When You’ve Had Enough of Your Co-Workers’ Racist Jokes

The infuriating impact of a toxic breakroom

Did you see me smile?

Was it even funny? Are you trying to test the plasticity of my face as you beckon me in with a warm, inviting interlude before launching into racist commentary that only gets uglier with each passing second? Our co-workers hang on for the punchline — the twisting knife that mocks several cultures at once in an adept play on words.

Look how clever you are.

How do I feel about your latest round of racist jokes? Should I stay silent because of my need to fit in with the group?

Wait, is that another Jew joke? Go on, point out my nose again. Are you referencing my ability to horde money while the world is going bust? Oh, I can relax for a moment. This one is all about skin color. I don’t count because I’m not brown enough and don’t need “several shades of shit kicked out of me.” What? You didn’t realize my dad was from Mumbai? Would that make any difference? It’s just a laugh, right? No harm intended. Where’s my sense of humor?

And the mocking continues.

I have issues because I’m uptight. I’m the one with the problem because I fail to see how “building a corner shop every time an Indian wins a corner” makes them crap at soccer. I fail to see the charm of labeling people “curry eaters.”

The use of dehumanizing language makes us all feel inadequate for not having the right shade. Is this a test of my masculinity to see if I can survive in this environment? Am I man enough? More double-edged wordplay provokes hilarity among the men.

“Lighten up,” the crowd-pleasing foreman says to me.

Lighten up? There goes another gaffe. I’m obviously hyper-sensitive now. Is that another poke at my heritage? About my skin color? I can’t lighten up, obviously. It’s in my DNA. At least I’m loaded, right? Regular Bank of England, us Jews. We practically rule the world.

The epithets spew. Them. Other. That mass of faceless immigrants who helped forge the country. Know your place. Indian. Jew. Gay. Woman. Single mom. Every non-White hetero male.

The hyenas keep on laughing.

Today won’t be the day I change minds, but I’ll be fucked if I join in. They’ve switched topics. It’s another lunchtime favorite: sports. They’re talking cricket, another game favored by the genteel class of White men. “Kiwis” (New Zealanders) are good. “Poms” (the British) are okay. “Pakis” (Pakistanis), not so sure.

My Indian dad was beaten up for being a “paki.” He came home in tears that night... They failed to kick the shit out of him. He remained brown even after the beating.

Again the foreman, chief joker, uses the slurs that everyone knows. Again there’s no dissenting voice to say it isn’t okay. My Indian dad was beaten up for being a “paki.” He came home in tears that night. He never identified himself as “other” or as Indian. He believed in his Englishness. They failed to kick the shit out of him. He remained brown even after the beating. Over three decades in the country, and the little Englanders still didn’t accept him. Dad had the wrong shade of brown. He tried to be even more English; he took up gambling on horses.

A few coughs, a few looks — at least they’re now starting to look a little embarrassed by their choice of words. At least there’s some self-awareness at what they’ve said. The lunchtime crowd no longer focuses their attention on me. I’ve made them all feel awkward. I can tell they all wish I were somewhere else. Probably back where I came from — 10 miles down the road, eating lunch at home.

So we go back to work as if nothing has happened.

Lunch ends. Time to rejoin the rest of the workforce. Time to mingle with other cultures. Time to work alongside the Polish, Indians, Irish, and the rest of the migrants. Time to pretend they’re not racist.

I can see the foreman make a note to remind himself to send a non-inclusive email. He needs to let the boys know to avoid the Jew because I’m sensitive. I’m still not smiling. But he’s not either.

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