I ask myself this question all the time: What would I have done if I had lived in Nazi Germany? I am Jewish, so I ask myself if I’d have left early on. Early enough. When I could have left.
I watch lots of movies and read lots of books about life in Nazi Germany.
For example: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a phenomenal, eye-opening memoir from a Polish, Christian boy in a concentration camp. Most memoirs are from Jews, who were trying to not get killed. But the Christians in the camps could stay alive as long as they would do the most disgusting work: this Polish boy had to pull children from their mothers upon arrival at the camp, so the Nazis didn’t have to do it. Prisoner workers had rank among each other by how long they had survived at the camp. Whoever had the lowest number tattooed on their arm had the highest rank.
I read these books and watch movies and I wonder what makes someone speak up. What makes someone say, “This isn’t right,” even if they are not yet the target of discrimination.
I am more able to put myself in that position of the powerful race if I go back to the slavery debates in the nineteenth century United States. Would I have kept a slave or would I have kept a stop on the underground railroad? Would I have paid a black person a too-low-t0-live-on wage and felt self-righteous that I was paying anything at all?
My obsessive thinking makes me prepared when I see something happen. For example, I had a boss who, during meeting said, “She was a good candidate, but she’s gay and I hate working with gay women.”
I said, “What? I can’t believe you just said that.”
The CEO was in the room as well. And he said, “Well, yeah, whatever. But it’s true they suck to work with.”
Like sexual harassment, any type of discrimination is very difficult to prove, and it’s usually harmful to your career to say something about it. This is why the EEOC recommends treading lightly. Here’s their advice on how to deal effectively with discriminatory behavior:
- Assume good intent and explain impact
- Ask a question
- Interrupt and redirect
- Broaden to universal human behavior
- Make it individual
- Say ouch!
The reason we should tread lightly is that most people don’t know they are being offensive. Mark Seery, a sociologist from University of Buffalo says, “Most of the discrimination people face in modern society is ambiguous. It’s a situation that is important to address because it’s easy for observers to miss.”
Once I had more experience, and once I had been fired one too many times for not getting along with people at work, I started taking a more delicate approach. So when someone told me a black guy was probably interviewing for a warehouse job and could I get him out of the lobby, I said, “Why do you think he’s interviewing for a warehouse job?”
Subtle usually works pretty well when people don’t realize they’re being racist.
But now I’m faced with something new. There’s an obituary in our local newspaper that says, among other things, “The joys of his life were his three blonde-haired, blue-eyed children.”
Am I being extra sensitive here? I realize that here in the midwest we are the last great holdout for blond hair and blue eyes. But the way the obituary is written, I can’t help but think it’s the same as writing, “The joys of his life were his three light-skinned negro children.”
Maybe I am extra sensitive, because when we first moved here, a local doctor recommended that I change my kids’ last name from Rodriguez to “something else so they get treated better in the community.” And later, we were asked to leave a homeschooling group because we are not Christian.
So maybe I am too jumpy about discrimination in my community. But you know what? That’s what every person says at work when they hear something discriminatory. They say, “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything. Maybe I’m too sensitive.”
But I also know research shows that the people with the highest self-esteem are the ones who are most likely to call out the discriminatory behavior. So I want to be that person.
Cynthia Estlund, professor of law at New York University, shows that discrimination is best combatted within clear structure and rules. The bonds people create at work are significant because they are diverse enough to enable discriminatory behavior to bubble up to the top, but the relations are structured enough so there is scaffolding to enable effective discussion. This is why Estlund concludes that the workplace is a great environment to deal with discriminatory behavior.
I feel better calling out my neighbors for not noticing the discriminatory ways of our community. And hopefully this post will make some of you more brave to do the same thing, probably more effectively, in your workplace.
After all, we will never really know what we’d have done in Germany, or in the US during slavery, but we do know who we are now, and what we do continues to define that.