I am a Dental Assistant at a community health center. I found after taking the job I am the only white person that works in my office. I am not racist nor do I care what color my coworkers are, I like everyone. But there seems to be some problems with one lady that works with me. She is a senior employee and is in her 70’s. She is very rude and hateful to me. It is to the extreme that I can’t ask a question without her raising her voice and getting angry. She has called me “that white girl” and on a regular basis talks about me. I have talked to my supervisor how is also black, and she told me to overlook her because she is old and that our place of work is a Christian environment and we should respect our elders. I am not sure what to do. I like the job in spite of her and the pay is better than any other I have had. It is a small office and I can’t just stay away from her. I am the minority and I can’t say too much of anything. What should I do?
That White Girl
Dear That White Girl:
Take the advice of your supervisor to “overlook her.” Many newly employed individuals encounter coworkers who are rude and unfriendly. Obviously this older soul has made you feel like you’ve walked into a room with people already engaged in conversation and when you tried to join in you are rejected. In that kind of situation, you would have to wait to speak at an opportune time and to bite your tongue until that arrives. You say you “can’t just stay away from her” so what might you do? How have you responded to her so far when she raises her voice and appears angry? Do you say, “Ms. Jones, you have raised your voice and seem angry. Shouldn’t I ask you about this?” That would be a way to confront her in an assertive yet respectful tone. Should she then reply, “No, I’m not angry. You should already know this.” You could say, “I’m sorry, Ms. Jones, I’m trying to learn and I would appreciate your help because you know what needs to be done around here.” This kind of exchange is an example of dealing with a particular task.Should you hear her refer to you as “that white girl”, you can ignore that realizing that she does consider you different. After all you are white and as she gets to know your name she probably will come to use it. Or you can confront her in good humor such as, “Ms. Jones, I’ve heard you refer to me as “that white girl” and you are right, I am white, but my name is Kelly and I hope you will get used to calling me by my first name, just as you use the first names of our other employees.” Perhaps you can ask your supervisor if it would be good for you to request a time-out conversation with Ms. Jones if you feel she continues to treat you rudely. In a one-on-one conversation with her, you could spill out your frustration and hurt, “I know I am new here even after two months (or whatever time you’ve been there), Ms. Jones, and I know you are respected here. I probably have made mistakes, but I want to be liked and to do a good job. Why don’t you like me? Have I offended you? Don’t you think a white girl should work here? How would you feel if you were newly employed in an all white dental office and one of the employees treated you as you have treated me? Is there anything that I can do to make you treat me respectfully and maybe even like me?” Of course you would find your own words and you wouldn’t say all of these things in one long speech. Such a conversation would entail turn taking and respectfully listening before answering. You would have to decide how frank you would be. But before further seeking your supervisor’s advice or requesting that you have a one-on-one with Ms. Jones, patiently do your best to work cooperatively. You say yours is a small office. Since that is the setting, should Ms. Jones continue to be rude your supervisor will see her rudeness. I predict that when your supervisor witnesses that she will consul her. But if she doesn’t, you can put up with rudeness in a polite and professional way. You might not be able to win her over, but if you interact with her sweetly and firmly at times when she is rude, you can do as you supervisor advised, “to overlook her.” Do these thoughts make sense? Most importantly, for now don’t obsess and gossip about this. Don’t see yourself as a victim. Be as efficient and cheerful as you can. After all the pay is good and you have a job. Think positively about delighting coworkers and patients. Think about the meaning of my signature sentence: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. After a few weeks, do let us know how things are going in this adventure.