Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Would Should a Respectable Negro Do?

I work with a white guy I’ve known for years. We are somewhere in between good friends and casual acquaintances. He is a stand up guy and a raging liberal (he has all the symptoms of liberal overcompensation syndrome: he is from a small, lily white suburban town; his parents are super-conservative). We talk politics and race frequently, and we both employ sarcasm and humor when talking about these things.

So, this guy and I were in a meeting, and he wrote a bunch of things on the whiteboard. When we were finished, he smiled, tossed me the eraser, and said, “Here you go, clean this up for me” (I’ve made similar jokes to him in the past). I shot back “Oh, so the black man has to clean up after you?” We both laughed.

As I stood up to leave the room, I saw the black janitor emptying the trash. I’m fairly positive that he heard us even though he gave no indication that he did. As I’m one of the few men in our office, the janitor and I end up talking a lot every afternoon. He’s never mentioned anything about this, and there’s been no change in the tone of our discussions.

I feel terrible, even though I don’t think the joke is really offensive. Should I feel bad about the joke? Should I apologize to the janitor?

What would should a respectable negro do?


Sharon said...

Well, since you asked...

The janitor heard the interchange. He heard the tone of it and heard you both laugh.

I think it's a wee bit condescending to assume that he doesn't understand that sort of joke or that he doesn't have friends that he jokes with (including black/white jokes).

Of course, you know him and I don't but based on your description, I don't think you need to feel bad. And an apology? Just what would you be apologizing for?

A.Smith said...

Well. You have 2 options.

You can approach the janitor and say "I know you heard that exchange between myself and (enter white guy's name here). I want you to know I feel a little bad about that; I don't want you to think I was demeaning your job."

Or, you can ignore it. Odds are Mr. Janitor has heard worse (though, I know we're all thinking it's not quite as bad as when it comes from "one of your own.")

This is QUITE the quandary. I understand not wanting to make it more of a deal than it is (that is, if he didn't see a problem then there is no problem...)

My final thoughts are: Be careful not to try to use him to assuage your own guilt, a la the cheater who suddenly confesses her sins for no reason other than they're breaking up and she feels bad for her "sins"*. If he hasn't done or said anything (I assume you are good at picking up less than obvious cues) to make you feel like he was offended, I, personally, wouldn't say anything about it.

*FTR: I'm not saying when you cheat you should keep it a secret, but if there's no reason to tell them, like you caught something that you may have given to them, or you're not breaking up and it's time to admit your faults so you can work past them, then when you do tell it's because you feel bad and it doesn't really healp the other person.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing to apologize for. Just continue to speak to the janitor and everything. If he heard you he knew you were being sarcastic.

Isaac said...

my rule of thumb if it bothers you you shouldnt be doing it.

joejones said...

I'd also add the thought, if you and the white guy are on equal terms-ish. Than the joke is less about race, and more about class. You may find yourself in a moment similar to the end of Soul's of Black Folks. Your comments won't be fixed because you're black and he's black. The question is whether the joke was insensitive, because sometime we overlook the way we treat all colors of folks in lower income jobs.

And, I don't think ending all inappropriate comments would be better than keeping a sense of humor. He probably talk junk about you too, even though you're both black.

Nevertheless, I'm loving ya'lls blog. Keep it up.

Unknown said...

am with isaac on this..

& if the janitor was indeed hurt by the exchange and really oldskool you may find he is not around or a blind eye is turned when you 'need' him next time.... it would be my parents generation's way of schooling ... you'd then silently acknowledge the faux pas then it would all be over and you'd be cool again..
good luck with that!!!

Brian McLaughlin said...

i'm not a respectable negro, so i can't tell what you should do as such. i'm just an old white guy whose got his own ideas. the ideas are mine and when i am comfortable with them, i don't worry about what others think of them. they're mine and i'm proud of em'.

issac has a truely valid point, if it bothers you when someone sees your relationship with your friend, you need to reevaluate the relationship and decide either to curb the portion of that relationship in which you aren't sure of. or if you are ok with it but are just unsure of how someone else percieves, let the guy know that this is your brother by another mother an dats how it is.

if you're not ashamed of your jokes with your buddy go wit it, be true to your self first .
let your buddy know how you feel as well.

btw you could always start refering to each other as O and Dubya my guess is everyone would catch on to your banter.