Dear Prudence

Help! My Coworker Thinks I’m Racist Because of an Innocent Personal Habit.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A hand holds car keys next to an illustrated lock.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Panuwat Dangsungnoen/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Every week on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

I’m coming in hot on an incident that just clicked. I was in a meeting with some colleagues last week and I vocally agreed with one on a procedural issue, and she (a Black lady) said, “It’s good to see you don’t think I’m a criminal anymore.” I shrugged it off as a joke I didn’t get until another lady (something of a gossip) recalled the incident today and explained to me that apparently the first woman thinks I’m racist because when I started work she was standing near me when I made a point of going back to lock my car.

I’m a middle-aged white lady and I’m sure I have some racist tendencies because I am a middle-aged white lady in America, so I’m fairly open (I think) to getting called on racist mistakes, but this isn’t one of them. I grew up in a high-crime neighborhood with a lot of addicts. If I didn’t lock up my apartment or my parents’ car, I’d get in trouble—even locking up our family car didn’t stop two break-ins, most likely from addicts, who only got my sister’s empty backpack in one break-in. I lock up all the time; my husband complains that he can’t step on the front porch without hearing the inevitable click.

Do I leave this alone, or bring it up directly with the first woman or see if it comes up again organically? I don’t think I have any issues with my professional relationships with the lady who made the comment, and we don’t have a personal relationship, so I think it’s not necessarily pertinent. However, I do now wonder if I’ve caused our working relationship harm by not realizing that this was something of concern. Also, and it could be just the more gossipy lady, but I worry there is a false narrative out there about me that is unintentionally causing friction.

— Locked In

Dear Locked In,

Are you worried that you have unintentionally made someone feel like a criminal, or are you worried that you have been characterized unfairly? I realize there’s some overlap there, but when I asked for help on Twitter, some of the responses highlighted for me that my lack of clarity on that question was what made your question tough. Try to answer it for yourself, because the spirit with which you approach this conversation could make a big difference. Some readers expressed concern that if you go into this centering yourself and your reputation, you will likely not get the results you want and could even make things tenser between you and your colleague.

Good lord. She’s prioritizing the idea that being considered racist is the worst part of this.

IMO, if she can’t sincerely apologise for causing distress, she needs to let it go cause my ❤️ tells me she’s gonna make things worse for the 👩🏾. OP is INVESTED in being Good 👩🏼 — @NikkiDraper

The 2nd paragraph is telling. She’s more concerned about how she is being perceived than her colleague experiencing bias. This isn’t about LW’s reputation. It’s about recognizing her behavior needs to change. LW was taught to lock up bc of a bad neighborhood… Which prob means there were generalizations made by her parents that she’s carried. I grew up in what’s considered a “bad” ‘hood (saw my landlady get mugged at age 5, etc.), but I don’t assign a race to that. LW does. She makes assumptions … about people. Break-ins “probably addicts” … how does she know? More self-awareness/reflection is needed by LW. Especially if, as she says, she’s being called out for “racist mistakes.” She can apologize to her colleague but do not … ask the colleague to do anything like “clear it up” with others. LW can’t be defensive or expect her colleague to make her feel better. Plus, LW seems to want to abscond herself from this. Not cool. — @KathMSchmidt

So if you mostly want to correct the record about your own intentions, I agree with the many people who responded saying to just let this go. If you insist on a talk, you’re going to come off as defensive, and you’re going to confront the unfortunate reality that you can’t explain or debate your way into being liked or trusted.

Especially because, as @ChefStentor said, “If the colleague went so far as to call her out during a meeting, I guarantee the car locking thing was not the only issue.” Now guarantee might be strong. I don’t know what’s happened in the past. But I just don’t have a hopeful feeling about what will happen if you go in with the intent of making the case for why you’re a great and non-racist to a person who is, for whatever reason, clearly sick of you.

Now if you are sincerely upset that you unintentionally caused you colleague pain, you may speak to her briefly and non-dramatically:

I would just address it directly. Tell the co-worker in question that you were confused by her comment and want to know if there’s something you’ve done to make her feel that way. If she drops it, you can too, since she doesn’t want to get into it.

— @taboofinance

Pretend the chat with the gossip never happened. Go to the coworker and explain that in the moment you thought she was making a joke, but now you’re not sure if you’ve done anything to hurt her. If that’s the case, no defending yourself, just apologize, and then DROP IT. — @mboehm214

Two separate problems. The first is the relationship with the relevant co-worker (not the gossip). It’s possible she legitimately misunderstands you. Because she said something to you, you may have an opening to explain *very briefly*. Then — this is critical — drop it. Do not expect her to make you feel better. Do not go out and try to counter a narrative you are afraid might exist. Dedicate yourself to being the most thoughtful, mindful colleague you can. Sometimes your role is to tolerate the feeling that you’re not fully trusted. — @lindaholmes

By non-dramatically, I mean without a bunch of focus on how you feel, but also without the high-crime neighborhood with lots of addicts part of it.

the 2nd paragraph is so weird. we all lock our cars? that’s not a weird thing only you do? my only advice would be not bothering this lady with your strange explanation of “i must lock my car, you see, because of my past” — @cryingbaseball

Good luck!