How Do I Deal With Ignorant Comments About Jews At Work?

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Dear Miriam,

I am in my first professional job out of school in a pretty conservative office in a pretty rural and conservative part of the country. Since I started in this role, my supervisor has made some vaguely antisemitic comments and jokes, which include referring to her son’s long beard as “Jewy,” and talking about how you never hear about good Jewish restaurants, among other things. I don’t think the comments are coming from a malicious place, but more so from an ignorant one. I signed a contract to work here for a year. How should I handle this situation?

Uncomfortable in Kentucky

Dear Uncomfortable,

This definitely sounds like an unfavorable work environment, and I’m sorry you’re experiencing this difficult set of circumstances, especially in your first professional role. I don’t think you have to plan your exit, though. I have some ideas for you to advocate for yourself, educate the people around you, and hopefully create a better all around experience, all while figuring out your own boundaries and deciding when you may need a change.

Make sure you are documenting everything your supervisor says that strikes you as even vaguely antisemitic. Write these things down somewhere that is not solely in work email or on a work computer so that if things ever escalate, you have records of your own that you won’t have to turn over.

While you’re keeping track, if you have an HR department, that is the place to start. You can keep things vague and say, “Someone who I work with here has made prejudiced comments that are inappropriate at work and that make me uncomfortable. What should I do?” Maybe there’s a way to fill out an anonymous report, or maybe you feel like you can trust someone in HR with the details. Hopefully there are systems in place to handle situations like this, and you can go back to doing your job (and documenting what you hear) without feeling responsible.

If there’s no HR department or if your office is so small that it would be obvious who you’re talking about in a way that could be problematic, consider what you might say to your supervisor directly. It’s possible that saying, “I’m Jewish and that comment made me uncomfortable,” might be enough. Even if she continues to think antisemitic thoughts, if she doesn’t say them around you, that’s a big improvement. She may really not know why “Jewy” as an adjective is problematic, and that’s where the education piece comes in. You will benefit from some level of confidence in explaining why this is a problem (relying on stereotypes, calling people out based on religion or ethnicity, judging people’s appearances, etc).

She may push back, she may play dumb or actually not understand, but if you can continue to be polite and firm in the face of any comments like this, she will hopefully eventually get the idea. Even better, if you can say this in front of other coworkers with whom you have a rapport, you may get some support.

And, you may not. If the comments don’t stop, if HR or other coworkers don’t support you, then you will need to decide for yourself what you can tolerate. You may need to look for another job, and you may even decide you’d be happier in another town or part of the country. But before you do anything drastic, start with the possibility that human interaction and communication may be enough to effect change, however small, that might make your life better.

Good luck, and be well,