Dear Diversity Diva: Some guys I work with call each other by a name that would get me and any other white person fired if we used it. Why is it okay when they call each other that?
Signed, Calling It As I See It
Dear Calling It: This is a complicated social topic that many have strong and divided opinions on, especially in the wake of the Don Imus controversy.
But for the workplace, however, it’s a very simple issue — nobody, regardless of their race, needs to be using certain inflammatory terms to address others or talk about others.
There is probably no employee handbook in America that’s silent on the issue and for those few that are, social mores and general employment law step in to prohibit that kind of interaction.
Your supervisors and other co-workers may be ignoring the issue because the participants are the same race and the racially derogatory term is one that is typically used against that very same group, but that’s wrong.
This kind of behavior starts the slippery slope of creating a hostile work environment, where those very guys may be inviting someone to infer that flinging around that word is all right with them no matter who uses it.
As a solution, you might casually mention to one of the guys in the group or to a mutual co-worker that’s friendly with them that their “term of endearment” is grating on the ear and that they need to stop it.
If that doesn’t work, mention it to your immediate supervisor. But if you go that route, you might want to make sure it’s because you’re truly offended by the language or that you’re concerned that others are or will be. Otherwise, you risk creating the impression that you’re ticked that you don’t get to use the same offensive and racially inflammatory language that your minority co-workers use.
On the other hand, if the heart of your question is why it is that minority group members can address each other in ways that people not in the group can’t, I think the overly simplistic answer is because membership has it privileges. As an American, for example, you can refer to yourself in ways that would be fighting words if someone from another country used it.
That may not be fair or even logical, but it’s a social controversy that will not go away soon. At work, however, it really should be a nonissue.