That Time I Was Accidentally Racist at Work and Four Things to Learn From It

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How I went from an ultra-conservative cult to the urban environment of York, Pennsylvania is a long story for another time. But I will say that renting a suspiciously cheap apartment site unseen isn’t one of the smarter things I did during that time.

It was now 2003, and I had been outside the cult for about two years. I was trying to return to Maryland and something like the life I thought I would have had if my mother not taken me to Kansas to join a cult twelve years ago. I was now relatively proficient at using the internet, and I was super excited that I could go online and find listings for apartments I could afford. I thought that if I could get close to Baltimore, I’d have endless job prospects there. York to Baltimore and back each day would be a somewhat long but still achievable commute.

I used the phone and internet to complete the process of leasing my new apartment.

One day, I spoke on the phone with the woman from the leasing office, and she had a strange message for me.

“I can’t legally tell you anything about the neighborhood where this apartment is located,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I can’t legally tell you anything about the neighborhood where this apartment is located,” she repeated with renewed emphasis and a warning tone in her voice.

I had no idea what she was talking about. I paid the deposit.

When I arrived at my new home, with three kids in tow, I understood better. Her warning had been code from one white person to another that this was not a neighborhood for white people. I later learned that where I had agreed to live was the stretch of South Queen Street that the white suburbanites of York called “The Jungle.”

I didn’t understand that when apartments were “affordable,” there might be a reason for that.

I was now more afraid of putting this address on my resume than I was for my own physical safety or the safety of my children. There was very little I could have known about the workings of American racialized culture at this point, so I can only chalk this up to the stellar job the cult had done of training me in white supremacy — an education I did not yet know I’d been given.

I was afraid for my ability to make it financially. I was afraid of being dragged down by association with this neighborhood and the people in it.

A friend I’d met on the internet who lived in Baltimore County offered to let me stay with him while I worked something else out, but I wasn’t having it. I had to learn to survive on my own, no matter what that journey might entail.

As it turned out, it “entailed” 18 months in which prostitutes worked the alley out back every night, gang shoot-outs went down outside my children’s bedroom, and ATF squads in full riot gear raided other apartments in my building. Sometimes law enforcement came banging on my door looking for someone else. It was far from physically safe, but I chose to minimize that and press on.

Getting jobs, however, was not an issue for me. Maybe they saw my name and didn’t question the address. Maybe my name got me a phone call where I could prove I didn’t “sound like” South Queen Street. In any case, I did a few temporary gigs in York, then worked with an agency in Baltimore County to get a job with a small office where phone operators cold-called business people for donations.

I found the other employees there very accepting and vocally liberal. That made me happy. I felt like I was in the right place. Since I’d left the cult, I had been working on making sure that I had a liberal answer for every nuance of conservative fundamentalism they had taught me. I felt good about the work I was doing, but I was only two years into a very arduous journey that would span more than two decades and perhaps the rest of my life. For now, I thought these were my people, the type of people I should be emulating if I wanted to truly free my mind.

One day two of my coworkers and I were chatting in the small room where we did our phone outreach. Nearby, others were making their outbound calls and talking to prospective donors.

The topic turned to where each of us lived and how we liked it.

“I have an apartment in York, but I think I’ll move soon,” I said. “It’s a long drive from here, and it’s really ghetto.”

My two colleagues gasped.

“Shhhhh!”

“Jada’s right over there!” one of them whispered hoarsely, furtively pointing at the only Black person in the room.

I looked over at Jada, leaning into her desk, intensely focused on getting a donation out of her phone call. She was completely unaware of our conversation.

I looked back at my coworkers, perplexed. I truly did not understand.

“Oh, OK,” I said quietly, instinctively wanting to defuse the situation. I didn’t get defensive because I didn’t know enough to get defensive. But I sure was confused.

That was the end of it. The incident was instantly swept away in the whirlwind of my life as I continued trying to survive and make money in the real world while protecting and caring for three small children. I didn’t think about it any further because I couldn’t afford to. The only thing that I learned and tucked into the back of my mind was that you didn’t say the word “ghetto” where people who looked like Jada might hear.

Conversations about race tend to be hard conversations. That is probably unavoidable. What we should start thinking about differently (keep in mind I’m talking about white people talking to other white people) is what makes those conversations difficult.

Until now, we’ve thought of conversations about race as “hard conversations” because when we approach someone about problematic behavior or speech, we have to anticipate being met with anger and defensiveness.

Most people understandably don’t want to risk inviting that anger, losing control of the situation, and losing important relationships. That is actually an excellent reason to avoid that conversation, but this means problematic behavior and speech go unaddressed. Nothing changes.

So what can we do?

If you try to speak with someone and they become angry or defensive, that is not a conversation. That is a confrontation.

Perhaps nothing will change because you created this confrontation, but it’s possible that the person whose behavior you tried to address will become even more resistant to ever changing their mind.

If we truly want to change people’s thinking in a meaningful way, we must learn to distinguish between conversation and confrontation. We must learn how to create the former and not the latter.

This is not a call to pander to white fragility. It’s a call to white people to throw out an old way of approaching race with other white people that does not work and adopt a new way that does work. Let’s face it: if confronting white supremacy head-on and calling out the ordinary people around us as racists was working, we wouldn’t still be talking about this.

Let’s do it right now. Throw out the idea that making other white people angry and defensive means you’ve done your job as a white ally, and let’s make a pact never to do that again. When we think about having “hard conversations,” let’s think of the hard work of educating ourselves on language around race and creating safe spaces in which to use that language.

With this knowledge, how might we reimagine the story I’ve just told about my coworkers and my use of the word “ghetto”? This is a story about a workplace incident, but you can also apply these lessons to situations that occur with family and friends.

Always follow through.

Obviously, the first concern in this situation was to prevent someone from getting hurt, which happens a lot. The situation demanded an immediate response with no time to explain.

But my coworkers never explained anything to me, even later. The message I received was that when you make a mistake that has something to do with race, it’s too sensitive to talk about. I’d better not bring it up again. Conversations about race are just too hard.

Don’t risk leaving the person feeling they did something unforgivable or something too difficult to talk about.

Additionally, be sure to take the lead on following through before the other person can approach you and set a defensive tone. You want to have control over the interaction so that you are the one creating the space in which it happens. In acting quickly, you have a chance to make that space safe and non-confrontational.

Avoid judgemental language.

I’ve already written an entire article about this, and it is the most critical part of this equation. Do not use language that judges the person’s identity, beliefs, or intentions, or you will only make things worse. Remember, they most likely have not deliberately adopted a racist belief system.

You want a conversation, not a confrontation, so you have to approach this with a certain humility within yourself. Do a quick check on your motivations and your state of mind. The only reason to start a conversation with this person is to create a better and safer world for people who have been marginalized. Go into it with that in mind.

You should not be doing this to prove that you are an activist, or that you’re more woke than someone else, or to feel you’ve done your job to stick it to white fragility that day. If you feel you can’t overcome these attitudes, have a deep conversation with yourself first. Talk about your approach with someone else you can trust to guide you before you proceed.

Create a safe space.

If you really want to help end racism, you’re not going to approach this to call out and humiliate someone publicly.

If the situation is like mine in the story, the person who had their behavior or speech abruptly corrected or shut down in front of others probably feels ashamed, confused, or at the very least awkward. Start by talking about that so it’s not an elephant in the room.

Imagine if my coworker had taken me aside later and began a conversation with, “Hey, Rose, I know me shooshing you earlier probably felt really bad, but I knew you wouldn’t want to accidentally hurt Jada. Can we talk about that a minute?”

Contrast that with what we’re normally taught to do. “Rose, what you said was racist, and that can’t be tolerated here. You need to think about how people of color feel in your workplace.”

These are two completely different ways of approaching the same conversation. One could create an incremental change toward a better world. The other is practically guaranteed to make things worse.

Focus on imparting knowledge, not correcting behavior.

Do you know why what the person did or said is problematic? Helping them understand those facts, that history, that nuance, is what the conversation should be about. If you can help other people understand the seemingly bottomless depths of racialization in this country and how it’s embedded in every aspect of our culture and language, their behavior will take care of itself.

If you don’t know enough right now to have a deeply informed conversation, that’s OK too. Just let the person know that even though you don’t have all the answers, you know that the word or behavior is something we’re not supposed to do if we want to respect people of color and that you’re still learning too.

It was many years before I understood why I shouldn’t have used the word “ghetto” in that way. Early in my journey, I wouldn’t have even known what questions to ask to find out. And that’s not just because I had spent most of my life up to that point in an ultra-conservative cult. It was because I had grown up in America.

Suppose my coworkers could have explained to me — without aggression or judgment — that “ghetto” is a word used to describe urban areas that powerful White people created to trap Black and Brown people within a complex and extremely destructive set of socio-economic and political constructs. The white system created ghettos as spaces where people could be permanently branded as inherently less than, which would make them highly unlikely ever to escape.

The word “ghetto” means truly horrible things for real people’s lives.

With that knowledge, I could have determined that “Ghetto” wasn’t a word I should casually throw around, even though I personally lived in a neighborhood where I saw the violent and dehumanizing results of those manufactured socio-economic and political constructs playing out.

If you want to change people’s minds, commit now to doing the hard work: on yourself. Learn about the constructs of racialization and white privilege. Learn history. Learn humility and empathy. Then, when it’s your turn to make a real contribution in the fight against systemic racism, you’ll be ready.

Artist, storyteller. My childhood in an ultra-conservative cult is a lens on constructs of race and patriarchy in America. Speaking truth to whiteness.

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