Ask Ty...August 12

It must be Tuesday, Middlespacers, because I'm answering your questions

Q: Ty, there's this new guy at work. He's in his 20s, and is black. I'll call him "Black Guy." Black Guy is pretty cool, and plays around with being black, like when we were driving down to a shoot, he was joking about getting all Ghetto and saying things like "Yo Pheel, where you want dat light at?"

There's another guy at work, also in his 20s, and is white. I'll call him "White Guy." White Guy also likes to joke around a lot about stuff.

So White Guy comes in yesterday and starts saying to Black Guy "Hey boy! What are you doing?" In a prison guard type of voice. I'm not sure if he realized that calling a black man "boy" is really offensive, especially the way he was doing it. He said it a couple of times, and Black Guy just sat at the computer, silent. I broke in and said "Who you calling boy, boy?" and Black Guy says "Yeah, I don't really respond to that."

I'm not sure what my question is. Is it, was this some kind of manifestation of subconscious racism on White Guy's part? Or is my question "should I speak to White Guy and fill him in on how offensive that came across"? Or is it "should Black Guy be constantly reminding people that he's black by making jokes about it (like during a shoot, when the fire truck pulls up, he says something about black people and fire hoses (as in 60s riots)."?

- Gray Area

Ty: Good question and an even better observation, Gray. There may be a couple of things going on here. Let's suss.

Firstly, as you have so refreshingly communicated, "boy" don't fly no more. Or as they say in rougher parts of America, "You see a goddamn 'boy' you kick that boy's ass. You want to talk to me, son, you remember I'm not your boy, 'wood. I'm a man!" Or, as I would say in more corporate America, "Humm, just so you know, 'boy' is an historically racially term of denigration that kind of went out of pleasant interracial dialogue around the time 'negro' and 'get me some mo' iced tea' left the corporate workplace; you know around the rise of Human Resources and federal workplace equity laws? If you want to call me boy, I'm going to have to balance the scales and call you 'redneck' or 'honky' or something equally denigrating and silly. I'm just sayin'...."

Black Guy may or may not have some issues with his blackness, hard for me to tell. But, I'm guessing he's a little uncomfortable. It may not be with your group, but I'm guessing he's had some issues in the past. Mostly, he's just young and hasn't learned how to interact yet. He could be simply utilizing a form of black humor (punny?) designed to tell his colleagues that 1) Yes, I'm black guy and I realize it, and 2) There are certain stereotypes that are universally funny. He may be attempting to substitute yucks for confidence in an attempt to disarm those around him. Black Guy could be uncomfortable with his blackness. Akin to a woman making woman jokes in an all-male environment to be one of the guys, Black Guy may be displaying outward manifestations of inner discomfort and attempting to be one of the white guys.

One big problem, regardless (or "regardwitz"), is that some people, like White Guy, take this awkward-easing joking as permission to joke along or even push the boundaries further. It may not just be subconscious racism at all. It could be anything from straight up overt racism to White Guy just trying to play along. But I doubt it. From my experience I'm guessing White Guy is using this opening as a way to make a control play; to take a power advantage over Black Guy. Shit like that happens all the time. And it only makes Black Guy more uncomfortable. But White Guy will always say he was just playing along. In fact, he'll say he was playing along to help make Black Guy more comfortable (and that Black Guy started it and it makes him -- White Guy -- uncomfortable.

For a harmonious workplace, both Black Guy and White Guy need to take respective steps backward and shut the fuck up. Neither should be joking about race in the modern, sterile, litigious workplace in the first place. Just like a guy shouldn't make titty jokes because it makes the womenfolk uncomfortable, a woman shouldn't make titty jokes either. Same with race. Black Guy may believe he's entitled to joke about blackness, but really he's not; not at the office and not if he's new. He's only setting himself up for a big fall like Humpty Dumpty. White Guy is just as wrong. He's just making things worse. But really? Should we really make race off limits at work. I've always spoke/joked my mind. Maybe that's just naively impractical. But, "boy?" Still don't fly, White Guy.

So, what's your role? Hard to say. If you have a supervisory role with either Black Guy or White Guy you're pretty much required to step in. If you don't, outcomes are in your camp. If you don't supervise either, mention the context to their supervisor. Not for said supervisor to do anything but to get the interaction on record of sorts. There's good reason to not intervene directly with White or Black Guy. You get to stay Neutral Guy, a friend of all.

OR...you can take both Guys aside, individually, and just tell 'em that any sort of race joking could make the work situation potentially volatile (maybe not in such wussy terms though, but clear). Tell White Guy that if he didn't know it the 'boy' tag is hostile (he knows). Likewise tell Black Guy by joking is such a stereotype-based manner, he's just opening doors for others to do things like 'boy' bait (which is what it is).

OR #2...you can shut the fuck up and pull up a seat for the coming fireworks. They'll happen. Guaranteed. White Guy and Black Guy will come to terms over this. It's already stirred, that pot.

OR #3...join in and pile on! Harsh the Mexicans and retards too!

Just a guess,