Follow Up: Rude Comments about Au Pairs– How to respond

by cv harquail on May 19, 2009

I was thinking again about our conversation around "Myths about au pairs: Au Pair = "Hottie" , and ideas about how to respond when people make rude comments to us host parents about au pairs. One au pair commented that she was concerned that

If people make these sorts of comments in your au pair’s presence, it is important for you to jump to her defense, and make it clear that you see her ‘as a daughter’ or ‘as an employee’ or whatever you like, but just make sure she knows you will not have people talking about her in that way, and that you certainly do not think about her that way.

While I do think that any loving host parent would indeed try to defend her au pair against others’ rude and lascivious comments, I know that no matter how much you want to respond to these statements, it is always difficult.

Several weeks ago, overhearing some college boys laugh about how Rihanna must have been ‘just asking for it’, I interrupted them to tell them that no woman deserves to be hit, and that domestic violence was not funny. I really squashed their buzz, let me tell you. But also, my heart was pounding, I felt  awkward, and I went over and over the situation in my mind, for hours. It was the right thing to do and I did it just fine. It was still hard.

All this to say– it’s hard to respond effectively to sexism, racism, lewd comments, and social ugliness. And we must do it, to protect those we care about and to show our children that it must be done.

On that note, I want to share with you a post by my bloggingfriend Carmen Van Kerchove. It’s about racist jokes, but the principles apply more generally too. on chair.jpg

How to Respond to a Racist Joke
By Carmen Van Kerckhove

Figuring out how to react when a co-worker makes a racist joke can be extremely difficult. If you don’t call the person out on her racism, you seem to be condoning the behavior. But if you do say something, you risk alienating him and sabotaging your working relationship.

The best response to a racist joke should accomplish 3 things:

1. Communicate that you find this behavior unacceptable.
2. Demonstrate that the joke is racist.
3. Inflict as little damage as possible to your working relationship with the joker.

Before I explain the response I would recommend, let’s look at some of the other possible reactions available to you and why they are not ideal.

You don’t laugh.

Withholding your laughter is a way to avoid personally colluding in this kind of racist behavior without damaging your relationship with the joker. However, by staying silent, you do not necessarily make it clear that you find this kind of humor unacceptable and that the joke is racist.

You walk away.

People who tell racist jokes assume that you will agree with and appreciate this kind of humor. By walking away, you communicate that their behavior is unacceptable. However, the act of walking away does nothing to demonstrate the racism inherent in the joke, and the gesture is likely to anger the joker.

You say that you find the joke offensive because it is racist.

This is the most straight-forward to respond to a racist joke. With this reaction, you convey that the joke is unacceptable to you and that it is racist. However, by criticizing your co-worker in front of others in such a blunt manner, you are likely to damage your working relationship and put her on the defensive. She will likely fire back by making it seem as if you are the one with the problem. She will say that "it’s just a joke," that you need to "loosen up," and that you’re "just too sensitive."

I’ve established why the above responses are not particularly effective. So how should you react if your co-worker tells a racist joke in front of you?

The best strategy is to play dumb.

Put on a bewildered expression, act as if you don’t understand the joke, and ask your co-worker to explain it to you. He will not be able to explain why the joke is funny without evoking a racist stereotype. You can then question the veracity of this stereotype, thus pointing out the racism of the joke, without being confrontational and without humiliating your co-worker.

Here’s how it would play out.

Co-worker: Did you hear that Angelina Jolie adopted another kid, this time from Vietnam?

You: Oh really?

Co-worker: Yeah. The poor kid probably doesn’t even know he’s Asian yet. He certainly doesn’t know he’s going to be a horrible driver. Or that he’s going to be amazing at doing nails. He has no idea! [Laughs heartily.]

You: [Look perplexed.] Sorry, I don’t get it.

Co-worker: What do you mean?

You: I guess I’m missing something. Why is that funny?

Co-worker: [Looks embarrassed.] Um, well you know how people say that Asians are bad drivers. And a lot of people who work at nail salons are Asian.

You: But those are just stereotypes, aren’t they?

Co-worker: Well, all stereotypes have some truth to them.

You: So you actually believe that all Asians are bad drivers and are good at doing nails?

Co-worker: No, no, it’s just… Never mind.

Racist jokes rely on an unspoken, shared knowledge of racist stereotypes. Without the stereotypes, there is no humor.

When you play dumb and ask someone to explain the joke, you are able to draw the racist stereotype out into the open, address it directly, and demonstrate how absurd and offensive it is. But because you are feigning ignorance, you can accomplish all of this without alienating your co-worker and putting your working relationship in jeopardy.

(By the way, the joke I used in this scenario is an actual joke told on The Tonight Show by a comedian named Chelsea Handler. Of course, nobody on the show bothered to point out how racist it was.)

© 2004-2009 New Demographic.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of the diversity education firm New Demographic, specializes in working with corporations to facilitate relaxed, authentic, and productive conversations about race. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and has visited as a guest lecturer at Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia, among many other colleges and universities across the country. If you want to learn how to boost your career by mastering the changing dynamics of race in today’s workplace, get your FREE TIPS now at


TMK May 19, 2009 at 12:58 pm

I have not had anyone tell a racist joke yet, but I have had comments about the au pair system being “slave labor”. I respond by pointing out that they do not work more than 45 hours per week, I pay for college courses, they have full use of a vehicle and the safety of living with a family while have a wonderful cultural exchange for a year. My comments are usually met with “Wow I wish I could have done something like that!”

rox May 19, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Thanks for bringing this up. If this joke happens in the workplace, more would need to be done to prevent this person from costing the company a load of harrassment money from someone, inter-office relationships be damned. As a manager I’d immediately call the person out especially if there were others present.

Darthastewart May 21, 2009 at 1:16 pm

I actually had a manager at a previous employer make rude comments about me having an au-pair. _sigh_ It’s really hard to call your boss on stuff like that.

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