Racism ?

Intersted in your reaction here folks - say your organisation had a staff panto each year and this year a (white) member of staff had decided to black himself up, put on a 'frizzy' wig and deliver a 5 minute speech about the lack of black people in the organisation in a sing song voice that sounded very much like a black plantation slave....what would your reaction be ?
  • My first reaction would be that it was a very dull panto.

    Is it racism?

    O no it isn't.....

    Its someone making a clear statement about your approach to diversity using satire

    O yes it is....

    It was imappropriate and this sort of thing went out with the black and white minstrels one hoped

    O no it isn't.....

    The intent I guess was not racist

    O yes it is

    But the reality was that it was crass and insensitive and showed a lack of cultural awareness

    What was the reaction at the time of the audience and the cast? Were they shocked, amused, bored? The reason for asking is I think their reaction will probably tell you far more about if you have a racism problem at work than this one skit.

    What would I do about the employee? Probably get him to a diversity workshop alongside many of his colleagues.

  • Hi Ian, I do recall a thread on a similar vein where in one workplace some employees did an impression of the Jackson 5. Which went down badly with one individual  Might be worth a quick search ....  Your example sounds a tad beyond good taste to me.  
  • Hi Ian,

    Fully agree with Keith's amusing style of reply and his suggestion.  It sounds like it was a good point made in a rather bad way. 


  • In reply to Keith:

    The Jackson 5 ? Ye gods, the mind boggles ! I'll have a search though....

    I wasn't there at the time but have been told the audience were largely open-mouthed in amazement that anyone would do such a thing, and largely silent though there were one or two sniggers here and there. A few people had their heads in their hands, though no-one tried to stop it.

    The intent absolutely wasn't racist - the individual in question didn't intend to offend people, though you do wonder exactly what he was intending to be honest. We're going to have to take some kind of action against him if only to demonstrate that we don't condone the action in any way - and we still run a big risk of it leaking out into the media at the moment.

  • Hi Ian

     Of course you, as employer, have a certain responsibility: and  in the circumstances, at the very least it might call for a stern informal chat about stereotyping people and making them objects of fun, based on such stereotypes - pointing out how offensive such behaviour could be to people of that race and that you as employer cannot allow it or condone it. 

    A good opportunity, though to explore practical ways of promoting equality and diversity and making a change to those numbers! 

  • The Black and White minstrals were not racist though.  Were they?
  • To loosely quote LP Hartley

    ' The past was another country: they did things differently there'

  • Hi Ian.  My reaction to this would be to send the individual on a diversity training course and to make sure that people knew he was attending.  I would then have him teach others what he learnt on the course.  I think your workforce need to know that this sort of mistake is not reacted to emotionally but is dealt with via re-education of the individual.  Can he not see that maybe the reason the workforce is not yet diverse enough is that some of the existing workforce think it is funny to impersonate someone in this way?  I bet next year he tries dressing up as a 'sexy' female worker to try and make a point about employing more women?  Would he perform a skit in a wheelchair maybe?  To reiterate - I would show your existing workforce that you recognise the mistake and are taking steps to not let it happen again!

  • I am sure a diversity workshop would tick a box but it feels like distancing the responsibility.  Why not invite this person and a group of colleagues to discuss this incidenetand explore the intent, impact etc. Invite a an expert in diversity and inclusion to facilitate and exploore unconscious bias, stereo typing, and what is really being said and not said about your organisation.

    I'm not sure "taking action" furthers the cause in a case like this.  Making the diversity learning real for the organisation would help and mitigate any reputational risk to a leakage.

    I have to to say, describing African Caribbean hair as "frizzy"  could be viewed as another country as David says.  Why not say it as it is?

  • In reply to Megan Peppin:

    Sally, sending someone on a re-education programme for an incident like this sounds like something I've read about being done to americans during the Vietnam era.

    The OP stated this was at a panto.  The last panto I saw had a woman, dressed up as a man.  Or was it the other way around.  It also had a rather camp man in too, and he was dressed up as a woman.  Several of the slaves appeared to be people from my village dressed up as black africans and micking terrible african accents heavily, influenced by their yorkshire accents.  There were lots of sexist and  racist jokes, including the odd relgious one too.  It didn't seem to upset the vicar who I think was playing the lead slave driver. 


    I think David Walliams played opposite someone who impersonated a disabled person in Little Britain.  I'm not sure it was, or is banned.  Perhaps the BBC needs informing that this crude attempt to make fun of disabled people in wheel chairs is the reason why there is no diversity in the BBC????

     I know there are a lot of nuts around at christmas but we don't employ sledgehammers to crack one do we? 

    A quiet word is all thats needed.  And next year, no pantos! 

  • Sorry David but I disagree.   I don't think sending someone on a diversity course is a 'sledgehammer' - the people watching this guys performance stayed mainly silent which indicates that they didn't find it funny and were uncomfortable about it - so in my humble opinion the incident needs talking about and dealing with publicly so that everyone knows it is not being ignored.  If it is not dealt with now in the proper way then it is exactly the sort of thing that will come back and bite the organisation later down the line if someone is passed over for promotion or selected for redundancy....forget the genuine reasons.....
  • A colleague of mine once was despatched to the USA to discuss a very big contract bid with the potential clients.

    This all went swimmingly, until, at 'question time' he answered one question with a figure of speech which may have been normal in his own UK environment but which was totally unacceptable there, in that very ethnically-diverse setting. He was absolutely mortified: he won't ever do it again, and was not formally disciplined for there was no real point - it was a big time  error of judgement, that's all, and he's sure learned by his mistake.

    Sending him on a diversity course was hardly the answer, either.
  • In reply to David:

    ...but this was not a slip of the tongue, something said without thinking at question time.  This guy spent time and effort thinking about how to get his message across to an audience and he chose to get blacked up, wear a frizzy wig and speak in a plantation slave voice.  And he thought it was a good idea to do this.  He thought it would go down well and get his message across.   This is not the same thing and he clearly does not understand diversity or what is likely to offend people.  And he gave it it some thought ! Have I said the word thought enough yet ! :-)

    That is what bothers me so much about this particular incident. 

  • There may have been a lot more 'aforethought' here, Sally, but there was similarly absolutely no 'malice aforethought' it was similarly mistaken and inappropriate, and it might be inappropriate too to treat the culprit like a spider upon  a wheel
  • In reply to David:

    Thanks for your comments folks, all very interesting. We've had the conversation with the individual to let him know the organisation thinks his actions were entirely inappropriate - David makes a good point about our having to distance ourselves from the act, particularly as we had a couple of complaints about it afterwards.

    Interesting suggestion of putting the individual on a diversity course - I'm not sure it would make any difference (the individual is particularly cussed in his trenchant views) but I'm tempted to do it if only to make the point to the person. We're still currently considering formal disciplinary action, and it's interesting to hear the differences in views on this. The one saving grace for me is the guy genuinely didn't mean to cause offence - he thought he was just highlighting something in a a slightly wacky way - though it's interesting that he didn't tell any of the other cast members what he was planning to say. I share Sally's concern as to what he might try to highight next (do we have a shortage of Jewish employees perhaps.....?), and I need him to understand he can't do this kind of thing again under any circumstanes, no matter what point he's trying to make.