Bill the Accidental Racist



Prior to joining the US Post Office four years ago, I spent nearly three decades in retailing management. Retailing has it good and bad points, and I became convinced that it’s definitely a career meant for the young and healthy. But, that’s not what this post is about.

This is a true story about the worst accidental racist I’ve ever known.

We’ll call him Bill. It’s a common enough name, and, as it just so happens, it was his. I was working as what the Target Corporation calls a Logistics Team Leader, and Bill was the Hardlines Team Leader. These were fancy titles that meant “Assistant Manager.” Bill was quick-witted and funny, and we became fast friends, even though we were from different generations.

Bill was a lot of things, but I never considered him to be a racist.

I didn’t witness this first incident. In fact, it was Bill who finally told me everything that happened. One of the young men who worked for Bill had a tendency to disappear on him. It wasn’t uncommon. Occasionally, you get employees who work harder at avoiding work than they would if they actually did their assigned jobs. Sometimes, it’s not simply a matter of laziness. Hormones can often be blamed. I had male team members working for me in the stockroom who would go out of their way to visit with pretty female workers on the salesfloor. While I couldn’t condone it, I did understand it. We were all young once.

In this particular case, the young man in question would never be in the area Bill had assigned him. Bill was frustrated with having to look for him all the time. Bill called the young man aside to have a conversation that would be considered a verbal warning.

During the conversation, the young man made excuses, and, by his own admission, Bill got a little hot under the collar. At some point, Bill made the following comment, or something similar: “I am sick and tired of having to track you down every time you work. You’re like a ninja hopping all over the place!”

This comment led to Bill having to be called in to the Store Team Leader’s (store manager’s) office, with the Team Relations Team Leader (HR manager) present. Plus, he had to get on a conference call with the District Team Leader and HR leaders higher up the chain. The upshot of it was Bill had to apologize to the young man, and had been cautioned to think before he said things in the future. Maybe he even had a black mark on his permanent record. Who knows? And who cares? Not Bill. He later left retailing and moved to Germany, where he still lives, last I heard.

When Bill told me he was in trouble with HR for referring to an employee as a “ninja,” I asked, “Is the guy Japanese?”

No, Bill said. The offended young man, who was unable to stay in whatever area Bill assigned him to work, was an African-American. He told HR that he didn’t know what a “ninja” was, but it is an N-word. He assumed that it was a racial slur.

You gotta be kidding me, I said.

By this point, Bill had been turned into a Stepford Manager by HR. He said that it doesn’t matter that he didn’t intend for his words to be racially insensitive. The young man’s perception was his reality. The truth was that Bill should not have lost his temper and said anything that might be misconstrued as a racist comment.

I can’t remember exactly what I said in response to this, but I’m pretty sure that male bovine excrement was at least a component of it. Bill wasn’t a racist. I knew that.

Flash forward a bit, and Bill and I are taking our morning break one day. At that time, the Target Cafe in our store had introduced breakfast burritos that were pretty tasty. Bill and I were fans, and had decided to buy a couple of them before we joined the rest of the leadership team in Starbucks.

Bill, in a good mood, was joking around with Rita, the young lady working the counter that morning. “Good morning, Rita,” he said. “Hey, do you mind if I call you ‘Burr-Rita’?”

Is it because I’m Hispanic?” she said.

Bill’s eyes popped open wide. “Oh, God. No!” he exclaimed, scrambling to explain his joke and the burrito connection. He stammered. A lot.

Afterward, as we were eating our breakfast, Bill’s good mood seemed to have vanished. He was much more subdued, probably hoping he wasn’t about to end up on another conference call.

Later, I would tell him that he was, by far, the worst accidental racist I’ve ever known.

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