Confronting Casual Racism: Interview Fail

“We have a no-tolerance policy for addressing racial slurs and racial jokes. You notice a colleague consistently not addressing racial jokes made in his presence. How would you respond?”

I was asked the above in a job interview yesterday. Regardless of its poor wording, I was happy to hear the question because I thought it’d be a great opportunity to show that I’m interested in and passionate about the subject. Welp.

My response was something like “I would tell them that ignoring instances of racism is what is causing racism to continue; I think the reason people think racism doesn’t exist in our society is exactly because it’s so seldom confronted and talked about. I’d give them an example of how addressing these things doesn’t have to be tense or difficult.” And if the person continued anyway? “Hmmm … [twenty second pause]… well, that’s difficult. It would be a different decision every time it arose… but I guess no tolerance means no tolerance, so I would go to someone who I thought was better at communicating to the person than I am, and ask them to have a conversation with them.”

Alas, we always tend to concoct much better answers on the way home from the interview. This is not a difficult question, and I wish I hadn’t paused for so long. I gave the impression that the only reason I brought the situation to someone else’s attention was because rules are rules, and no tolerance is no tolerance. Puke. It would not be a different decision every time it arose–the facts are simple. The colleague is working with children, and not addressing overt racial slurs or jokes should be absolutely unthinkable. I should have responded similar to how I would if the question involved a colleague revealing themselves inappropriately or something.

My revised answer (if you’re out there, Charlene, please pretend this is what I said):

“I would remind them that they are in charge of children, children who are in the process of forming their identities. Jokes and slurs like these affect the identity development of white students and non-white students alike–by ignoring them, you are sending a very clear message about what is acceptable. You are telling your students whether they are the joke-makers or those to whom jokes are aimed. What you address and don’t, who you stick up for and who you don’t, is sending a clear message.” And if the person continued anyway? “I wouldn’t stop confronting them about it. I wouldn’t give up on that person’s ability to act like a decent human being, or on the kids’ right to have a safe environment. If what I said had no effect, I would immediately go to their supervisor and advise them that the person needs to change their behavior or not work with children.”


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