Working While Black: When Your Colleagues Offer Backhanded Racist Compliments

April 8, 2020  |  

I just feel that we need a backup plan too...

Source: Delmaine Donson / Getty

If you have a job and you work closely with white and non-Black people of color, there’s a good chance that one of your co-workers has slipped up and accidentally exposed their racist views of Black people by way of a backhanded compliment. Like the time Michael Bloomberg said that New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was “well-spoken.”

“Cory Booker endorsed me a number of times, and I endorsed Cory Booker a number of times,” Bloomberg told Gayle King on “CBS This Morning“. “He’s very well-spoken; he’s got some very good ideas. It would be better the more diverse any group is, but the public is out there picking and choosing and narrowing down this field.”

Booker wasn’t shy in his rebuttal, pointing out that Bloomberg was guilty of playing into a “tired” stereotype about Black people.

“It’s sort of stunning at times that we are still revisiting these sort of tired, you know, tropes or the language we have out there that folks I don’t think understand. And the fact that they don’t understand is problematic,” Booker said during an interview with Signal Boost on Sirius XM.

These types of compliments are not restricted to any particular field. We all have or will have this experience at some point or another.

“I’m often mistaken for the janitor at my hospital. They see me and they’re instantly like, ‘Oh, are you here to turn the room?'” Kota, a nurse anesthetist, told MadameNoire. “There’s nothing wrong with being a janitor, but I know it’s an assumption that is made based on the color of my skin.”

In Kota’s case, it’s not the mistake that gets to her the most, but the comment sometimes that follows.

“When they find out what I do, they’re like, ‘Oh, your mother must be so proud,'” she said. “It sucks because I know they wouldn’t say that to a white person. Nor would they assume that they were something else.”

So how should we handle these situations? Well first and foremost, it’s important that these gestures are more rooted in cultural incompetence than malicious intent.

“Backhand compliments typically come from good intentions but also reflect poor cultural awareness,” diversity and inclusion strategist Randi Bryant told MadameNoire. ‘When people make backhand compliments, they are making them from a place of ignorance but not malice.”

In these instances, Bryant, who authored Neversays: 25 Phrases You Should Never Say to Keep Your Job and Friends, recommends educating your colleagues instead of simply letting it slide.

“When someone backhand-compliments you, it’s best to educate them,” said Bryant. “For instance, if someone says that ‘your family must be so proud,’ you can respond by saying something akin to, “Yes, my entire family is proud of me, as I am of them. We come from a long line of achievers. I am sure that your family is proud of you, as well.’”

What are some backhanded compliments you’ve received at work? How did you respond?

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