Last week I was on a radio show that I’ve been on a bunch of times. It is a major radio station in a major city. The host likes me because I say inflammatory things like, “If your boss is terrible, stop complaining and start looking for another job.” Then listeners call in and tell me I’m an idiot, and in general, they sound like the audio version of Yahoo comments (scroll down).

So we were going through that routine. The topic was presidential candidates and I said I love Michelle Obama because she is not constrained by societal expectations. Then I talked about how she dated Barack when she was supervising him. I also talked about how she recently quit her huge job as an attorney in order to take care of her family during the campaign, even when the baby boomer media is still complaining about women who do this; Michelle didn’t care.

The host of the show said she thought you should not date people you supervise: It’s not fair, they don’t have the ability to say no, etc.

By then, the phone lines were lighting up. “Lighting up” is radio lingo for the process whereby the producer of the show answers the phones, finds out what the person wants to say on air, and then cues up three or four interesting callers. This way, when the host gets a call, she knows it’s going to be decent because the producer has already screened it. The producer’s job is to get a wide range of callers, talking about a range of topics in a way that will engage other listeners.

The first call was from a guy who said, (I am summarizing) “I agree that you shouldn’t date someone you supervise, but I think it’s a different circumstance with Michelle Obama because there are so few good black men to date.”

Silence. Not for long, but any silence on the radio seems long. What went through my mind was that I am not black and cannot comment on what it’s like to be black and dating and I should keep quiet.

The host said, “Well, Barack is a very good catch. Good for her!”

But I am always on the alert for bad talk for women masquerading as feminism, so I said, “Well, Michelle is a great catch, too.”

In hindsight, I should have said something like, “That comment is racist. There are men of every race who are good catches and men of every race who are not good dating material.”

When Don Imus was fired, I remember a flurry of past guests on his show who admitted to saying nothing on-air when he said something racist. I remember telling myself that I would never do that.

But I have to tell you that it’s hard to believe it’s happening when it’s happening. On a national radio show, there are a lot of checks in place to make sure racism doesn’t happen on air: The producer screens calls, and the host can say something if it’s bad (I said clitoridecdtomy on-air one week and she immediately apologized to listeners and told everyone I’d never say that word again.) And, if all that fails, presumably advertisers will ditch the show, and it will fail, because no one wants to be associated with racism.

So what happened is that in the split second that racism was happening on the radio, I didn’t trust myself that it was happening, and I didn’t say anything. And I see now that the way racist ideas go main stream is that the producer gives them air time, and the outspoken host and guest talk about women’s issues instead of the real issue that is race.

This will not happen again with me. I will speak up when something is racist.

Being ready for racism reminds me of teaching kids to say no to drugs. If you tell kids “Just say no,” it doesn’t work, because they don’t trust their own decision- making skills. What the drug educators have found is that if you talk about trusting your instinct about what is a positive decision and what isn’t, then in a bad situation, you’ll trust yourself to say the right thing.

Carmen Van Kerckhove conducts diversity training for businesses, and she wrote a great post about the best response to a racist joke. You’ll be surprised by the advice. I was. It’s a great post because it teaches us how to understand, at a core, why the joke is wrong. Instead of “just saying no” to a racist joke Van Kerckhove deconstructs the situation to give us our best response.

I have a solid understanding of women’s issues, so I was ready with a response for the idea that Michelle Obama was lucky to find a date. I was not ready with a response to there are no good black men, because I didn’t trust my knowledge of racism.

But this is what I know: The core to stopping racism is to understand it, and then trust the understanding. That’s how we can be ready to call out racism as something wrong when we need to.

29 replies
  1. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    I have to wonder why she objected to clitoridectomy? It’s in the news all the time now because of people like Aayan Hirsi Ali. Perhaps she didn’t know what it means and she thought that she was keeping you from talking dirty.

  2. Cyndi
    Cyndi says:

    One of the things for me that makes it hard to know what to do about racism (and other discrimination) is that it is not nearly as obvious as it used to be. No big signs that say “No Blacks Allowed.” Just a things that are hard to put your finger on. They make me uncomfortable or suspicious.

    Thank you for putting your finger on one of them. And for some practical advice about what to do about it.

  3. MS
    MS says:

    This sounds like it had more to do with you (and the host) being caught off-guard by the statement than any lack of courage on your part..

  4. Carmen Van Kerckhove
    Carmen Van Kerckhove says:

    Penelope, thanks so much for linking to my post on how to respond to a racist joke! And for bringing up this very important issue of racism in the workplace.

    I think the situation you found yourself in was very ambiguous, and I don’t blame you for being unsure about how to respond.

    While the caller’s remark that “there are so few good black men to date” is obviously a gross generalization, it is a generalization that is often repeated in African-American media outlets such as Essence and BET, and most famously in last year’s romantic comedy Something New

    The mainstream media (The Washington Post;Oprah, among others) often resorts to this generalization as well when they report on the shocking new trend (yes I’m being sarcastic) of black women dating and marrying interracially. This story, for example, was splashed across CNN’s front page last week.

    So whether the caller was black or not, it’s possible that he could just have been parroting the generalization he has heard in the media.

    But then again, we are just reading a transcript here. You can tell a lot by a person’s tone and the context of the remark, so it’s quite possible that he did mean it in a derogatory way, and you picked up on that.

    Of course hindsight is always 20/20, and moments like these often fly by before you’re fully aware of what’s happening and can formulate a response. But in any future ambiguous situations like this, I would recommend asking the person to clarify the remark. If you ask why he thinks that “there are so few good black men to date,” you will probably learn more about his motivations.

    One last note: I would caution against making assumptions about a person’s race just by listening to their voice. Unless the caller identified himself racially, we shouldn’t assume that because he “talks white” (i.e. uses correct grammar and pronunciation) that he must be white.

    * * * * * *
    Carmen, thanks for your comment. I am enthralled by the self-confidence and authority you exude when you address these issues. I learn so much from hearing your perspective. Thanks for the links, and thanks for the suggestion for what to do next time.

  5. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    Carmen – That’s exactly what I was getting at. The comment he made may not have been racist per se, but rather a point towards the ongoing debate within Black communities about the availability of “good” Black men. Depending on what one identifies as, you may not have seen that comment as racist.

    The comment that the caller made is one that I have heard Black women say over and over again. I guess that was my point in wondering aloud if he were a member of the Black community, he may have been alluding to this idea. I wouldn’t expect Penelope to “hear” his race, but in asking that question, it lends a different perspective to his comment and thus changes the way Penelope’s reactions could be interpreted.

    With that said, his mistake in saying that (among others) is that he made it in a setting that wasn’t about dating in the Black community and risked being widely misinterpreted by members of the non-Black community.

    I also agree with MS who says it was more being caught off guard than passivity on your part, Penelope. The comment was made out of context of the discussion that was happening. How else could you respond to that?

  6. Me2 the SQL
    Me2 the SQL says:

    As the lighter half of a “Something New” couple I can tell you I have heard that same comment about the lack of good black men from many many women of color. I never took it to be racist when they said it and I wouldn’t have thought that comment in the context of the radio show was. From a hiring manager on the other hand…

    I can say that racism is still very much alive but much more insidious now that it is not overt. We have encountered too many instances of slow or poor service in restaurants to just chalk it up as unintentional. It happens. When it does, we don’t go back and we tell our friends to stay away as well.

    My SO is very accomplished in her career but still is treated like a second class citizen when she starts a new contract, constantly having to prove over and over how competent she actually is.

    (Now to incite the flames) I have also heard many black people complain that something happened or is being done to them because of their race when it is the exact same treatment everyone gets and have had a black co-worker tell me that he was instructed by his union rep to scream race if he ever got into any trouble at work. I find that attitude to be self-defeating.

  7. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I agree that the caller definately caught both you and the host off-guard. When not prepared, trying to find an answer that will not shroud the actual topic with Race is a delicate thing. Racism is a very powerful energy that still haunts this country – sad in a way that we have come so far but are yet so far away.

  8. Alexandra Levit
    Alexandra Levit says:

    Hi Penelope, thanks so much for the link to Carmen’s post about how to respond to a racist joke! I’ve always wondered how to get myself out of such scrapes (particularly since these comments inevitably are made by someone more senior). I’m going to link over on my blog next week.


  9. gcotharn
    gcotharn says:

    My early thoughts about Michelle Obama dating a subordinate would not have included thoughts about race.

    However, it’s a fact that none of us can look into the caller’s heart to see if he/she dislikes/detests/hates persons with darker skin. I would prefer we say the caller engaged in a “racial stereotype”. To say the caller made a “racist remark” implies – to me – that the caller strongly indicated he/she dislikes black persons because of the color of their skin. This the caller did not do, and I find it more unlikely than likely that the caller dislikes persons with darker skin. It is most likely the caller simply engaged in a racial stereotype which is celebrated in much of American media. It’s entirely possible the caller enjoys the company of interesting black persons, is perfectly happy to hire or promote qualified black persons, and would jump into a river to save a drowning black person.

    I think we should be very careful with our rhetoric in this area. To label the caller’s assertion “racist speech” is a bit sloppier than I think we want to be. IMO, it lessens the heat upon persons who are actual racists, and who truly do detest/dislike/hate persons who have darker skin than their own.

    As human, we are hard-wired to make generalizations: people drown in the ocean, and they get stung by jellyfish, therefore stay out of the ocean. To overcome our generalization, we might become better educated about the exact dangers and pleasures of the ocean. But our original generalization does not mean we hate the ocean. It only means we knew what we knew about the ocean at that time, which is less than what we know now.

  10. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    I’d like to bring up the point that even if the caller in question was himself black, that doesn’t make his statement any less racist. It just means that he has internalized the biased opinions of the majority group. Internalization of bigotry is not uncommon; I would even argue that it’s one of the most common defense mechanisms of minority groups.

    Let’s look at an example. There are a substantial number of women who would agree that men are not good at cleaning up after themselves. From this idea it follows that women are obligated to pick up after men if they want to keep things neat. This is not an uncommon stereotype and is regularly featured in popular media. Is there any substantiation for this belief? Not that I’m aware of. In fact, I can think of many male acquaintances who keep impeccable desks, workspaces, tool boxes, etc. From these examples, it would make more sense that these men would be able to pick up after themselves in the home as well. Organization and cleanliness are learned behaviors. Yet it is easier for women to internalize the idea that “women should keep things clean” than it is for them to confront the stereotype. This doesn’t make the stereotype any less oppressive.

    It’s funny that you should bring up the issue of Michelle Obama; I was just thinking about her yesterday. I read an article somewhere about how she didn’t wear makeup on 60 Minutes and the world stood still. While I agree with the article that rejecting the falsities involved in female television appearances is a great step, I was irritated by several other points. Most notably, I was irritated by the journalist asking Ms. Obama how she and the mister have “beaten the odds”–apparently black women are both the least likely to marry and most likely to divorce. This question bothered me because it completely ignored the role of class in these statistics. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t the Obamas pretty solidly in the upper-class just like all the other politicos? The statistic about black women’s divorce rates is class-driven due to the historical oppression and relegation of the black community to the lower and under classes. (Argue all you want about the end of institutional racism in the 1960s, but that was still only 2 generations ago. American society isn’t *that* mobile.)

    I recognize that it’s politically advantageous for Obama to be identified with being under-privileged, but that sort of nonsense still irritates the stew out of me. Especially when we have Bill Clinton’s heritage for a nice direct “white dude” comparison. The only real difference between their class origins is a few states and some melanin. In fact, the little I know about Obama’s parents indicate that they were typical lower-middle-class people. Clinton is known to come from a lower-class family with serious substance abuse issues. Where are all the interviewers comparing Clinton to his impoverished Southern peers?

  11. We've all experienced racism
    We've all experienced racism says:

    What is racist? The talk show’s comment certainly was, but so is much (much!) of how we judge people, assess situations, choose our own actions or behaviors, respond to others, etc…
    The question really is, what isn’t racist? There is a difference between letting race inform a situation and making choices about how to interact with someone based on a negative perception of another race. When I didn’t want to eat beef jerky in front of my roommate’s parents, who are Indian and vegetarian, was I being racist? If I had offered them some, would that have been ignorant, insensitive? What if I didn’t know that they were vegetarian and I chose not to extend them an invitation to dinner because we were going to a steak house? Would that be racist? I would answer yes to at least the last question, and this brings me to my final point: I think a lot can influence racism beyond hatred, including ignorance, naivete, fear, embarrassment, cultural differences and much more. Thus, while we should always try to speak out against overt racism, sometimes it’s difficult to categorize what racism is and isn’t, or at least to separate the impact from the intent and decide who is to blame (if anyone at all).

  12. Chloe
    Chloe says:

    This will not happen again with me. I will speak up when something is racist.

    I admire your conviction, but I wonder how you’re going to achieve this, especially when you find yourself in tinderbox environments like on the radio. I read the post you linked to about dealing with racist jokes, but if you tried to apply that on air you would be putting the station at risk of what the person might say next.

    I know most of us probably aren’t on the radio but we still find ourselves in situations where we need a split second response to a racist/sexist/whatever comment, and the “playing dumb” tactic won’t work or isn’t appropriate. What’s your strategy?

  13. Bloggrrl
    Bloggrrl says:

    If our government stopped locking up so many Black men, then perhaps the caller’s remark would not be true. Since it is true–there honestly are many fewer Black men in the dating pool–I don’t see how it is racist. The injustice inherent in our system is what I call racist.

    I think we need to look at racism on a macro level, is what I’m sayin’…

  14. tamar
    tamar says:

    Glad to be reading about racism on this popular blog. You are a thought leader, and folks take cues from you on most topics, such as rocky times and rotten behaviors.

    Lately, I’ve been reading online classifieds to find subletters for my home while I’m back in Tel Aviv the next few months. Today, I stumbled on an ad that shook me up. The writer explained that he is black, and that he was stating his race to avoid repeating a sickening experience he had when he came to see an advertised place.

    Reading about his experience hurt deeply, and I pushed away initial thoughts that contacting him (we were not a match in our requirements) would be mixing in. Yet I was required to help keep the despair – his, mine – at bay. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, all are responsible.” This is my mantra. And your post today suggests that it is yours, too.

  15. Michelle Dusauzay
    Michelle Dusauzay says:

    Firstly let me start off by saying that I am black. I reside outside of the US but I was educated in North America so I have a sense of what dating there is like. Let me pose three questions to you if I may:
    1. What is a good man to date?
    2. What is the statistical probability of finding a black man in that group given the current makeup of American society?
    3. Assuming that the answer to my second question is a low number (which it is) is it racist to point that out?

    Tackling my third question, I would have to say that a response would only be deemed racist if the respondent were not black. In other words, it's ok for a black person to say that a good black man/woman is hard to find (black people say these things all the time). Somehow, it magically gets offensive when a non-black person says it. This is why Penelope, I can understand why you think that it is racist. If you go around saying it, you will be called a racist.

    My personal view is that the comment was not racist but reality. At the very least it was the caller's reality.

    By the way, Barack Obama in any colour was a good man to date! (before the wife, kids and political aspirations of course)

  16. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    Before I really get to the meat of my argument, I would like to point out that what constitutes a “good” mate differs depending on one’s class/social status. Elements such as higher education, professional ambition, and personal wealth are generally more important in the higher classes than the lower classes. Similarly, religious sentiment and past marital history are more important in the lower classes than in the higher classes. The relative importance of race/ethnicity seems to be less class-driven than it is driven by location. Most people tend to form romantic partnerships within their own class or the class of their parents.

    Based on this understanding, I disagree that the caller’s comment was an innocuous observation of fact. A prominent subtext in the comment is that all black people belong to the same class. What is true is that black people are overrepresented in the lower classes and underrepresented in the higher classes. I will concede that a disproportionate number of lower class black men have criminal records and I’m sure that other social ills display themselves in inordinate amounts. However, it does not necessarily follow that an equal proportion of upper/upper-middle class black men would not be good mates. In fact, I would argue that there should be fewer “bad men” among upper/upper-middle black men due to social pressure to refute the stereotypes associated with the lower-classes.

    But let’s say that the caller is factually correct and there are very few “good” black men in the higher classes. Let’s say that this is due to external prejudice and not any racially-driven internal fault. Now if external prejudice prevents black men from gaining professional success, would it not follow that even fewer black women would be successful?
    (Remember, we live in a patriarchy.) Given that Michelle Obama was a highly successful black professional woman, she should still have been out-numbered by black men sharing her social status. Why then would it make sense to say that there’s a shortage?

    Professing a general shortage of “good black men” only works if class divisions are neglected. I think that’s racist.

  17. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    Black women are gaining (and in some cases outnumbering Black men) in areas like education and employment. The point about class makes sense, but the whole “good” Black men conversation is not about class, or what constitute’s “good”. It’s about the availability of the “good” men in question. There are plenty of Baracks running around, but are they available to all the Michelles who may be looking for them?

    Remember when Joe Biden said, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”? Now, that was racist.

    This post really has me thinking and I still can’t fault Penelope (or anyone for that matter) for not engaging in a debate with the caller.

  18. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    The male caller said: “…there are so few good black men to date..”.

    We do not know about the caller’s race or his sexuality. But, of the 3 main descriptors he used – good, black, men – the host and Ms Trunk focus on one i.e. ‘black’. And this whole debate about racism ensues.

    Why is this not a debate about the other 2 factors which outnumber 1 factor by 100%?

    Is it that people are over-sensitive about some key issues, especially since they were discussing a high profile black couple?

    Why is this not a discussion about how hard it is to find decent people of ANY kind nowadays, to date and/ or to marry, if the laments of some eternally eligible yet single people are anything to go by?

    Many young friends I have in America’s cosmopolitan cities will date anyone, who is decent and well-educated, well-mannered and civilised. Race for them enters into the equation much later, if at all, and usually when parents get involved. Or is there some other understanding about dating in American society implied in this discussion that I as a naive ‘foreigner’ might be missing?

  19. Ceptera Information Security
    Ceptera Information Security says:

    Hooray for not being afraid to write what you did. Even though you didn’t say what you thought during the radio broadcast, I’m happier that you wrote your feelings in this blog. As a black man, I feel like we get a bad rap. I’m married, but I’ve heard the “There aren’t any good black men” line more times than I care to remember. I’d bet the women who make that comment don’t think about where they are attracting these no-good men. They also don’t think about how dangerous it is to make such wild claims so easily. For example, say you’re a white woman and you don’t interact with black guys very often. But you happen to have a few black “work friends.” Let’s during lunch you’ve often heard them lament the absence of good black men. After hearing that for 100 times, even the most free-thinking, rational person might start to believe there’s some truth to it. So your opinion about black men may be tainted even though you don’t have any personal experience with them. Well, when you leave your work friends and go hang out with your girlfriends, you may repeat the stuff you’ve heard at lunch. Now, you’ve affected your friends’ opinion about black guys. It goes on from there.

    Hopefully you’ll stay true to what you wrote and address straight away that kind of ignorance whenever you hear/read/observe it. That’s the only way we can the frank discussions needed to move everyone forward…together.

  20. Marcia
    Marcia says:

    Have to agree with many of the posters here that “…there are so few good black men to date." is not a racist comment. Well, it may be a racist comment, but it’s not a racist slur. I have heard many black women say that this is a definite problem for them. This is not new, and has been going on for 20-30 years (that I’m aware of). In fact, some of them are angry that white women are dating/marrying black men because there are so few “good ones”, and the white women are taking them. How do I know all this? I get my hair cut in a salon run by a black woman with mostly black clientele (sp?) Trust me, you find out all kinds of stuff in a salon.

  21. luis
    luis says:

    im pretty sure if you got past your liberal views you would understand that unfortunately a disproportionately large share of the young black male population ends up spending time in jail. that isnt racism but a fact and most women (or men) of any color dont want to be dating a person who has had that type of past.

  22. Mike Hobart
    Mike Hobart says:

    Re “Yahoo comments” — I used to glance at the comments section on news sites now and again but I gave it up because the comments were almost uniformly insane. I remember when novelist Arthur Hailey died one comment read (I’m not making this up) “I hope the devil is raping his ass in hell.” Now what sort of bottled-up anger could make someone write that about a person they’d presumably never met? I have no idea.

  23. Adeta
    Adeta says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I really enjoy reading your blog each week. As a African-American woman, I was a bit hesitant to open this post “Racism at work, and why it doesn't work to just say no”. I didn’t want the post to change my opinion about you, but I am glad that I read it.

    I believe you handled the radio situation wonderfully. While it is important to “speak up when something is racist” as you said yourself. I believe that in this specific situation it was best for you professionally to not engage in that dialog. From my personal experience, I believe that caller was intentionally trying to create trouble and if you had chosen that instance to stand up it would have done more harm than good.

    Cudos to you for writing about this experience in your blog and Congrats on your new company. I look forward to reading your future posts.

  24. Evans
    Evans says:

    And I agree with the columnist that the comment was racist. Whether its true or not its racist because the caller is making it seem like just because she is a black woman that its ok for her to date someone she supervises because its soo hard to find a decent black man. Its hard for everyone to find a boyfriend or girlfriend not just us as black people. And I’m an african american man thats has a college degree so I would be considered a decent guy. But I wouldn’t date someone supervising me. If its hard to find someone just go out to meet people, and meet people through friends, try online dating, etc.

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