My racist coworker: a true story

not a picture of my racist coworkerYes, I’m supposed to be on vacation. But I have something to say about Charlottesville, so I’m “reclaiming my time,” in the words of the inimitable Maxine Waters. I have a story you might need to hear, a true story about my racist coworker.

For about six months in 1985, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I hadn’t yet discovered my calling as a speechwriter, so I worked at a place that churned out forms for retirement plans. People elsewhere in the building plugged paragraphs into documents; I made small, predetermined adjustments and sent the documents to the printer, then collected the printouts and shuffled them off to the next stage.

The system had been designed for two people to do what I did, but the company had a hard time keeping anyone else in the job. Because the work was too boring? Nope. Because the work was too hard.

So I was thrilled when they finally found someone who could handle it. We’ll call her “Misti”—with an i instead of a y at the end because giving her two i’s allows the Misti of our imagination to dot the first i with a star, maybe, and the second with a heart. That was just the kind of ray of sunshine Misti was: perky and petite, always smiling. If you imagine she’s also white and blonde, you’ve got the picture. A high-school cheerleader straight out of central casting.

Misti proved quite capable at her job, so she stuck around awhile, and I was glad to have someone to chat with. I don’t remember what we were talking about that day, only that her next sentence came completely out of the blue. With all the authority an 18-year-old can muster, she announced: “You know, Elaine, the n*****s are trying to take over the world.”

My racist coworker

I don’t know whether I was more shocked by her statement or by the fact that she’d just used the N-word, right there in the office—with our black colleagues working just a few desks away.

“What…?” It was less a word than a strangled, shocked sound.

“Oh, it’s true,” she replied, in the same chirpy tone she used to describe what she’d brought for lunch. “You always hear them complaining about discrimination. You never hear white folks complaining about discrimination. Do you?”

It’s not easy to render me speechless, but that bit of twisted logic did. Of course, it’s hard to complain about something you never experience. But I didn’t say that. In fact, I don’t think I said anything to Misti. Ever again.

I left town in pretty short order. Hightailed it back to New York, to Brooklyn, where I could imagine that people never thought those kinds of things. Because they certainly never said those kinds of things. Not in polite company. Not around me.

It’s a privilege to walk away

Racism is like that if you’re a white person. It’s a casual remark you can ignore. Change the conversation, leave the room, move out of town and you can believe you’ve left it behind.

I don’t know if I could have changed Misti’s mind back there in Jacksonville in 1985. But I could have given my racist coworker something to think about. I could have introduced her to a different worldview. Instead I left her with her hateful beliefs intact, ready to pass on to any kids she might have in the future. Or, by now, grandkids. That’s three generations of racists I might have prevented. Or maybe not. But the point is I didn’t even try.

White Christmas 

Thirty-something years later: Christmas with my relatives, one of whom started a conversation that veered dangerously close to racism. Did I say something? Reader, I did not. I walked out of the room. I felt guilty about it at the time, but a few weeks later I would feel even worse.

My partner was talking to some black friends of ours, telling them about the experience. I tried to head her off, but she plowed on. I left that room, too. Couldn’t bear to see my black friends’ faces when my partner reached what seemed to her like a triumphant conclusion, “…and Elaine just left the room!”

Later I said, “I wish you hadn’t told them that story.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said, “if I found out they’d heard someone saying disparaging things about LGBT people and all they did was walk away, I would have ripped them a new one.”

Forgive my salty language, but I feel strongly about people who ignore their responsibility as allies. Of course, I have no standing to criticize. As you now know, I’ve walked away too.

I wasn’t actually in Charlottesville

I left Misti behind when I moved out of Jacksonville. But her illogical argument, her strange racist reading of social interactions—those things pop up everywhere. And they’ll persist and spread until we can educate the people who believe them. And, worse, who act on their beliefs.

So no, I wasn’t part of the angry white mob in Charlottesville last weekend. But who knows how many people have crossed paths with my racist coworker in the 30 years since I declined to talk some sense into her? I stood by as she threw a pebble into a dark and ugly lake; the ripples of her hatred have had a long damn time to expand.

Let one racist continue in their ignorant thinking and that thinking will spread exponentially. But engage in thoughtful conversation with a racist—tell a story, speak about your own experience or the experiences of others—and you have a chance to stop the spread of hate. A slim chance, maybe. But that’s still a chance.

We can’t afford to be silent any more. To paraphrase the Buddhist teaching about planting a tree: The best time to have a conversation about racism is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

Yes, I’m looking at myself when I say that. And I invite you to look at yourselves, too.


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When is it okay to fire the person investigating you? — Frequent Questions

Q: When is it okay to fire the person investigating you?
A: Whenever you’re ready to be impeached.

I try—I really try—to confine the politics to Friday. And I know today is not Friday. Full disclosure—since we try to be transparent here at Bennett Ink—it’s not even Wednesday for another 85 minutes. But Wednesday’s blog is the feature I think of as “WTF? Wednesday”: Frequent Questions. Which explains the question in big type above.

Why don’t I call it “Frequently Asked Questions,” like everyone else on the interwebs? I addressed that in the very first Frequent Questions post. And if we’re being perfectly honest here, nobody has actually ever asked why we spell FAQ without the vowel around here.

See? I answer both the questions you ask and those I know you wish you’d asked. And sometimes, like Steve Jobs, I invent things you didn’t even know you wanted.

Case in point: Nobody asked the question I’m addressing today. The person who should ask that question has less capacity for self-reflection than a goldfish. But, really…

investigating can get complex

Don’t like the investigating? Don’t call attention to it.

Ask any kid who grew up during Watergate: even those who were toddlers back then learned that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Although he’s much older than me, I guess the man in the White House wasn’t paying attention to that particular civics lesson. Here’s hoping he’s forced to learn it now.

What’s a more blatant indication of guilt than firing the person investigating your cronies—and, very possibly, you too? The sensible thing to do would be to fire yourself—to resign, as Nixon did. Only much, much earlier than Nixon did. And I can’t believe I’m writing this, but while Nixon may have been a crook at least he was a proud American. He didn’t sell out our democracy to curry favor with a hostile state. Of course, it’s entirely possible Trump didn’t do that either, but it sure seems like someone in his orbit did.

I have no answers about what’s going on in my suddenly fragile country. Only more questions, every damn day. I pray there are honest people left in the judiciary and the rest of the legal system who can answer them properly before the useful idiot in the White House gets us all nuked.

Women or girls — a friendly reminder

I don’t remember the exact day I became a woman, but I do remember insisting—at the ripe old age of 18—on being called a woman. A few months after graduating from my all-girls’ high school, I matriculated at Smith College. And Smith was definitely a women’s college, ergo—my classmates and I suddenly realized—we were no longer girls. We were women.

As a woman I was to be taken seriously, a project that necessarily began with taking myself seriously. And so I began insisting that my bemused parents, and anyone else who misidentified me, recognize me as a woman.

Some decades later—we need not enumerate them here—I found myself calling a grown woman a “gal.” Okay, I’ll confess: I didn’t “find myself” doing this, it was pointed out to me. By the woman I had reduced to “gal” status. She was kind (she’s a friend), but firm.

She reminded me that what I’d learned as a teenager at Smith remained true: The world has enough ways of minimizing the power of women without our assistance. And referring to an adult woman as a “girl” or even “gal” (I was trying to be folksy, and we all know where that can lead) diminishes her and her accomplishments.

Language matters: Don’t call women “girls”

don't call a women "girls"
Screenshot from Mayim Bialik’s Facebook video

In March, actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik posted a Facebook video with a fantastic explanation of this. I can’t embed it, so you’ll just have to click on the link. Trust me, it’s worth four minutes of your life.

Bialik reminds us: “Language matters, words matter. And the way we use words changes the way we frame things in our minds….It’s science.”

If society sees children as inferior to adults—and it does—then calling an adult female a “girl” immediately marks her as inferior. Of course that’s not at all what I meant when I called my friend a “gal” in my blog. But it’s how people unconsciously translate the word. Even when we’re recognized as adults, women struggle to be taken as seriously as men. So we need every linguistic aid we can find to claim our status as equals.

No one should call a woman a “girl.” But it’s especially egregious when a woman does it. (Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) If we women don’t use language that acknowledges us as full, equal members of the human race, then who will?

So hat-tip to my friend Marcia and to the fabulously forthright Mayim Bialik, Ph.D. for today’s lesson in comparative linguistics. Thanks for reminding me to be intentional with my language. This time, the lesson will stick.


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Name Those Euphemisms!: Not a game

Yesterday I wrote about the public relations thesaurus, an imaginary repository of euphemisms. If you want to use a euphemism to sell your company’s cheap airline seats, go right ahead; in the end, the only thing you’ll damage is your company’s reputation.

But as someone—maybe Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—said, “Your right to free speech ends at my nose.” Or something like that. (Okay, I paraphrased—the real quote is much clunkier, but have a look if you like.)

In the political realm, euphemisms can be dangerous. In the 1990s, the Serbs in the multicultural former Yugoslavia got tired of fighting their Croat neighbors. So they started killing them instead. Genocide? Oh no, no—nothing like that. “Ethnic cleansing.”

Beware the clunky two-word term that replaces a perfectly serviceable single word. But politicians—er, “elected officials”—don’t like people to think they’re genocidal. And because they called their policy “ethnic cleansing,” journalists and others followed suit. And everyone slept snugly in their beds (except the Croats).

Euphemisms like "ethnic cleansing" kill people. The guy with the pot belly inspired it.
Head of the Serbian Radical Party leads a rally in Belgrade, August 2016. Photo: Getty Images

Fun fact!—the guy who came up with the idea of “ethnic cleansing” held a Trump rally in Belgrade this summer. See how diverse the crowd was?

We’ll be seeing more euphemisms in the U.S.A.—the “Euphemism-S.A.”—under the Trump administration. Like “alt-right,” a new term in most of our vocabularies.

One journalist friend of mine wrote that alt-right “sounds like an indie music festival.” She suggested we call those folks “right supremacists” instead.

I’d go for “white supremacists.” On the plus side, it’s immediately recognizable; no one will wonder what it really means. On the minus side, it’s sadly not inclusive enough. Some of the people these partisans feel superior to—LGBT and Jewish people leap to mind—also come in white-skinned versions.

And Steve Bannon, primary mouthpiece of the alt-right white supremacists, is not a dangerous racist, misogynist, homophobic anti-Semite. Nope. He’s “controversial.” Good to know, CBS. Very enlightening. For significantly more accurate descriptions, see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “A Field Guide to Identifying a White Nationalist.”

Join the euphemism police

If you care about language, and justice, and, um, not killing people just because they’re different than you, then join me in the Euphemism Police. Help people understand the power of euphemisms to normalize the unthinkable: It’s not homicidal hatred, it’s an “alternative” view. It’s not genocide, it’s “cleansing.” Doesn’t that sound cozy? I mean, who doesn’t want a cleaner home?

Wherever you stand on the genuine, important issues facing our country, please do not let our language become another victim of politics. Call out euphemisms wherever you find them. Translate them into honest English. And let’s have an open discussion about facts.


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Values that resonate with you and your audience

It’s hard to “add value”—our topic yesterday—if you don’t know what your values are. Before you sit down to write your next communication, spend some time thinking about it.

Take a piece of paper and make three columns, headed ME, OUR BRAND, OUR AUDIENCE. And then set a timer for 10 minutes and write down everything you can think of.

  • What do you need to live a meaningful life?
  • What would you do even if no one paid you to do it—and, more importantly, why?
  • What kinds of things never get bumped off your to-do list (and why)?
  • How do you want to relate to people?
  • How do you want people to relate to your brand?
  • What one adjective do you want in people’s minds when they hear about you? Your organization?

Evaluating your values

If you’re living in pretty close alignment to your values, you should find many of the same words popping up on all of the lists. Congratulations! But you might also find some surprises.

Say you’re a fairly laid-back person, but one thing that drives your audience is urgency. You might have to meet them halfway on that—unfurling from your serene mental lotus position to talk about a pressing issue. Or if that feels like too much of a deviation from your personal brand, deputize someone else to talk about the crisis in terms the audience can relate to.

Or you might be a super-serious person, but your audience enjoys a touch of humor. (For me, that’s always a given.) Until you learn to loosen up a little—do it right and people will respect you more for it, believe me—it doesn’t hurt to have someone with a more playful nature introduce you at an event. Your very own warm-up act.

My own values—in no particular order—include integrity, humor, respect, commitment, generosity, and excellence. I under-promise and over-deliver. I’ve structured my business around these values, and I know they resonate with my audience. In fact, one of the people who listened to my podcast interview with Joan Garry as much as told me that when she emailed me about the free gift I offered:

A thank you note to me mentioned one of my values: generosity.

There—right there in the first sentence—one of my values: Generosity. My communications must be doing something right…and yours can too.

“I played an important role, but not the determinant role”

As counselor to John F. Kennedy, Jr., Ted Sorensen was present at the creation of some of the most stirring oratory produced in my lifetime.  And that’s about all he would ever admit to.  The first fact makes him one of the best speechwriters in modern times; the second makes him one of the classiest as well.  A life well worth emulating.  I’m grateful to have met him and heard him speak.

Be sure to watch the “Last Words” video feature embedded in the Times’ obituary.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Sorensen.

“we are fellow Americans…”

This week’s issue of The New Yorker has a great exegesis of President-Elect Obama’s victory speech. (And yes, I know that word is usually reserved for religious texts.) But as great a night as it was, and as eloquent and moving a speech as it was – exactly what was needed at the end of a divisive campaign and the beginning of an era of historic change – for me, the most memorable speech-giving of the night happened an hour or so earlier, and half a continent away.

I did not vote for John McCain, but his concession speech was remarkable in its sincerity and humility. I can’t recall another concession speech in which the just-defeated candidate spoke so warmly and with such appreciation for the accomplishments of his opponent.

It reminded me of the John McCain I read about in a Vanity Fair article a couple of years ago*, talking in a speech about his imprisonment in Vietnam:

“Very far from here and long ago, I served with men of extraordinary character, honorable men, strong, principled, wise, compassionate, and loving men,” McCain told the students. “Better men than I, in more ways that I can number….Some of them were beaten terribly, and worse. Some were killed….Most often, they were tortured to compel them to make statements criticizing our country and the cause we had been asked to serve. Many times, their captors would briefly suspend the torture and try to persuade them to make a statement by promising that no one would hear what they said, or know that they had sacrificed their convictions. Just say it and we will spare you any more pain, they promised, and no one, no one will know. But the men I had the honor of serving with always had the same response, ‘I will know. I will know.’

“I wish that you will always hear the voice in your own heart, when you face hard decisions in your life, to hear it say to you, again and again, until it drowns out every other thought: ‘I will know. I will know. I will know.’ ”

If that John McCain had run in this election, the outcome would have been far closer – and perhaps not to my liking.

But at least that John McCain showed up on Election Night, to try to heal some of the divisions he and his campaign team exacerbated, and to point the way forward for us. The New York Times transcript captured it like this: ” ‘Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.’ (Cheers, applause.)”

*Unfortunately, the Vanity Fair web site only carries an extract of this article. Look it up in the original mag – “Prisoner of Conscience” by Todd S. Purdum, February 2007.

Turning Down Work

I just turned down a job. It doesn’t happen often – I’ve done it maybe four times in 15+ years of consulting – but it’s always an interesting experience.

This one would have been a first-time client. He found me through an online listing and said he was looking for someone to write a white paper for his client. No problem; I’ve written many of them. But as we talked more, it became clear that his client doesn’t need a white paper. He wants “visibility” in a certain sector of the media. You don’t get that by writing something – no matter how brilliant it is – because unless you add some PR into the mix, no one will read your brilliance. So I handed off my potential new client to a former colleague who’s got connections out the wazoo in the industry they’re targeting. Vaja con dios, all.

That was easy – and it felt really good, helping people to make the right connections. The first time I turned down a job, it really hurt. It was in the middle of a recession and I needed the money, badly. But when my client called me up and told me what he wanted, I had to say no. He was surprised – we’d worked together well in the past. But I explained that I couldn’t do this assignment because I didn’t believe it would serve him well. I thought it would do long-term damage to his reputation to speak out on the issue he wanted to address. Fortunately for him, he listened to me and gave up the idea…for a couple of years, at least. He called me back again and I said the same thing. Yes, the money would have been very helpful. But I wouldn’t have been able to look myself in the mirror.

Talking About “It”

I don’t talk about “It” – the corporate earthquake I wrote about yesterday. In fact, yesterday’s post is the most I’ve ever said about the experience. But I was prompted to write about it by two things – first, the mess Eliott Spitzer has created, and second, a luncheon I attended yesterday.

It was at the New York Speechwriters’ Roundtable, a group of mostly corporate scribes who gather three or four times a year to share a brown-bag lunch and listen to a speaker. Speaking to a group of speechwriters must be a daunting proposition, but the gentleman we heard from yesterday seemed personable enough. What bothered me, though, was his topic.

He has written a book. Good for him. But it’s a book about his former employer, the man for whom he wrote speeches for 20 years. Which, in my opinion, is not so good. Now, I understand why he did it – his old boss’ name on the cover will sell books, no doubt about it. But I can’t help thinking that it’s a betrayal of trust.

The author asked us that question: As speechwriters, did we think he’d broken “the seal of the confessional” (he’s an Irish Catholic – can you tell?). I was pretty surprised to hear the two or three people who responded to the question say, basically, that his boss, being a public figure, was fair game. I didn’t say anything because I haven’t read the book – and I doubt I will – but judging from the kinds of stories the author said he put in the book, I think I would have made a different decision.

In fact, I have.

I, too, have a former boss (maybe more than one) whose name on the cover would sell any book I wrote. I could have written about the “earthquake,” but instead I don’t even speak about it. (You’ll notice that yesterday’s post deals only with my experience, not anyone else’s.) One of my old bosses (not the one who caused the earthquake) once introduced me to a woman who said, “I’d love to talk to you about [the earthquake]” and I immediately said, “Oh, no. I don’t talk about that. Because I don’t know how much of what I know is privileged information and what (if anything) has made it into the public record.” And with that (and – actually it’s funny to remember this detail now – after I made some comment about Eliott Spitzer), the woman went away. Months later, I found out she was writing an authorized book. So not only will I not write about “It,” I also lost my opportunity to be a footnote in the definitive history of “It.” Which is just fine with me.

Hire me, and I figure that whatever I witness from the time I walk into the lobby doors in the morning until I crawl back through them at night, that’s your business – and nobody else’s. That may be an old-fashioned attitude. And it may keep me off the best-seller lists. But I sleep like a baby at night.