Of Damages and Dog Whistles
Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
After four years and a liberal arts degree that didn’t really give me a clear career path, I have been lucky enough to establish a career that requires very little work for quite a bit of pay, and I am generally very happy with where I am. I won’t be too specific about what my job involves, but it’s a public-facing gig for a corporation, and I often have to deal with people making claims for damages.
Ninety-nine percent of the time these are legitimate claims and I pay exactly what the complainants are looking for without incident. Rarely, it’s very clear that the person is doing some kind of fraud, and in these cases we still pay, but just a little less. I have become pretty good at this job and it’s probably one of the only things I can do for the amount of money I make.
The problem is that my coworkers and management have been racially profiling certain claimants when it comes to elements of fraud—specifically the Roma. This is a long-lasting stereotype directed at the Roma, and when talking about them, our management team often refers to them by the common slur “gypsy.” This makes me uncomfortable, is bad for our Roma claimants (obviously), and could open the company up to some pretty significant risk. I do know that there is a company-provided protocol for reporting these issues, but it’s through HR, and in my experience HR departments solely have the company’s interest in mind, and I don’t see them as a valuable resource.
Additionally, a lot of this discrimination is coming from women and people of color, and I feel it may be awkward or out of place for me to call out this behavior.
Is there a way I could approach this issue with a sort of “restorative justice” tactic? Could I helpfully shift this culture from my position without snitching on my coworkers and jeopardizing their jobs?
Dog Whistle Blower
Most shitty behavior on the job isn’t worth reporting. This is one of those times, so don’t risk getting your coworkers fired. Nonetheless, there are things you can do.
Dear Dog Whistle Blower,
First of all, congratulations on signing off with the very best nom de plume I have encountered in my time as an advice columnist. Kudos on an elegant portmanteau.
And as to your question, well done on recognizing the moral conundrum here; sometimes the socially and/or professionally prescribed ethical intervention to call out a wrongdoing would cause more harm to others (and possibly yourself) than is merited by the crime. Regardless of what certain Grey Lady “ethicists” might say, snitching is at times deeply immoral in its punitive implications. There are rare occasions when you are justified in tattling on someone in a way that would endanger that person’s livelihood—say when there is a case of actual abuse or harassment, or if your airline pilot is knocking back Jaeger bombs before he climbs into the cockpit—but most shitty behavior on the job isn’t worth reporting. This is one of those times, so don’t risk getting your coworkers fired. Nonetheless, there are things you can do.
Forget the “restorative justice” stuff altogether—you’re at work and you have no say in how “justice” is dispensed. That kind of thing is only useful to legal scholars and democratic institutions—the former being rare, and the latter possibly mythical. You need to look at what cards you do have.
I am assuming from the phrase “it may be awkward or out of place for me to call out this behavior” that you are white (if I’m wrong, my apologies, but come on, you’re writing to The Baffler advice column). For the most part, white people don’t know what exactly to do when a person of color is being racist, and they assume nothing productive would come out of a frank impromptu discussion about racism with a stranger, especially one who has likely experienced racism. (And for the record, this is often a correct read on the situation.)
But these are your coworkers, and you can address their racism subtly and without scolding them. (Indeed, you should never scold people; it is a rare and likely broken adult human being who responds positively to an upbraiding).
A casual “actually, they prefer to be called ‘Roma,’ and ‘gypsy’ is considered a slur” might be enough to set the tone—you’d be surprised how powerful an understated objection can be. (And actually say “gypsy,” not “the g-word” or some PC euphemism. Talk to these women like they’re adults.) If the discrimination persists, combine your moral objection with an argument appealing to their own professional self-preservation, e.g.,“you have to stop scrutinizing claims from Roma like this; it’s discriminatory and grounds for a lawsuit—you might get caught.” This has the double-utility of acknowledging their wrongdoing while advocating for the welfare of your colleagues. Again, stay casual; avoid scolding and make absolutely sure you don’t sound like you’re threatening them. High and mighty denunciations might make you feel like a righteous anti-racist, but they won’t make your co-workers less racist and they certainly won’t help the Roma. This is about practical moral outcomes, not sanctimony.
I have to add one more thing—be friendly and social with your co-workers both before and after you respond to any racism. This will help you talk to them more frankly and comfortably, and will mitigate any defensive or potentially adversarial response that your comments might otherwise spark. If this is the first thing you’ve ever said to them (or if it’s your last), it will not go over well.
Bringing up this sensitive issue will be awkward, but it is not out of place—indeed, it is essential to making your workplace more civil, and less prone to abusive talk and conduct going forward. You’re in a position to intervene without harming anyone, and your instincts are good.