#13: Can I do anything about my rude, sexist, racist boss?

A red surveyor's flag with the word "power" written on it

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I am a white, university-educated woman and I recently started a new job based in Europe.

The issue is my boss, who is a rude, sexist, racist white man. He is much older than me and is viewed in our industry as a merely strong-headed, kinda grumpy guy who achieved a lot of things.

I could live with the rudeness and the micromanagement or even the not-so-subtle sexism but I can’t stand the racism. This week he said that a white man was acting like an “n-word” (he used the actual word, obviously). !!! I was so shocked. We were alone and I just went silent and couldn’t think of anything so do or say! I got up and said I was going to take a break, and when I got back I couldn’t say anything about it. I know I was visibly angry but I couldn’t say anything. He hasn’t make any such comments since that incident, but I keep thinking about it. I am still on my trial period so am fireable without notice. I don’t know what to do. Can you please help me? What can I do?

—Can’t Quit Yet

I really feel for you, and for everyone who is under the power of this awful rude, sexist, racist boss! I picked your letter to respond to because it illustrates a common question I get: “How do I act as an ally (when I’m not actually in a position to act as an ally)?”

It’s true that you are a white person in Europe, and that your boss is engaging in anti-Black racism. But when you look at the whole picture, you aren’t in a position to act as an ally, because your boss has a lot of power over you. You need a job, and he controls whether you have that job. Even after your trial period is over, he can make your job miserable for you and, presumably, fire you with notice. In addition to the power he holds over your working environment, he is also older than you, he is a man and you’re a woman, and he is well-respected in your industry.

I can’t give you any advice on how to act as an ally because you aren’t in a position to act as an ally. If you were his boss, sure, yes, I’d have plenty of things to say! And you would not be writing to me because you would already have handled this. You’re writing to me because you feel like you should be doing something in this situation, and you feel guilty for “only” getting visibly angry and leaving the room. Let me say: this is a great reaction! This is very brave for someone who can be fired without notice! Your reaction may be why he hasn’t repeated the racist slur in front of you—yet. Here’s some more suggestions for subtle ways to push back when you’re not in a position of power.

What you can do

In this case, you have almost no power to change your boss’s behavior. I’m going to suggest that instead you focus on your own values and behavior, figure out what you do control, and make a plan going forward. Some things you might consider doing:

  • Set up a monthly donation to an anti-racist organization
  • Continue to be silent and leave the room when he makes racist comments
  • Keep detailed written notes about incidents like these (not on work-owned devices or systems)
  • Ask your boss not to use racist slurs in your presence (and accept the consequences)
  • Tell other people in your industry about this incident
  • Tell carefully selected coworkers about this incident
  • Post a review on Glassdoor or an anonymous workplace community app (if you trust it)
  • Look at the governance of your company and see if anyone has power over your boss
  • Start looking for another job
  • Decide you are okay with being fired and be honest about how you feel with your boss
  • Have a free initial consultation with an employment lawyer

I can’t tell you whether you should do any of these things because I don’t know the details of your situation. Professor Joan C. Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work, has more tips in this article on weighing the costs and benefits of speaking up about oppressive comments in the workplace. Please take the time to decide for yourself what is worth the risk for you, and what is not.

To be clear, the strongest source of power you have in this situation is the option to stop giving your labor to your racist boss. Anything you can do to improve your ability to do that (looking for new jobs, improving your skills, networking with other people in this industry, etc.) will increase your power.

Stay strong in your values

It may be that the best way to live up to your values is to continue working for a boss who uses racist slurs, while understanding that you are benefiting from systemic racism by having and exercising this option without being the direct target of racism yourself. That’s okay; what’s important is that you stop carrying the emotional weight of his actions (using racist slurs) and only carry the weight of your actions (compromising on your value of anti-racism because you need this job to live up to your other values, such as caring for your children or having a home to live in). We all live in an intersecting network of systems of oppression and each of us makes our own compromises. All we can do is be clear about what compromises we are making and what effect they have on the world.

My point is, in a situation like this, it is natural to be focused on your boss, and how you can get him to change his behavior. I’m suggesting that, because you have little power over your boss, you instead focus on yourself and what you control: your behavior and actions. Don’t feel responsible for his actions and beliefs and get clear with yourself about what your values are and how you want to act.

Whatever you do, please don’t back down on your value of anti-racism. Sometimes we deal with being forced to act against our values by changing our values. I’d much rather that you kept your values the same and continued to experience the cognitive dissonance of working for someone who is openly racist. Keep your value of anti-racism, and keep looking for ways to live more in concert with your values—you will find them!

A stick figure with two overlapping heads, each showing a different face
CC BY-SA Buster Benson https://flic.kr/p/R9ir2h

Ally skill: Be aware of your power and privilege

We can only act as allies when we are in a position of power or privilege in this situation. By becoming more aware of our own power and privilege, we both know when we can’t act as an ally, and notice more often when can act as an ally. You may have one element of power or privilege that seems relevant, such as being a particular race or gender, but if you look at the full picture of all the different systems of power and oppression, you might find that you aren’t in a position of power or privilege relative to the other people in a given situation. I recommend using my privilege and power identification exercise to identify both your own and other people’s power and privilege in a given situation.

Note that people often gain privilege and power as they grow older but may not internalize that change. People spend years thinking, “Well, I’m just an individual contributor,” or “I don’t have much money,” or “Nobody knows who I am.” Then when they become CEO, or gain a lot of wealth, or become influential and well-known, they continue to unconsciously act as though they did not have this power or privilege. Being thoughtful and conscious about your power and privilege can help you recognize when you can act as an ally more often.

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