Racism in the Office

Today I was at an office party and the conversation turned to race, specifically the incidence of unarmed Afro-American men and boys who are shot by police. Apparently the idea that white people (even in other countries) might treat non-white people badly offends some people, so we had a man try to explain that Afro-Americans commit more crime and therefore are more likely to get shot. This part of the discussion isn’t even noteworthy, it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time.

I and another man pointed out that crime is correlated with poverty and racism causes non-white people to be disproportionately poor. We also pointed out that US police seem capable of arresting proven violent white criminals without shooting them (he cited arrests of Mafia members I cited mass murderers like the one who shot up the cinema). This part of the discussion isn’t particularly noteworthy either. Usually when someone tries explaining some racist ideas and gets firm disagreement they back down. But not this time.

The next step was the issue of whether black people are inherently violent. He cited all of Africa as evidence. There’s a meme that you shouldn’t accuse someone of being racist, it’s apparently very offensive. I find racism very offensive and speak the truth about it. So all the following discussion was peppered with him complaining about how offended he was and me not caring (stop saying racist things if you don’t want me to call you racist).

Next was an appeal to “statistics” and “facts”. He said that he was only citing statistics and facts, clearly not understanding that saying “Africans are violent” is not a statistic. I told him to get his phone and Google for some statistics as he hadn’t cited any. I thought that might make him just go away, it was clear that we were long past the possibility of agreeing on these issues. I don’t go to parties seeking out such arguments, in fact I’d rather avoid such people altogether if possible.

So he found an article about recent immigrants from Somalia in Melbourne (not about the US or Africa, the previous topics of discussion). We are having ongoing discussions in Australia about violent crime, mainly due to conservatives who want to break international agreements regarding the treatment of refugees. For the record I support stronger jail sentences for violent crime, but this is an idea that is not well accepted by conservatives presumably because the vast majority of violent criminals are white (due to the vast majority of the Australian population being white).

His next claim was that Africans are genetically violent due to DNA changes from violence in the past. He specifically said that if someone was a witness to violence it would change their DNA to make them and their children more violent. He also specifically said that this was due to thousands of years of violence in Africa (he mentioned two thousand and three thousand years on different occasions). I pointed out that European history has plenty of violence that is well documented and also that DNA just doesn’t work the way he thinks it does.

Of course he tried to shout me down about the issue of DNA, telling me that he studied Psychology at a university in London and knows how DNA works, demanding to know my qualifications, and asserting that any scientist would support him. I don’t have a medical degree, but I have spent quite a lot of time attending lectures on medical research including from researchers who deliberately change DNA to study how this changes the biological processes of the organism in question.

I offered him the opportunity to star in a Youtube video about this, I’d record everything he wants to say about DNA. But he regarded that offer as an attempt to “shame” him because of his “controversial” views. It was a strange and sudden change from “any scientist will support me” to “it’s controversial”. Unfortunately he didn’t give up on his attempts to convince me that he wasn’t racist and that black people are lesser.

The next odd thing was when he asked me “what do you call them” (black people), “do you call them Afro-Americans when they are here”. I explained that if an American of African ancestry visits Australia then you would call them Afro-American, otherwise not. It’s strange that someone goes from being so certain of so many things to not knowing the basics. In retrospect I should have asked whether he was aware that there are black people who aren’t African.

Then I sought opinions from other people at the party regarding DNA modifications. While I didn’t expect to immediately convince him of the error of his ways it should at least demonstrate that I’m not the one who’s in a minority regarding this issue. As expected there was no support for the ideas of DNA modifying. During that discussion I mentioned radiation as a cause of DNA changes. He then came up with the idea that radiation from someone’s mouth when they shout at you could change your DNA. This was the subject of some jokes, one man said something like “my parents shouted at me a lot but didn’t make me a mutant”.

The other people had some sensible things to say, pointing out that psychological trauma changes the way people raise children and can have multi-generational effects. But the idea of events 3000 years ago having such effects was ridiculed.

By this time people were starting to leave. A heated discussion of racism tends to kill the party atmosphere. There might be some people who think I should have just avoided the discussion to keep the party going (really I didn’t want it and tried to end it). But I’m not going to allow a racist to think that I agree with them, and if having a party requires any form of agreement to racism then it’s not a party I care about.

As I was getting ready to leave the man said that he thought he didn’t explain things well because he was tipsy. I disagree, I think he explained some things very well. When someone goes to such extraordinary lengths to criticise all black people after a discussion of white cops killing unarmed black people I think it shows their character. But I did offer some friendly advice, “don’t drink with people you work with or for or any other people you want to impress”, I suggested that maybe quitting alcohol altogether is the right thing to do if this is what it causes. But he still thought it was wrong of me to call him racist, and I still don’t care. Alcohol doesn’t make anyone suddenly think that black people are inherently dangerous (even when unarmed) and therefore deserving of being shot by police (disregarding the fact that police can take members of the Mafia alive). But it does make people less inhibited about sharing such views even when it’s clear that they don’t have an accepting audience.

Some Final Notes

I was not looking for an argument or trying to entrap him in any way. I refrained from asking him about other races who have experienced violence in the past, maybe he would have made similar claims about other non-white races and maybe he wouldn’t, I didn’t try to broaden the scope of the dispute.

I am not going to do anything that might be taken as agreement or support of racism unless faced with the threat of violence. He did not threaten me so I wasn’t going to back down from the debate.

I gave him multiple opportunities to leave the debate. When I insisted that he find statistics to support his cause I hoped and expected that he would depart. Instead he came back with a page about the latest racist dog-whistle in Australian politics which had no correlation with anything we had previously discussed.

I think the fact that this debate happened says something about Australian and British culture. This man apparently hadn’t had people push back on such ideas before.

12 comments to Racism in the Office

  • Rainer

    Thank you for following through. The pain these days is that these people are not ashamed anymore to utter their nonsense, and unpleasant as it is, pointing out again and again how nonsensical and bad their argument is, is the only way. Not to convince him (any minute is wasted) but to maintain decency for oneself and the people around

  • I’m not going to accept comments that use the same techniques as the racist man in question.

    “I saw statistics” is not acceptable, cite a reference to any statistics you want to claim.

    Anyone who’s reaction to police shooting unarmed people and getting away with it is to defend the police is a horrible person.

  • Rainer thanks for your comment.

  • Anyone who wants to claim that Afro-Americans deserve to be shot by police can use their own blog. I won’t publish such comments.

  • Thanks for this nice writing. The scope is much broader than “Australian and British culture”.
    I am used to behave exactly as you did. It is sometimes (often) socially difficult.
    Keeping silent makes me feel bad.

  • I agree that this problem has a wider scope than Australian and British culture. But when a man who has spent much of his life in London and now lives in Melbourne makes such claims it is evidence of the culture in those cities. I’m sure I could have had exactly the same conversation with someone who had lived in any other 2 English speaking countries, it’s just a matter of luck as to who has a few drinks and starts saying what they really think.

    I don’t think there’s any shortage of racist jerks in non-English speaking countries either. But the probability of such jerks trying to force their ideas upon me is much lower.

  • David Schoen

    Thanks for speaking out, very few do.

  • Ben Hutchings

    Thanks for speaking up against racism.

    About the DNA thing, surprisingly there might be a small element of truth there: it is possible for one’s environment to cause “epigenetic” changes that (de)activate some genes, and some of those changes are heritable. However, the idea that this would apply to whole racial groups – which are social groups not defined by genetics – is nonsense.

  • Yes the crazy guy mentioned epigenetics. But epigenetics doesn’t cover this.

    Firstly his claim was specifically that witnessing violence led to a DNA change. While there is research suggesting that epigenetic changes can occur from environmental issues such as famine there is no evidence that it’s just about thoughts. If it was just about thoughts then it would be triggered by watching boxing or MMA on TV!

    Next there’s the issue that Europe has a well documented history of war, this was raised with him on the day.

    Another issue is that if there were such epigenetic changes then there are lots of different ways that they could go. Human history has always been about people forming increasingly large groups to deal with the threat of violence. If there was an epigenetic response to violence then it might be greater socialisation to form larger and more effective armies.

    There has been some research on children of Holocaust survivors, above is a link to one that’s behind a paywall but the summary is interesting (basically that the non-clinical population of children of survivors show no difference but the clinical population have different issues). I didn’t mention this on the night because dealing with his anti-black racism was enough I didn’t need to have an argument about the Holocaust too.

    Some of the research on the Holocaust suggests epigenetic issues, but that’s in the context of starvation. I haven’t seen any referencing the violence as a solitary issue.

    Then there’s Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist who has the mental wiring of a serial killer. He was raised in a good environment so ended up ok.

    Slave owners claimed that slaves were by nature docile which was why they didn’t deserve freedom. The myth of docile slaves was being propagated until at least the 1950’s.

    Finally any reading of history regarding how slaves were treated shows that Afro-Americans are not the violent ones.

  • erika

    Thank you for standing up to this guy. It’s a history of letting people like him go unchallenged that allows these absurd ideas to fester and spread, so you absolutely did the right thing.

    He’s the one that ruined the party anyway, not you.

    “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

  • Erika: thanks for your comment.

    Cxed: thanks for that link, I’d definitely write a song like that if I had any musical talent!