General Question

JackAdams's avatar

Did my supervisor make a racist remark?

Asked by JackAdams (6515points) September 14th, 2008

Several years ago, I worked for a major telephone company in the midwestern USA.

One day, my supervisor approached me and said, “Please take these papers over to Cindy, at the customer service counter.”

Being new in my position, I asked, “Excuse me, but which one is Cindy?”

Before I tell you my supervisor’s answer, allow me to mention the following facts about Cindy, at that exact moment:

1. Cindy was the only person at the customer service counter, wearing a red dress.

2. Cindy was the only person at the customer service counter, wearing eyeglasses.

3. Cindy was the only person at the customer service counter, who was the tallest.

My supervisor’s response to my question? “She’s the COLORED GIRL.”

WHY was it the least bit “necessary” for my supervisor to say THAT? Couldn’t she have just as easily said, “She’s the one in the red dress.” or, “She’s the only one wearing glasses.” ?

Why did she choose to mention the woman’s race to me, and was my supervisor displaying her racist attitudes, by doing so?

Why do so many people feel that they have to identify someone for others, by using skin color references?

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48 Answers

wildflower's avatar

Maybe she was just making sure you’d know which one she is even if:
– you are color blind (and don’t spot the color of the dress)
– Cindy takes off her glasses
– one of the other girls is wearing particularly high heels that day

JackAdams's avatar

Please re-read my comments in the details section.

None of the scenarios you suggest were evident, at the time her comment was made.

El_Cadejo's avatar

Eh i dont really think thats a big deal. Maybe if he used a different word than “colored” itd be an issue but otherwise eh.

wildflower's avatar

But why is it such a big deal that she went with skin tone? Couldn’t you just as well say that she made a derogatory comment about Cindy’s dress sense if she’d said “She’s the one in that red dress”?

jlm11f's avatar

I don’t think of it as a racist remark. Glasses/clothes are not constant factors. She could wear contacts the next day, and would hopefully not be wearing the same dress either. Now, yes, she was wearing a red dress THAT day, but that doesn’t mean your supervisor noticed or even remembered that detail. Ditto for the glasses. And I am guessing Cindy was sitting at the customer service desk and not standing, so height is not really a factor at all. I have no problem with skin color references, it is, after all just another physical property, like height etc. And this is coming from a colored girl

Bri_L's avatar

I don’t think it was a racist remark. It is an identifying characteristic with nothing attached to it.

JackAdams's avatar

If I had been the supervisor, and had been asked to tell which one was Cindy, I would have replied, “Just ask for her by name, and you will be directed to her.”

I think the comment was blatantly racist.

wildflower's avatar

I think taking that remark as racist is blatantly PC overload….

Mr_M's avatar

I agree with PnL. Have a colleague come into your office and turn around. Ask the colleague what color tie you’re wearing. They probably won’t know. I wouldn’t know. Clothing and accessories mean nothing to some people (to MANY people, actually) but physical characteristics do.

What if the black girl was short, fat and in a wheelchair? Had any of those characteristics been used to identify her, we could be having the same sort of discussion – for no real reason.

JackAdams's avatar

@wildflower: When all you have to identify a person by, is the color of their skin, then it appears to me that maybe you have a very narrow view of looking at another human being.

I certainly notice a person’s skin color, of course, but my first comment to someone, when describing Whitney Houston, for example, would be something like, “She’s incredibly beautiful,” rather than, “She’s black,” because her suntan has nothing at all to do with the fact that she’s gorgeous, and that she can sing up a storm!

jlm11f's avatar

I don’t understand why someone’s skin color is a derogatory or bad thing. It’s a PART of who they are. By saying that calling someone “black” or “white” is insulting and not PC, I am of the the opinion that the people that think that referring to someone by their color is bad are the people that are actually insulting that person. Because it means you think that them being black, white, brown or whatever is a bad thing as opposed to something being part of their genes and part of who they are. It reflects the opinion that deep inside, you feel there is something wrong about them being that particular color but you don’t want to say it out loud so as not to look un-PC. Kind of like if you see someone with a big nose (think Penelope), but you don’t actually say it out loud because you think that it’s rude and that person will get offended. In comparison, I don’t think someone being a different color than you is something bad and so by not saying it out loud, you are acting as if it’s a bad trait and should be avoided.

Note: when i say “you”, i mean anyone who does that, not really you.

PupnTaco's avatar

Colored?!? In the 21st century?

I’d ask what color she had been colored. Just to clarify.

wildflower's avatar

So, let me get this straight, you asked your supervisor to list out all the characteristics she could think of to describe Cindy, and she was only able to tell you her skin color?

If that’s not the case, it’s a bit presumptuous of you to say that’s all she could describe her as.

I still don’t get why it’s such a big deal – it’s part of who the girl is, so why can you not mention it?

JackAdams's avatar

Color designation/description isn’t employed, when the person being described is Caucasian.

I’ve seen this done numerous times, and when someone is being described, if the person is white, their race isn’t mentioned, almost like it doesn’t matter, and that’s my point: Race doesn’t matter, and should not matter.

When people mention baseball legend Mickey Mantle, they don’t say that he was one of the greatest white baseball players whoever lived; they just mention that he was a terrific baseball player, period.

But, mention the name Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, and someone, somewhere or somehow, has to inject color into the conversation, even going so far as to utter that idiotic expression, “He is a credit to his race,” implying that nobody else, is.

wildflower's avatar

Something tells me you’ve spent more time worrying about this than your supervisor or Cindy – so if anyone’s making it a racial matter, it’s you – not your supervisor.

JackAdams's avatar

I’m not making it a “racial matter.”

This question was posted to ask The Collective if my supervisor (at that time and under the circumstances described) made what some have believed to be a remark that might have been motivated by racist attitudes, instead of an innocent remark made in passing, that had absolutely no racist overtones to it, whatsoever.

wildflower's avatar

Pointing a person out by their skin color is no more inappropriate than pointing them out by their hair color or style – and to Mr_M’s point, blokes tend to not notice hairstyles, clothes and accessories. Maybe your supervisor was aware of this and figured you might not pay attention to Cindy’s clothes, hair, etc. but you would notice the color of her skin…

JackAdams's avatar

That’s an excellent point, but I would have also noticed the only woman in a red dress behind the customer service counter.

syz's avatar

I don’t think it’s a racist comment. I think it’s an out-of-touch with current PC terminology comment.

It’s not racist to acknowledge someones’ race. (Consider the running joke that Stephen Cobert uses, that he can’t tell what race a guest is because he doesn’t “see” color – a patently ridiculous claim.) The use of the term “colored” is puzzling, but since that used to be a perfectly acceptable description for what is now “African American” (unless it’s changed again since I last checked), I don’t see the problem.

syz's avatar

…although I really like Dave’s response. Now I want someone to use the phrase so I can ask them “Which color, exactly?”

sands's avatar

People don’t say “colored” anymore so your supervisor is seriously out of touch with appropriate language. Her intention, whether racist or not, is unclear. It would appear that she focuses on skin color more than other characteristics but that is commonplace. I would imagine that her circle of friends likely isn’t very diverse. However, I cannot specifically say that she was being racist. She may not be very far from it though.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@sands check out the description “several years ago” so the whole people dont say “colored” anymore argument is null.

Mr_M's avatar

Rhetorical question: Two MEN behind the counter. One black, one white. The black man is wearing a red tie, the white man a blue tie.

How do you feel if you’re sent to “the black man”? Or would you expect to be told, “the man in the red tie”?

syz's avatar

When my coworker (who is black-her preferred designation) identifies someone by their race, does that make her racist? Is she allowed to call someone “black” because she is black?

JackAdams's avatar

@Mr. M: So, how would you describe the black man, to a BLIND person?

Mr_M's avatar

You wouldn’t describe the appearance of a black man to a blind person any more than you would describe the sound of his voice to a deaf one.

You take the person TO the man and let the blind person identify the black man anyway he’s comfortable with.

Would you take issue if that way was by distinguishing the way a black man spoke from the way a white man spoke?

JackAdams's avatar

Part of the reason for this Q, is because, on very rare occasions, I have been the victim of an incredulous look, simply because I mentioned someone’s race, for some reason.

I would innocently (I thought) say, “He’s the black gentleman, over there,” and the person to whom I was speaking would retort, “What does the guy’s RACE have, to do with anything?”

I felt like I had committed a social faux pas of some kind, yet the majority of those of you posting on this thread, seem to believe that I did not. Well, if that’s the case, then I and my former supervisor are both exonerated.

jlm11f's avatar

@JA – well, next time someone asks you what their race has to do with it, you can say that it’s a defining physical property. and then tell them to stop being so sensitive :)

JackAdams's avatar

@Mr. M: My point is that, if everyone is to be treated exactly the same way, then if it isn’t necessary to mention to a blind man that someone is black, then employing the rules of equal treatment, it isn’t necessary to mention someone’s skin color, to a sighted person, either.

wildflower's avatar

When people start taking all references to physical appearances as racist comments, you know it’s PC gone mad… favorite example

JackAdams's avatar

An excellent link, and thank you so much for posting it!

I remember when Gen. Colin Powell was interviewed on some radio program, the interviewer introduced him as an “African-American,”, and he corrected her by saying something to the effect of, “My parents were from Jamaica, so I am Jamaican-American, but I prefer to be thought of as ‘Just American’.”

Mr_M's avatar

@jack, no. You don’t describe the person’s color to the blind man solely because he can’t see it, ANY MORE than you would send the blind man to the guy wearing the red tie. For a seeing person, you can.

Make no mistake, you CAN send the person to the man in a red tie, OR to the black man. Or to the overweight man. You wouldn’t send him to the FAT guy.

Melonking's avatar

Not to be saying anything, but ppl who ask Q’s like this ushaly are the ones where the feelings of racisum come from, not the ppl who ppl think are the racist ones.

EmpressPixie's avatar


I do not think is was a racist comment. You said you didn’t know who she was and clearly didn’t intend to go over and just ask, so your super was left to describe her. Skin tone is a dominant feature. It’s easy to see, it’s not going to change, and it isn’t up to opinion. If she’d been the only white girl over there, she probably would have been marked as the white girl instead.

It’s a hugely marking thing about this person—celebrate it or not, love it or hate it, it makes her easy to describe. I don’t think it is racist to say something a. true and b. descriptive when trying to point you in the right direction. Recognizing race doesn’t make you a racist.

JackAdams's avatar

@Melonking: That doesn’t apply to me, fortunately. But I can certainly see how it might apply to others, who don’t have my high level of intellect and maturity. [coughs]

sndfreQ's avatar

Context is everything.

Here’s the thing…it varies by region and local custom. If you call the person by the label they wish to be identified by, and they don’t take offense to it, one’s common sense should be able to distinguish between a racist remark and a lack of sensitivity…in many areas of the American South, some of the older generations (blacks and whites) don’t take offense to the term “colored” as the label was a practical one in their previous way of life (a society that once accepted de facto segregation). There are clearly other terms used in the South that are patently offensive, which in other regions we wouldn’t necessarily identify…for instance, if a person called another person “boy.” That clearly harkens back to antebellum references and ways of thinking and judgment.

If the Chinese colleague is accustomed to and not offended by the term “colored”, then unless your boss was using it in an expressly pejorative context, it probably is of little concern. “Get that colored girl to introduce you to the group” or “that colored woman will clean up our mess when we leave for the day” would be offensive remarks in context, implying that her ethnicity determines her class / position, even though that clearly would not be the case. Also, those comments could imply that her sex would classify her in a subservient / subordinate role…creating or reinforcing imaginaries about the environment would be the danger in such comments.

This may be why when personnel are transferred or hired from outside the region, their “regionalisms” not only include cultural differences, but even language and vernacular.

Also, generational gaps may play a role in this as well.

Now it probably would have been a lot clearer delineation if your boss would have referred to her as a “Chinaman” or some other denigrating term, but perhaps your question has broader implications (calling all non-white/non-caucasian people “colored” or “of color” has the same connotation of generalizing white and non-white).

In a recent journey to a family reunion in Panama, I witnessed some of my relatives referring to the dark-skinned (African descended) Panamenians as “negro” and I had to take a step back and realize that that was a very different usage than what we have come to know in American history and culture (“Negro” being an archaic term compared to the current usage of the label “African American” in America, but in Latin America, a simple description of skin color-“Black” in Spanish is “Negro”).

Furthermore, one friend of the family, who was light-skinned, was reffered to as Guero (pronounced “who-ed-O), which translated means “white guy”...over there no one took offense to it, but here in America, it could be misconstrued as racist.

Finally, during my college years, I attended an art college that had a majority population of international students; it was clear to me that the Africans from Africa did not like to be called “black” or “African American” and that they preferred “African.” Also, some Asians did not want to be referred to as Asian, like some Koreans I was acquainted with, wanted to distinguish themselves from other East Asian ethnicities (try calling a Korean by something other than Korean-i.e. Japanese or Chinese!)...just my take on it.

JackAdams's avatar

Thanks for your comments; they are much appreciated and were personally enlightening for me, as I wasn’t aware of some of the things you mentioned.

By the way, as long as I have your attention, I have been having some minor computer problems (due to a Trojan Horse virus I might have downloaded onto my computer), so not all of my PM messages are being received, including one that I sent to you, which has yet to be acknowledged/answered.

I certainly would appreciate it if you could please look into that, then respond to me about it (via PM only, please), if you received it.

Thanks again for your comments, and for mentioning them without emotion.

Nimis's avatar

I don’t think referring to someone by the colour of their skin is necessarily racist. But I think simply because “coloured” is such a throwback term, that I’m inclined to think their way of thinking may be as well. That is a little silly of me to assume that, but something I do nonetheless. Nothing that I put down in stone, just a working theory until they prove otherwise.

Though your question brings up some related trains of thought:

BLACK. I went to school where people were very overly-concerned about what is PC and what is not. The only seemingly acceptable term was/is African-American. But, the more you think about it, that’s all very presumptuous. This is how I see it…yes, it’s silly to focus on the colour of their skin and call them Black. But calling them black doesn’t make any further presumption past the colour of their skin. (Given, many people who used that term in the past may not have cared about anything past the colour of their skin…but still.)

AFRICAN-AMERICAN. The other point(s) of contention is: What if they’re Black and not from Africa? What if they’re from Africa and not American? I feel like tacking on American has become an almost apologetic habit. “Sorry to call you African (or Asian…or Indian), but look! I also recognize you as being American! Look how sensitive I am!” People may or may not tack on American to Caucasian races, but almost always seem obliged to do so with so-called ethnic races. What’s up with that?

NEGRO. I work with a lot of under-privileged youth. Roughly half of them are black. While filing their paperwork, I noticed their (own) choices for ethnicity varied greatly…Black, African-American…and just African. The OCD part of me really wanted to make them all the same. But each is a very different statement. The only choice that gave me pause was that one of them had put down Negro. My first instinct was to change it. But I was thinking, if they’re okay with it, why am I not okay with it? Does my discomfort with this word say something more about me than it does about them? I think if they’re okay with it, I should be okay with it.

Of course it also stands that while it may be okay for them to call themselves that, it is not okay for someone else to call them that. It’s all a very convoluted issue.

In your particular case, the term wasn’t self-attributed. You’re kind of stuck trying to gauge your supervisor. I would go with working theory with a dash of benefit of the doubt. And if you’re genuinely curious about how your co-worker would feel, I would just ask her. (Without mentioning the supervisor as an example. No need to start drama without further knowing his/her intentions.)

gooch's avatar

I don’t think it is racist. I refer to a person in a group as black or white if it helps id them. My co-workers do also and we have three black and three white people at my location. None of us feel weird about that. I mean if someone calls me white they are right. If I identify a person as black, asian, or white they usually are. It is not like I am calling them something they are not.

psyla's avatar

The first thing I notice about someone is their eyebrow color but I never describe someone by their eyebrow color because people might think that I’m a Republican.

Mr_M's avatar

Come to think of it, if two men were behind the counter and the black man was wearing a red dress, I’d STILL refer to him as the black man.

JackAdams's avatar

@Mr. M: LOL!

I must admit, I thought I had a pretty fair sense of humor, but mine pales, in comparison to yours.

I bow to your superior wit!

Mr_M's avatar

Right back at ya!

Palindrome's avatar

THATS WHAT I’M SAYING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Why do people always have to classify someone by race..

Idk i just get really annoyed when people do that, like oh its the mexican girl or the black girl or this or that or this or that…
like just shut up and start seeing people as humans, and not colors

JackAdams's avatar

Thank you!

I’m glad to know that I am not the only one who feels that way.

Thanks for sharing.

americanandfree's avatar

How about, ” The blonde” Is that catagorizing? The heavy girl. Big deal, when it’s the n word, that’s wrong. In the south they sometimes call whites “crackers” I’ve been calle a damn yankee and I’ve been in the south many years. Does it bother me, yeah, it’s ignorant, but I seem to see people disrespectful more and more. Sad, but true.

The_unconservative_one's avatar

Well he had 5 categories to choose from, he chose race. I don’t know if that is necessarily racist. I choose to reserve that judgment for those people who I know to be racist. That could have (and sounds like it was) been just his way of differentiating.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Fact from ciction, truth from diction. There have been many relevant options as to why he chose the trem he did, her appearance might change the next day, what she is wearing etc. I guess he used the word “colored” because he did not now how to call er or what. If she clearly was Aftican American then it might say more but still since some African American call themselves Black while others don’t that could be why. Or if in the case of people who are part Black like my niece who often gets mistaken for Hispanic, Middle Eastern or even some darker races of Southern Europe because of her skin complextion many do not know what nationality she is if they do not know her personally. Maybe not racist just a poor choice of words.

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