Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),
I am a white man who is a low-rung-on-the-ladder employee at a small technology company that is a vendor for several moderately sized banking companies. When on conference calls our clients, I often hear their clients making oppressive comments. My boss (and owner of the company) is a woman of color who says she has not experienced discrimination while working, so I’m not relying on her for advice or backup. Do you have any advice for when one is exposed to oppressive speech during conference calls between employees at our client?
—Silence on the Other End of the Line
This is a really tough situation! It shows that having privilege isn’t enough when the balance of power is not in your favor. You lack power in two ways: one, you are low in the hierarchy at your company, and two, your clients are much larger and more powerful than the company you work for. You don’t say so explicitly, but I’m guessing that your clients could switch to another vendor without too much trouble. You also don’t expect any support from your boss/company owner.
You’re not completely out of options, though. What I’m going to recommend is polite incomprehension: whenever someone says something oppressive, pretend that you don’t understand. This can look like:
- Not understanding the actual words
- Not getting the joke
- Not filling in the implication for them
- Acting like they had a slip of the tongue and meant something else
Here are some examples of phrases you can use:
- “Sorry, my sound dropped out for a second there, but the gist of what you are saying is [repeat without the oppressive comment], right?”
- “I’m a little confused, but what I think you are saying is [topic minus the oppressive comment].”
- “I’m afraid I don’t get the joke. Moving on…”
- “I think I’ve lost the thread of the conversation. What about [topic]?”
- “I didn’t quite catch that, but what I understood was [topic] and here’s my thoughts…”
- [Slightly too long of a silence after someone makes an oppressive comment and then asks you to speak] “… So, back to what we were talking about…”
How conversational road bumps work
What you’re doing is training people not to make oppressive comments by creating a tiny little annoying road bump in the conversation whenever they do it. You’re making it look accidental and not under your control, so clearly everyone around you needs to adapt to your inability to understand racist jokes, sexual innuendo, or what-not if they don’t want to have Captain Oblivious constantly interrupting their jokey good times. You’re making it awkward! You’re breaking up the conversational flow! You’re a killjoy!
This is hard because most of us spend a lifetime learning how to make conversation, to laugh politely even when the joke isn’t funny, to fill in awkward silences and cover up other people’s gaffes. Deliberately introducing even a slight hitch into the conversational flow feels scary and frightening, especially when you’re in a position of relatively low power. Your privilege will give you an advantage here: it’s harder to accuse a white man of being “humorless” or “uptight” or “oversensitive” for not laughing along with racist or sexist jokes. You may have other privileges that make it easier to push back on other kinds of oppressive speech.
The Beachball of Awkward
Many people feel bad about making other people uncomfortable in this situation by not laughing along or glossing over the oppressive speech. I like to use the “Beachball of Awkward” analogy, inspired by Captain Awkward’s advice for dealing with rude people by making it awkward for the rude person. When someone makes an inappropriate comment that makes you feel uncomfortable, they are tossing the Beachball of Awkward into the conversation and expecting someone else to catch it and deal with the awkward. Instead, if you follow Captain Awkward’s advice to make it awkward for them, you are catching the Beachball of Awkward and then tossing it back at the person who threw it at you.
In this situation, you can’t quite toss the Beachball of Awkward right back to the person who threw it by calling out the inappropriateness of their comment directly. But you can duck and let the beachball hit the ground and roll away, and then act like you’re just bad at sports. The point is, you didn’t send the Beachball of Awkward into the conversation in the first place—they did. You’re just refusing to smooth over the awkwardness they created.
Being willing to tolerate feelings of discomfort or awkwardness is an important ally skill that will also come in handy when advocating for yourself. For example, being able to tolerate a few seconds of uncomfortable silence can make you thousands of dollars when you are negotiating compensation at a new job. One way to practice doing uncomfortable things like letting silence go on a little too long or not laughing at jokes is to find a willing friend or colleague to role-play with you. Put together a script of innocuous or meaningless jokes or comments to practice with; you don’t have to say actual oppressive statements to practice this skill. If you know you have a situation coming up where you’ll need to do uncomfortable things, give yourself an opportunity to practice with a friend and you’ll find the actual situation much easier.
Do you have a question about ally skills? Ask Dear Ally today!
Featured image CC BY Jean-Pierre Dalbéra https://flic.kr/p/9ZpLSG