How is this even a topic?

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My first, mild exposure to antisemitism was in my teenage years, when an acquaintance used “Jew” as a verb. As I recall, my response was “What?!?”

Even back then my eloquence was, you’ll agree, impressive.

Early in my career, at a table in the company cafeteria, one of my colleagues referred to Blacks as “jungle bunnies.” I forget the context but remember my response … an utterly blank look as I tried to figure out just exactly what to say. I failed, and the moment passed.

I first wrote about bigotry in the workplace seventeen years ago (“The uselessness of race“) in KJR’s predecessor, InfoWorld’s IS Survival Guide. I was shocked when several correspondents wrote to inform me … gently … of my error: Blacks really are, they explained, cognitively inferior to whites.

I’m reading Spymistress: The True Story of the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II (William Stevenson, 2011). I already knew that colonial England had a level of racism baked into its culture — a country could not practice colonialism without it.

But I was shocked at how profound the English aristocracy’s antisemitism was, rivaling that of Germany’s Nazis … so much so that many British leaders openly endorsed the Nazi program.

Two years ago Charlottesville happened, with its disturbing Tonga torchlight parade and brutal murder by a white supremacist of a counter protester.

Who would have thought that two years later, one fatality would be considered an improvement?

Which, skipping a few steps, brings us to the present, where domestic white supremacists have overtaken radicalized foreign and domestic Muslims as our most significant terrorist threat.

I’m no longer naïve enough to be shocked that racism, mysogeny, antisemitism, and other bigotries are alive and well in the United States of America. I am still absorbing the shock that bigots have joined flat-earthers in their utter lack of embarrassment.

In fact, these no-they-aren’t-just-as-fine folks don’t seem to realize that thinking Blacks and Hispanics are inferior; that Jews belong to a secret cabal plotting to run the world; that women in positions of authority are emasculating … they don’t realize their views are, in fact, outrageously bigoted and have no place here.

What can we do to combat this repulsive trend?

As an individual, if you’re adept at social media, you might consider trolling the most prominent alt-right sites. An adept hacker might plant humiliating content there, too (I’m not advocating this, merely pointing out the possibility).

But as individuals our most important role is to make clear to anyone we hear espousing any form of bigotry that they’re embarrassing themselves and should be embarrassed.

Following this, in a closely run second place, is to echo, wherever and whenever it might be appropriate, Isaac Asimov’s conclusion that “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

Bigots who aren’t violent and don’t incite violence aren’t dangerous. They’re merely annoying.

No, it isn’t particularly profound to observe that we need culture change, and that peer pressure is important in making it happen, but I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of profound to offer on this subject.

Anyway, I write KJR for managers and for those who have to deal with managers. So as a manager, what role you have to play in all of this?

The starting point is recognizing that you do have a role to play. You have a legal responsibility to provide a workplace that’s free from harassment and intimidation. If you observe an employee speaking and acting in a bigoted way, it isn’t okay to ignore it unless and until someone complains.

And a thought for IT: It isn’t just websites featuring erotica that you should block access to. If visits to erotic sites have no business purpose, neither do visits to sites that promote hate and violence.

As a teenager I read The Autobiography of Malcom X. The book as a whole vividly introduced me to the Black American experience. But what stuck in my mind more than anything else was Malcom X’s account of how he met his wife: He explained that really, she was the one in control of it all.

By modern standards this was a mildly sexist account of things. What struck me then was that, in this one respect at least, Malcolm X was just a guy.

In 2010, I attended Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. There, on the national mall, I saw a smiling, relaxed, friendly-looking Pakistani family sitting on lawn chairs, holding a sign that read, “We’re the people you’re supposed to be afraid of.”

Believe me … these aren’t the people you should be afraid of.

Comments (23)

  • Actually, bigots are dangerous, even if they do not overtly promote violence. Thank you for your thoughts. More people with a platform should do the same.

  • I came here to repeat Doug Bletcher’s observation that even non-violent bigots are dangerous. They are certainly far far worse than merely “annoying”. For one, all the endless insults delivered by bigots, starting with the current endlessly offensive Bigot-in-Chief, enable the violent ones (although I suppose you can argue that he does explicitly promote violence, so he is already dangerous by that standard).

    But the reason as a manager you cannot tolerate bigotry in the workplace is the danger they create in the continuing oppression of the targets of their bigotry. That oppression has wide-ranging, very dangerous effects – economic, social, and physical. I could write a whole treatise here – many people have.

    Imagine going through life always fearful of being the target of random insults, from strangers and acquaintances alike. And if you react in anyway you are inviting even worse, including then being blamed for your “victimhood”, or making accusations against “innocent, harmless people” who were just “making a joke” or “exercising free speech”. When you’ve lived with that daily all your life, welcome to life as a woman, a minority, an LGBTQ+ person, anyone alter-abled, etc.

    Bigotry is exceedingly dangerous. The on-going prejudices in society is what has led to the current environment of divisiveness exploited by demagogues and others in power, to encourage people to blame “the Other” (migrants, “uppity” minorities, “family-threatening” LBGTQ+, women who don’t “know their place”, etc.) instead of facing the real roots of the problems we have – economic, social, physical, etc.

    It’s far too easy to turn your merely “annoying” bigotry into something fatal. You don’t need the whole population to be violent – a fairly small number of violent ones with everyone else turning a blind eye will do it.

    Germany’s economic woes between the two world wars weren’t caused by the Jews, but the existing, non-violent antisemiticism was exploited by Hitler and others to gain power, and Jews paid the price. In the US during WWII, Japanese-Americans were interned in camps. This was perhaps less violent than the Holocaust, although as they were forcibly removed from homes and lost their property it was still an act of state violence. And it was enabled by the no, not really merely “annoying” bigotry prevalent in society.

    • I’m not arguing that non-violent bigots can be immensely hurtful. I will say that bigoted speech that doesn’t incite violence should be protected speech no matter how abhorrent either of us feels about it.

      Yes, “annoying” understates the impact. I prefer to avoid giving bigots the satisfaction of thinking they’re doing anything more than annoying me.

      • That’s lovely, that you personally are so little impacted by bigotry that you can rate it as merely “annoying”. You might also consider that regarding bigots as only “annoying” is what allows them to continue actively shaping society and cultural norms.

        Rampant sexism is what allows men like Kavanaugh to not only get away with what they do, but for them (and all the other bigoted others) to not even recognize that their assault on women is an actual crime. That the impact of the assault wasn’t a life-long trauma, but merely “annoying” – at most. Or completely false, made up.

        You might answer that assault falls under the violence and violence-inciting dangerous criteria. My argument is that all the non-violent, “protected speech” aspects of sexism prevent people from understanding that they are actually assaulting women.

        I’d like you to read this article, about a current area of bigotry that is widely accepted and practiced, and then tell me that non-violent bigotry isn’t dangerous: https://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/everything-you-know-about-obesity-is-wrong/ (to understand more why the medical bias against fat people has been actively dangerous (although entirely protected speech), read this: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/08/inflammations-immune-system-obesity-microbiome/595384/)

        In the arena of parenting and childhood trauma, we’ve learned that emotional abuse is as dangerous to children as physical abuse. Everything said by an emotional abuser may be “protected speech”, but that doesn’t make it less dangerous.

        In the domestic violence circles, emotional and economic abuse have also long been noted as equally hazardous as physical. Words and actions don’t have to be a prosecutable crime to be dangerous.

        Non-violent bigotry is emotional and economic abuse. Even you acknowledge that it is immensely hurtful. I’m not sure where you draw the line between something that is dangerous and something that is immensely hurtful. Something that hurtful is dangerous – for the individual and for society.

        Diminishing the harm caused by bigotry won’t reduce it. Minimizing the danger allows bigotry to flourish. It allows people to continue to blame the victims; to ignore and dismiss what is said and advocated by people who are immensely hurt by bigotry.

        Your article isn’t about what should or should not be protected speech. It’s about bigotry and the danger it poses, in general and specifically in the workplace. Don’t minimize the danger of bigotry in all its forms.

      • Most of us find ourselves on the receiving end of some form of bigoted speech from time to time. And while I don’t want to minimize the impact, either individually or socially, I do think we often have a choice as to whether we feel victimized by it … at which point the bigot wins … or whether we find a different way to deal with it.

        So I see two aspects to this: Doing what we can to reduce the incidence of bigotry in all its forms, and being tough enough to withstand non-violent bigotry so it affects us less.

      • Great article Bob. However (you knew there was a ‘however’ coming, right?) there is one thing you say, that I would like to put into a different perspective: “I will say that bigoted speech that doesn’t incite violence should be protected speech no matter how abhorrent either of us feels about it.”

        I hear this kind of statement a lot and I agree that freedom of speech is an important constitutional right. But there are other important constitutional rights, like equal treatment and not being discriminated. I would argue that when speech denies equal treatment and promotes discrimination, it in fact denies these constitutional rights and thereby forfeits the freedom of speech protection.

        In the US, freedom of speech is the first amendment and the first anti-discrimination amendment is number fifteen. This may explain why freedom of speech is so highly regarded (in the US). In the Netherlands, the first article of the constitution is about equal treatment; freedom of speech is number seven. Like I said, it’s a different perspective.

      • I guess we’re going to have to disagree about this. Once we give government a role in regulating speech that doesn’t reach the threshold of incitement because we disagree with it and find it distasteful, we invite it to control many other forms of political messaging.

        The current administration isn’t the only one in my memory that I’d hesitate to grant that level of authority to.

  • Bravo, Bob! Racism needs to be treated like the stupidity it is.

  • I always though I was a simple soul, missing some piece of mental machinery, because I couldn’t understand the urge to hate I saw in some acquaintances and colleagues.

    I don’t like to pass judgement on other people, because I found whenever I attempted to I missed something important and my conclusion turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

    These days I note intolerance as a red flag, and significantly discount the advice or decisions of anyone who repeatedly raises red flags, in any context.

    I can understand the principle that anger very often masks fear, and so I go to great trouble to confront my fears and control them rather than act them out.

    I perceive that many of the fears I deal with as an adult (my own and others’) are attached to a male culture that cannot resist shaming others to mark out the boundaries of a social group, with the result that almost everyone carries some burden of shame and fear.

    I mention each of these issues as markers of a dysfunctional work environment, patterns I have to be constantly attuned to and try to heal before they become entrenched in my teams.

    It’s interesting that we have no education process and no institutions promoting the better human development that might eliminate these issues. So we do what we’ve always done, and get what we’ve always gotten 🙁

    We optimists have so much room to move these days 🙂

  • Yes, Bravo on a great piece.


  • Thank You.

  • Good attempt at a very large and important subject. From an IT management perspective, in addition to the legal requirement to maintain a safe environment,

    1. Talk about one’s group prejudices is like talk about one’s sexual activities or wants – never appropriate for the work place, even during lunch.

    2. The organization should state as policy, that anyone who shows through their speech, as well as through their actions, that they choose to not set aside his or her group prejudices before first getting the facts when interacting with others in the organization, will be evaluated negatively, when it comes to promotions or even pay raises.

    As an employee, you can say what you want, but the data shows that hate-speech, implicit or explicit, hurts the morale, and thus, the productivity of any department or organization. You shouldn’t be surprised when you are held accountable for these tangible consequences by the organization.

    In any society or organization, we draw our personal permission to act based on the actions, as well as the consent, of our authority figures. Our Swindler-in-Chief is using a hypnosis technique known as “leading and pacing”. It’s important for a manager to let his staff that no “politician” has the cultural authority in the workplace to reset standards.

  • Apparently the Michael Brown story in Ferguson wasn’t as innocent as originally portrayed… But how many times do you think he was belittled and treated poorly before this incident? Bigotry in all forms is insidious and wrong.

  • The current outbreak of bigotry is, in part, due to the Internet’s ability to make bigots (and while we are there, conspiracy theorists) feel they are part of an interactive support group, not just people on the USPS end of fragrantly incendiary mimeographed newsletters.

    So the same dynamic applies in the workplace: If you allow bigoted remarks to stand, you have also given a pass to the silent reactions of those who agree with the speaker. The time for correction is not in a private performance review meeting, it is right there in the moment when it will truly count.

  • Thank you for speaking out on this topic. I like this statement: “But as individuals our most important role is to make clear to anyone we hear espousing any form of bigotry that they’re embarrassing themselves and should be embarrassed.”

    I have been active in public forums in standing against ignorance and racism, but when “Uncle Fred” makes a comment at a family gathering I just mutter to myself that “Well, you can’t change old Uncle Fred”. I know now that I have to call out the statements then and there. Maybe Uncle Fred won’t change. Hopefully others will have their moments of clarity and acknowledge that we cannot allow these statements to go unchallenged.

  • Thank you for posting this.

    Being raised in the Detroit metro area, I grew up in a multi-ethnic society. I felt like America had moved past many of these issues until we moved to Alabama. There seems to be more open bigotry than what we encountered around Detroit. Having said that, since we moved, some people we have known for years in the Detroit area have become more paranoid about people from different races and religions and origins.

    Anyway thank you for calling attention to this.

  • Bigotry displays itself in many ways and it can be destructive in a business.
    Smart people are repelled by bullying so you end up with folks who go along to get along. That isn’t a recipe for prospering.

    One of the ways bigotry hides shows itself in the founding of Israel. After WWII, Europeans still wanted the Jews out of Europe so they paid for them to move elsewhere. Many groups wanted a homeland, especially the Gypsies, but only one group got a new nation–the group most hated by the most people.

    imo, the founding of Israel is presented as a compassionate act by Europe when in fact it was an expulsion of Jews from Europe. But only bigots would do something like that.

  • A term worth knowing: “stochastic terrorism

  • I was born in 1933 of Polish Jews that fled to Canada when the Nazis invaded Poland.

    Antisemitism was taken for granted. Its been there since the start of the diaspora.
    ‘ As long as they don’t kill us, we can manage’ was the mantra.

    When I started applying for jobs, the question ‘Religion ______’ was still on employment applications.. After being told by a personnel recruiter “we don’t hire your people”, I switched to writing ‘Protestant’ on applications.

    When I worked for a division of a multi-national company, my supervisor applied to the director of Personnel for a raise for me, on the basis that I was earning 10% less than the lowest paid of my direct reports (I am female the reports were male).
    His reply was “that’s what happens when you hire a dame”

    When the law came out that it was illegal to ask religion on application forms. The same
    Personnel Manager said ” I don’t care about that, I can tell if he’s a Jew and not just by the name”. This has a happy ending. The manager had a lovely daughter that he adored. She eloped with a Jew.

    What causes Bigotry ?
    Even in a mostly homogeneous society, if there is some small group that manifests even minor differences, they will suffer some form of discrimination.
    I suspect it results from the evolution. Competition for resources. The other clan is depleting our prey. The winners proliferate.
    Competition, fighting is programmed into our sub-conscience.
    I can’t think of a solution.

  • Thanks Bob. This needs to be said and repeated.

  • While I usually avoid speaking twice on the same article, Sara Wasserman’s posts lead me to consider another aspect interrupting hate speech and prejudice for a manager: training and practice of interruption techniques.

    I grew up in mostly tough, black ghetto neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. EVERYBODY had to learn some verbal self-defense skills as a sub-cultural norm. It never hurt my academic skills, but it did give me confidence that, if push came to shove, I could handle a racism situation at the predominantly white college I attended. You never know when you will need it, as Sen. Kamala Harris recently showed with former VP, Joe Biden.

    But, it is nothing you are born with. One needs training and regular practice to reach a competent level of self-defense and have that be supported in their culture. While I’m sure nobody signed up for the level of prejudice in the workplace we now see, I think organizations now have to provide training and practice in these areas for all their managers, (and maybe for employees, too).

    Sometimes effective interruption is simply a matter of providing the facts (which you may not have on hand, when action is most called for). But there are other toxic speech tactics that really do require training and practice, especially by managers, to interrupt prejudice speech in order to prevent unwanted fights or departures.

  • Thanks Bob. Yes this is a topic even though it’s mind-boggling that it needs to be – on the surface at least. Deeper down bigotry is about fear. Unfortunately we seem as a species all too easily manipulated this way by those who don’t want us paying attention to what they are really up to.

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