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June 19, 2019

Should I Clap Back at My Judgy Co-worker?

Hey, Bonita…

Hi Bonita,

I'm a black woman working in a corporate environment and cubicle farm. The other day, I was talking to my co-workers about a recent birthday present of spicy ranch dressing and all of the different ways I plan to enjoy it. While I was talking about how I don't really like chicken wings and instead plan on making little panini and dipping them into this delicious dressing, another black female co-worker came up to us, put her hands on my shoulders and said, "So white!" while laughing.

What the hell? Keep in mind that I am almost 40, and the offending co-worker is obviously older than 40. I only started this job a few weeks ago, and have felt so welcomed and comfortable around my colleagues up until this. FYI, we are primarily women of color, and very diverse in our backgrounds, which helped me feel at ease, but this exchange really threw a wrench in it all. To finish the story, I simply ignored her and continued with my food fantasy talk, as she walked away pretty quickly.

Since then, I've been pretty fucking sore with her. We typically volunteer to help each other with work duties on a daily basis, but I've been keeping a pretty good distance. I'd actually prefer to address this with her directly, as this type of talk is something I've dealt with for most of my life as a reaction to the way that I talk, my education, musical preference and hobbies. I'm sick of this shit, and feel so disappointed in myself for never standing up to this stupidity from my own community.

Advice?

Not an Oreo

Not an Oreo,

My knee-jerk response to this is expletive-laden and would definitely get you fired, so we won’t go there. I’m a woman of color, too, and I grew up in the punk scene and was typically the only person of color at shows and fests until I reached my 20s. I also know the pain of being judged by your own ethnic community, and it doubly sucks, because all of us are already being measured against impossible standards by the status quo. Ostracizing each other for being our authentic selves only serves to further the prejudice and bias we already experience daily in American life.

It’s my opinion that people like your co-worker judge their own for “performing” whiteness as a way of rejecting culture that they have been told is off-limits to them their entire lives. Italian cuisine is for white people, as is rock and roll, as is wine tasting, as are a million other things that really don’t belong to anyone at this point in human history. Perhaps she’s envious of your culinary acumen, and it triggered memories of all the ways she denies herself in the name of cultural conformity, and she could only make herself feel better by insulting you.

If you confront her, I’m sure she’ll claim it was a joke, but hopefully she won’t double down and call you an Oreo to your face (in which case, you should immediately report her to HR). Whatever she might say, I support your decision to withhold your work friendship from her, and I encourage you to talk to her about this. A real friend would never say that, anyway. No matter how she feels about your blackness, she needs to understand that no one’s cultural expression needs her approval or her unasked-for opinion.

I don’t know where people get the idea that policing their own is helpful or supportive in any way, but I also suspect that folks like this don’t actually possess the intellectual or emotional depth to even care about being good to other people of color. I hope that a talk like this wouldn’t have her thinking that you’re “uppity” or too smart for your own good, but it’s always a risk that she won’t take you seriously or will try to minimize her role in this. But you are right to be offended, and she deserves to know how insulting, hurtful and just plain inappropriate her comment was. Go off, sis.

Need advice? Email advice@flagpole.com, use the anonymous form at flagpole.com/getadvice, or find Bonita on Twitter: @flagpolebonita.

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