I am an undergraduate research assistant in a biology lab. I was having an informal conversation while working at lab with my professor and a colleague of him. In the middle of our conversation, my professor passed a racially insensitive remark at me (I can reproduce here if someone wants to know). However, he realized it and walked away immediately. I am very upset.

But after few hours, he came back and he was conversing with me like nothing happened, but I am still upset. Can you all tell me how to handle this? My options are to ask him if he did that unknowingly or to keep quiet. But I really want to know if he feels sorry for what he said. I really don't want to complain to his superiors, but I want him to apologize to me for what he said. Is this unreasonable? if not, how should I go about dealing with this person?

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    @VahidShirbisheh "If he was an understanding person, he would never make a racial comment in the first place" - I disagree; in academia people come from different cultures, what is unacceptable in one culture might be OK in another. Not saying this is the case for the OP but still... Skipping over the head of someone means that person is incapable of solving an issue in a proper manner.
    – posdef
    Mar 8, 2013 at 9:21
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    @VahidShirbisheh short answer to your question; absolutely not. Nothing justifies a wrong behavior. On the other hand, allow me to demonstrate what I mean by an example; calling someone with a dark complexion "black" is not offensive in many cultures/languages, however it is politically incorrect in the U.S. and based on what I head from my American friends, it's totally unacceptable in a professional environment. You might not know that if you haven't lived in that culture long enough.
    – posdef
    Mar 8, 2013 at 10:21
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    ... Assuming that a person has bad morals, or that he/she is a racist etc, without pointing out what they have said or done is not OK, is not fair in my opinion.
    – posdef
    Mar 8, 2013 at 10:21
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    @posdef: I (an American) think "black" is perfectly fine; for example, the phrase "historically black colleges" is standard, whereas *"historically African-American colleges" is bizarre. But in typical workplaces, there's little reason to use these terms anyway.
    – ruakh
    Mar 8, 2013 at 23:03
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    Please reproduce the allegedly racially insensitive remark in your question.
    – wim
    Mar 9, 2013 at 5:49

7 Answers 7


In your question, However, he realized it and walked away immediately. and But after few hours, he came back and he was conversing with me like nothing happened

indicate to me that he felt sorry and didn't know exactly how to deal with it.

Professors are also human. They make the same mistakes others do.

I would suggest you to talk to him in person about this incident politely and seriously. Tell him that you are upset with the remarks he made earlier and explain to him why. Don't be emotional.

Whether or not he will apologize is up to him. If he doesn't offer apology to you after you talk to him, then talk to his superiors if you want the apology.


I guess it depends on the personalities to a certain extent but it's always good to talk to the person, to weed out any misunderstandings and/or give that person a chance to explain him/her-self.

If I were in your shoes, I would start by asking the person if you can have a 1-to-1 meeting, during which I would take up:

  • what you heard him/her say
  • that it bothers you for reasons: A,B,C ...
  • and that you wonder if he/she meant what was said, or if it was untimely and insensitive joke.

Given the offense is really bothering you, I personally wouldn't advocate for keeping quite and letting it go. Insensitivity aside, if your boss has racially-demeaning or insulting opinions, then it's probably not the kind of place you want to work at anyways. It would be better to know that...

I have to stress that even though my suggestion might seem confrontational, with right tone and choice of words I am certain it would not appear so to the professor in question. For reference, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_Communication


You say you have two options - to ask or to ignore. Actually you have many options - infinitely many. One of these would be to get to know your professor better. This I recommend.

There are compusive disorders that impell people to say shocking things. Tourette's syndrome is an extreme case, but there are others. Sometimes we just do stupid things.Some people find it terribly hard to apologise. We humans are very complex. Nobody knows what it feels like to live in inside another's skin.


See if your campus offers diversity training (a Google search of allintext:diversity training faculty site:edu shows that many US institutions offer this).

If so, go to the organizers of the courses and ask for advice about what to do. Before you mention the name of the faculty member to them, ask what would be the consequence of giving that information.

  • I'm curious why downvoters didn't say why they downvoted. Apr 1, 2015 at 16:17
  • Don't know. Maybe because you weren't able to be more precise about which site yet you can't. I think your answer is valuable. Jan 24, 2016 at 8:13

I tend towards not expecting an apology at a gaffe. If it doesn't repeat, you can assume they were possibly mortified themselves. If you insist on an apology, you may even get it, but what's the point, beside making them lose face? (Well, some people expect that as compensation for themselves being insulted, but you should ask yourself if you really need this).

An apology which is given freely and by own initiative is worth by far the most.

If the offence repeats, you can assume it's not a gaffe. Now you could really insist on an apology, but in my experience, it shows more aplomb, and, in fact, is far more powerful, to then move towards acting coldly, aloof and professional. This shows you're the boss here and they the immature kid (even if age-wise, it's reversed).


Actually, I was in a very similar situation once. It didn't actually bother me as much as it seems to bother you.

But - I could tell on the inside that the professor in this situation, felt really really bad afterwards. I could tell that he was a good guy, but just made a mistake.

After that, he treated me extremely well in order to 'make up' for what he did. Though, I didn't say anything about it or ask for an apology.

If you really want an apology, confront him professionally about the issue. It was his mistake. And afterwards, I believe he will treat you with the at most respect in order to 'make up' for what he did.

  • In your special case (which may not be the same as the asker's) where you could tell that the professor felt really really bad and tried to 'make up' for it in ways other than an explicit apology, in my opinion there is actually something that you can do to immediately resolve the tension and discomfort on both sides: Tell the professor: "I was bothered at that particular moment of [your remark/behaviour] (spelt out briefly), but if it was a mistake I can understand and put it aside. Okay?" In other words, there is no need for a 'confrontation', although a mutual resolution is beneficial.
    – user21820
    Oct 25, 2017 at 8:15

He didn't mean it. I am not sure whether it is a good idea to bring the issue again.
I think your professor felt sorry about it and thats why he left and came back (a good indication he has nothing against you).

I really suggest not to make it public nor bring the issue again and as long as he is a fair and kind professor, that is what you need. If the racial issue comes again, then that is another story.

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    I really don't agree with this. If the professor did in fact feel sorry about it, then he will presumably apologise if the issue is brought up, and this will make the OP feel better. Why exactly do you think it might be best not to bring it up? How do you think it could hurt?
    – Tara B
    Mar 8, 2013 at 16:16
  • @TaraB The behavior tells us that the professor felt sorry for that. Now whether he do apologies for it is another story. He probably might do it without asking. Also, If the OP can't forget about it then he definitely should raise it but this might come with the cost of losing the professor's help. This said, we really do not know what happened exactly and I see nothing force the student to raise it specially if it was unintentional incident from a good professor.
    – seteropere
    Mar 8, 2013 at 17:23
  • Not make it public? This is no obligation on the OP! I know you don't his career to destroyed but still... Mar 8, 2013 at 17:45
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    @seteropere: "The behavior tells us that the professor felt sorry for that": clearly that hasn't been enough for the OP. If raising the issue politely would cause the student to lose the professor's help, there is a big issue there and it needs to be dealt with rather than just swept under the carpet. Fortunately, I doubt it's that serious.
    – Tara B
    Mar 8, 2013 at 19:58

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