Sunday, October 13, 2019

If you meet racism at the store, do you call it out?

After a reader I'm calling Kris told me about her experience at her local big box office supply store, I found myself double-checking the store's online site to see if what Kris reported could possibly be true. While having copies made at the store, Kris noticed a display of items intended for use on an office desk. One of the items was one of those wooden blocks about a foot long and four or five inches high that have an inspirational word or quote on them.

But Kris found nothing inspirational about the saying on this block. Instead, there were words designed to capture an ethnic dialect in what presumably was deemed to be an amusing desk accoutrement. The deliberately exaggerated dialogue reminded Kris of the kinds of taunts schoolyard bullies would use against those kids who were somehow different from them.

"I was surprised that any place would carry such an item," writes Kris. Once her copying order was completed, Kris paid for it and left the store. But she couldn't get that sign out of her mind. "What should I have done?"

After Kris told me of her experience, I searched for items with that saying on the office supply store's website. I didn't find the block, but I did find a coffee mug with the same saying on it. A further search online turned up a sign similar to the one Kris had described available at a well-known discount department store. Still further searches found all sorts of imprinted wearables available with the same saying.

Kris was right to be upset. I wrestled with whether or not to repeat the saying in print, but ultimately decided that putting a phrase that struck both Kris and me as insensitive and racist in print was inappropriate.

When she was at the store, Kris could have asked to speak with a manager to express her concern. It's doubtful that the individual store manager has control over the entire chain's inventory, but he or she does have the power to shepherd concerns of customers to those who might do something to address them. But Kris has already left the store.

If she is truly troubled by the sign and she indicates that she is, the right thing to do is to articulate that concern to the corporate offices of the chain. If she snapped a photo with her smartphone of the item, all the better to send it to the company. If that yields no response, she might consider enlisting the help of friends and others equally offended to write the company. If she still receives no response from the company, then Kris might consider taking her concern to the local press.

Calling people out on racist actions is the right thing to do. Calling out the people at companies who make decisions that can be deemed to be racist is also the right thing to do. Having had my attention drawn to these items by Kris, I plan to make some calls myself. There's no excuse for items promoting racist tropes to be peddled to the public nor for the rest of us to condone them. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglinDo you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 


Sunday, October 06, 2019

No need to bring up neighbor's inconsistencies

A reader we're calling Daniel has lived in the same neighborhood bordering a large city in New England for almost 40 years. He and his wife purchased their house, raised their kids and watched as urban sprawl increased the value of their neighborhood.

What were once multifamily houses that could be purchased at a reasonable price for a working or middle-class family were now being gobbled up and converted to million-dollar condos. Nevertheless, Daniel saw the value of his home grow as well, but aside from steeper property taxes it didn't change how Daniel and his wife maintained their property.

Shortly after a new neighbor purchased one of the pricey condos about a year ago, he mentioned to Daniel that out of concern for the environment he and the other condo owners in his building, he planned to use a push reel lawn mower rather than a gas lawn mower.

Daniel still uses an old gas lawn mower to mow his lawn. At the time his neighbor mentioned his machine preferences, Daniel doubted his neighbor knew about his own preferences. But his neighbor has since seen or heard Daniel mow his lawn.

A few weeks ago as Daniel was unloading bundles from the trunk of his car, his neighbor strolled by and asked him if he could borrow his gas mower sometime the following day because he had let his grass grow too long to use the push mower.

"My initial response was to say 'sure,'" writes Daniel. But he wonders if he should have said something to remind his neighbor about how important he said it was for him to avoid using a gas mower to avoid adding to his carbon footprint. "Or should I have just said 'no'"? asks Daniel.

Daniel's neighbor's decision to avoid using products that add to air pollution is a good one for him. It's not clear he was judging Daniel because he continued to use a gas mower. If his neighbor decides to use a gas mower to enable him to more easily catch up on his missed lawn mowing, that's a choice he has to make.

It would have been OK for Daniel to say "no" when asked to borrow his mower. Given that he regularly helps out neighbors by lending a hand or a tool, that would not be in keeping with Daniel's style. Besides, he already agreed to the loan.

Whether or not he reminds his neighbor about his original declaration depends on the type of relationship they have. If they've kidded around before and he wants to rib the neighbor about his inconsistency in a joking manner, that's up to him.

But unless it is in the spirit of joking around, belittling his neighbor over his inconsistency hardly seems a neighborly thing to do. If Daniel has maintained some sort of grudge since the neighbor's initial mower comments and sees this as an opportunity to put him in his place, that reeks of pettiness.

The right thing is simply to lend his neighbor his gas mower if he wants to and to avoid lending anything he doesn't care to lend now or in the future because he doesn't want to. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglinDo you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to