment at you, all the brochures and flyers and seminars on racial harassment fall to the side.

All those words of encouragement and hope, the very self that you’ve built to handle the barrage of abuse that waits for you on the streets and in the mouths of politicians, crumbles.

On the streets, you’d scream something back …depending on whether you’re outnumbered or outgunned.

But within a workplace, you’re neutered under the all-seeing eye of the employer.

Like an object, you stand there, unmoving, wondering if your ears have deceived you, or whether you’re just not getting it – the joke, the reference, the playfulness. There is no room for error, and your fight or flight response is in overdrive leading to something much worse – freezing.

And you start to think, and wonder.

“This can’t be real. This can’t be happening to me.”

And the mind starts to spin.

“What do I say? What should I say?”

And as the seconds pass, the situation demands a response, a response that more often than not, isn’t what we wish to say.

A mumbled apology.

A fake attempt at being non-threatening.

Or maybe even laughing at your own kind.

We curse the day. Curse having gotten out of bed. Working at some charity where a board member or lead volunteer or staff member or donor can go about unpunished and unscolded for hurting us. Because while we save the cause, while we put our lives on hold for the charity, no one is coming to save us.

You might say: “racial is different than racist. Shouldn’t we have a space for humor, and perhaps even laugh at our differences?”

Agreed. But we have to laugh together.

The reality is that there still exists both explicit and subtle forms of racism that exclude and discriminate. They can often be hard to identify and define, and often difficult to prove.

This text isn’t about defining racism.

Racism is felt.

Racism is experienced.

Racism freezes some of us till we want the earth to swallow us up.

And when you feel that in your gut, go with it, because that’s real.

You might say: “but my employer has grievance procedures, that’s where everything will be resolved. Why did you even write this guide?”

  1. Because grievance procedures are a liability issue for the company – rarely for fairness;
  2. Because grievance procedures back down in the face of the millions of $$$ represented by a lead volunteer or donor;
  3. Because grievance procedures, sometimes, were authored by the very person they need to be used on.

You might say: “this is an education issue. Have more seminars or on-site training, that’ll solve it.”

Harassment education focuses on the aggressor, the perpetrator. The belief is that if education reaches a saturation point, all harassers will “get with the program.” While commendable, it’s also a bit naïve and idealist, given the reality that harassment hasn’t disappeared.

You might say: “but you’re being thin-skinned about this, needlessly sensitive even. Life is about having people throw stuff your way, and your duty is not to allow them to lessen you.”


What I’m focusing on is how we can prepare to protect ourselves in the moments we need to most.

Without losing your job.

Without fearing repercussion.

Without losing your self respect.

Without being called difficult or threatening.

Without letting your self crack.

To hit the ball back and see how the other person reacts.

I wish this article were longer, I wish I had more to say.

But article after article, book after book, focus on only the aftermath of the incident, as if the completion of a grievance procedure, another signed declaration will emancipate us from the pain we carry with us.

There are 2 very different approaches, each tailored to the personality of the deliverer, as they face down their aggressor:

  1. Look them straight in the eyes, don’t smile, don’t blink, and say: “I hope you’re making a joke (PAUSE), but it isn’t funny at all”. STOP SPEAKING. Based on the reaction of the other person, either they’ll own up to it, or double-down. This is the heavier approach.
  2. Throw the widest smile you can on your face, grin from cheek to cheek, look them in the eyes and say: “That’s funny (PAUSE) why would you say something like that?” In most cases, the other person stumbles for their words. This is the lighter approach.

I’d love to add to this list…Please email me at [email protected] to share your thoughts so we can continue the conversation and improve our collective resilience. I promise to update this article with any incoming suggestions.

More about me: https://www.linkedin.com/in/khalilguliwala