One day, I was out with friends when we stopped for ice cream. While we were sitting down enjoying our sundaes, I casually commented how much I love jimmies as a topping. One of my friends, who happens to be Black, said, “You shouldn’t use that word.”
I looked at her perplexed. “What’s wrong with the word jimmies?”
“It has racist connotations. Some people find it offensive.”
I was taken aback. I had never heard such a thing—and if I’m being truly honest, my defensive side thought it was a ridiculous assumption. They were named jimmies, after all. Nonetheless, I took her comment to heart. “What should I call them?” I asked.
“Call them chocolate sprinkles.”
I never called them jimmies again.
The moral of the story is this: Sometimes people use words that hurt others’ feelings, but it doesn’t always mean the intention is there. Sometimes people just need to be educated about why their words or actions can be offensive.
It is especially unfortunate when a misunderstanding about a topic as sensitive as racism festers for so long and to such an extent that it becomes a legal dispute, rather than resolved civilly. Take, for example, a recent case before an employment tribunal in London, in which George Gyimah, a former compliance executive at Commerzbank, alleged he was subjected to race discrimination and harassment for facing “derogatory” remarks over … chicken.
At 102 pages, the tribunal panel’s judgment is extensive, but the core of the case centers on two key incidents. According to Gyimah, on two separate occasions, Bastian Buhlmann, a coworker, “us[ed] a racially offensive stereotype” about Gyimah loving chicken, which Gyimah said was a “derogatory caricature about Black people.”
In the first incident, Gyimah alleged, when discussing which restaurant to go to for a team lunch, Buhlmann commented, “‘Why don’t we go to Nando’s, George, you like chicken.” In the second incident, Gyimah alleged, “Buhlmann offered me chicken as a reward in a jovial manner when the team were [sic] having a discussion about our new desk location.” Specifically, Buhlmann is alleged to have said, “‘Give me your desk, and I will give you chicken.’”
Throughout the case, supporting evidence was presented that Gyimah did express on a few occasions his love for chicken. In the end, the tribunal panel found in favor of Buhlmann, concluding he was “attempting on both occasions to be friendly.” The panel ruled Buhlmann made the remarks not because Gyimah was Black, but because of Gyimah’s “advertised liking for chicken.”
Further, the tribunal panel noted neither Buhlmann nor other witnesses to the incidents were native English speakers and, thus, accepted supporting evidence that his coworkers were “not aware of any stereotype about Black people and chicken or fried chicken.”
Additionally, court documents state, an internal grievance appeal was held, in which Gyimah alleged he was asked “absurd questions” to justify the chicken comments. Again, the tribunal panel disagreed with Gyimah, finding he was being provided the “opportunity to comment on the evidence obtained from other witnesses. This was an entirely fair way to proceed.”
As trivial as this case may sound, the ethics lessons it imparts are important. Maybe Gyimah’s coworker truly wasn’t aware his comments were hurtful—in the same way I never knew jimmies could be interpreted as having racial connotations. The more willing we are to both understand cultural sensitivities and forgive each other’s shortcomings, without putting up walls, the better off we will all be as a society.