What Should I Do About My Racially Obtuse Co-Worker?

I work in the public sector and have a great relationship with most of my colleagues. One of my co-workers, a caring person who works hard for the community we serve, has more than once made racially insensitive comments, using phrases like “playing the race card” and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” I am black, and this person is white. I’ve been honest with this person about how these comments strike me, but I get the feeling that what I’ve said has not made an impression.

Recently my colleague profusely praised a group of people but then questioned the group’s achievements, saying it was rumored that some cheating occurred. When I asked if there was any evidence of cheating, my co-worker admitted there wasn’t. I want to express how deeply troubling I find my colleague’s comments without causing friction in our relationship. I read the book “White Fragility,” and I know how defensive people can get when questioned about their racial viewpoints. I realize that I can’t change a person’s feelings about different “racial” groups, but I believe it’s important to make clear to my co-worker that these comments perpetuate stereotypes about “people of color.” Any advice? Name Withheld

First, let’s stipulate that “playing the race card” could be a fair accusation — as when a person of color responds to reasonable criticism with the unreasonable imputation of racial animus. And it’s possible to believe, sincerely and dispassionately, that people can best address their economic and social problems by “pulling themselves up by the bootstraps,” buckling down and working hard to escape from poverty.

But the expression “playing the race card” is also used in contexts where it reflects a belief that there’s no persisting racial bias in our country, which, given the abundant evidence to the contrary, could suggest that the speaker’s sense of social reality is filtered by racial bias. Similar things can be said of talk about “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” Especially if it turns out the speaker makes such remarks only about black people, the suspicion of bias again arises. (I take it that what troubles you about the suggestion of cheating is along the same lines: Your colleague wouldn’t have made such a suggestion about a group of white people.)

Because, as you note, we all react defensively to such charges, making them is unlikely to change someone’s mind. In each of these cases, the hypothesis that some sort of racial bias is operating requires an interpretation of your colleague’s remarks that could be contested. And people are pretty good at seeing their own behavior in the best light and pretty bad at seeing an invidious pattern to their assumptions. When we don’t recognize our biases, we’re unlikely to stop saying things that express them: We don’t know that’s what we’re doing.

You’ve given up — reasonably enough — trying to get your colleague to see the situation as you see it. At the same time, you clearly value this colleague, as a person and as a co-worker: You understand that people are complicated, not to be neatly sorted into saints and sinners. You would like not to be irked by performances of this sort, though. And you want to make this happen in a way that doesn’t irk someone with whom you have a good relationship.

Well, I’m not sure that can be done. But here’s an approach to consider. The next time this person irritates you by some remark that you find racially charged, try saying something like: “We’ve disagreed in the past about whether remarks like that are racially insensitive, and I’m not going to reopen that argument. But I find them irritating, so would you please, as a courtesy to me, refrain from airing them in my presence?” Your colleague may think that you’re playing the race card, but will, let us hope, avoid telling you so.

I am a consultant in the smart-energy field. At conferences, people in my field typically present work done for clients that provides information of interest to others. As in academia, presenting work at conferences is a valuable way of getting professional recognition. Recently, one of the more widely attended conferences accepted two of my abstracts for presentation. Both reported on work that I alone did and in one, I came up with innovative analyses. The conference does not allow one person to present more than one paper, so I identified myself as the presenter of one paper and asked a younger colleague to present the other.

Shortly after my abstracts were accepted, another company bought the company that I worked for, and I decided not to accept the new owner’s offer of employment. I remained an employee of the first company until it was dissolved, but I was never an employee of the one that bought it.

I notified my former employer that I would be happy to have someone from my old company as a co-author on the paper I was to present and that my former colleague could present the other paper, on which I would be identified as lead author. I discovered, however, that my name had been taken off both abstracts. I contacted my former employer, who said that the work was the intellectual property of the new company. I was offered the option of writing the paper and sitting in the audience, as a co-author, while someone else presented it. Otherwise, the new company would withdraw the paper from the conference. It was unclear whether I was being offered the option of being a co-author on the second paper.

I understand intellectual-property issues; I probably signed a document stating that any work I did as an employee belonged to the company. I am not claiming ownership of the work, however, just the right to present it. I naturally would acknowledge my previous employer and I would be happy to have someone from that company as a co-author.

I told a friend who is a tenured university professor what happened, and he said that he had never heard of such a thing. He had collaborated with colleagues on research who then left his university but whose role on all submitted work was unchanged. Is my previous employer being ethical in trying to prevent me from presenting work that I alone conceived? Name Withheld

As is common in the private sector, you evidently ceded to your old employer the intellectual property you created as an employee. At least some of the content of your two papers — the material sketched in the abstracts — falls into its purview: The company has, in whole or in part, an ownership claim, which gives it a say in what you do with them.

A claim to ownership, however, doesn’t entail claims over authorship. A Jeff Koons rabbit can be yours for $91 million, but you don’t thereby acquire the right to say you made it, or helped make it. Similarly, under the Berne Convention (a longstanding international agreement about copyright, first adopted in 1886), an author who assigns the copyright of a work to another person or entity retains “moral rights,” including the right to be identified as the author and not to have the work distorted or misrepresented. Under the threat of withdrawing the papers altogether, your old employers are trying to dilute your authorship. They’re doing so by removing your name from the abstracts, by having you demote yourself to co-author (of at least one paper you would have been solely responsible for; with the other paper, it sounds as if you decided to spread credit yourself) and by preventing you from presenting either paper.

Here, they’re out of bounds. It’s an act of abuse when owners intrude into ascriptions of authorship. If the two papers were presented by others, you should feel free to stand up and say that you’re entirely responsible for one and did the analysis for the other, assuming that’s the case. In academia, typically, the ethos is indeed very different. Even when universities claim ownership of inventions by students or faculty that might generate commercial revenue, they tend to split the revenue with the inventors. An administration that sought to police the presentation of research and distort its authorship would be roundly vilified. Your previous firm may be within its rights in preventing you from presenting work you did as its employee, but its conduct is ungenerous, underhanded and alien to the spirit of intellectual inquiry that produces work worth owning.

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