Racism in the Workplace: Recognize, Report, and Prevent Racial Discrimination

Katie McBeth
racial discrimination

Racism in America is a very hot button issue. Despite the attention it receives from media personalities and politicians, it still remains a common and prevalent problem in today’s society.

Racism is often boiled down to its most basic definition: discrimination and negative stereotyping based on race or skin color. However, the truest definition of racism — that of systemic or institutional racism — is much more broad, and understanding that definition can help illustrate the some of the lived experiences of people of color in America.

In essence, systemic or institutional racism is the structural oppression of people of color based on long-standing negative beliefs or stereotypes, a history of segregation and racial policing, as well as the beneficial treatment and favoring of whiteness and the promotion of white supremacy. There’s a whole lot more that could be said on the subject, but the fact of the matter is this: racism is alive and well in modern America, and it unfortunately will be until the power structures that perpetuate it can be totally dismantled.

Because racism still exists in society it is still very prevalent within the workforce, but has become more subtle over the years. Despite any anti-discrimination laws that have been put into place, racial prejudices can still have a negative effect on an applicant’s ability to land a job, or on an employee’s ability to be taken seriously.

How can someone not only recognize racial discrimination, but also combat racism in the workplace? What sort of steps should you take if you believe you’ve been the victim of racial discrimination or believe you have witnessed it?

Let’s dive into the basics of confronting, reporting, and combating racism within the workplace.

Recognize the Signs of Racial Discrimination in the Workplace

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (specifically Title VII), is the anti-discrimination law that protects people from experiencing discrimination in employment based on race, as well as many other protected classes. This law is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Racial discrimination can be both overt and subtle. One of the biggest challenges to recognizing racism is the fact that it is constantly changing and adjusting to societal standards. Just as with any other form of bias, acceptable behavior in society is constantly evolving. More blatant forms of racism in today’s world will be confronted and punished by most, whereas more subtle forms (although still just as harmful) can go undetected and unchallenged.

These subtle forms of racial bias are also known as “microaggressions.” They can be seemingly harmless comments that actually cause serious emotional harm over time, or they can petty slights or obstacles that disproportionately affect people of color. One of the best ways to consider the impact of microaggressions was illustrated by Fusion Comedy — metaphorically equating these subtle bias’ with mosquito bites. One bite might be annoying, but multiple bites multiple times a day can be infuriating and can leave a heavy emotional impact on the victim.

Despite how challenging it may be to identify racial bias or microaggressions in the office, it’s extremely important to address the issue and put a stop to the behavior. If you’re a leader within your organization, be sure to listen to marginalized voices when they speak up about something that has affected them (even if the microaggression has come from you). The best way to combat bias is to be willing to listen, empathize, and learn from failure.

On the reverse, it can be tricky for marginalized groups to accept when a microaggression has happened to them, and it can be even more difficult to report discrimination. If you’re asking yourself “was I being too sensitive?” or “was I not being respectful when I confronted that person?” you may be struggling to validate the emotional impact the comment had on you. If you’re not sure if a microaggression has happened to you, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you feel the comment in question shines a negative light on some aspect of your identity?
  2. Did the comment upset you or anger you in any way, and why?

Be careful not to invalidate your feelings or emotions when questioning a microaggression. Sometimes tapping into those feelings can provide an answer for your experience. As Psychology Today contributor, E. J. R. David, Ph.D, noted:

“Microaggressions consume a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy, but often leaves the person without any clear and healing resolution. Even worse, microaggressions can lead individuals toward blaming themselves, being angry at themselves, or internalizing the oppression that they experience. And although more research should be conducted to further our understanding of microaggressions, there are a few things that are becoming increasingly clear: (1) microaggressions are common, (2) microaggressions hurt, and (3) microaggressions have serious negative effects on people’s well-being and mental health.”

Examples of Microaggressions and Racial Bias in the Office

Here are some common examples of racial bias and microaggressions that you may hear or experience in the office. If you feel you may be the victim of racial discrimination, it could be within your best interest to contact the EEOC or speak with your company’s HR department to bring awareness to the issue.

  • An Asian-American worker is asked repeatedly by coworkers where he’s from. When he answers “Cleveland,” they continue to ask “No, where are you really from?”
  • A black female employee is told by a coworker multiple times that she is “so well spoken” or “not like other black women” that the coworker knows. These comments place a negative assumption on Black Americans, as well as shows contempt or a lack of respect for African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
  • An applicant of Indian-American descent is applying to work with a mechanic shop in a predominantly white community. Although he meets the qualifications of the job, he is rejected and the hiring manager notes “you won’t fit in here.” A white man is hired for the job instead.
  • A black applicant is applying to work as a bank teller in a downtown bank. While waiting for the interview to start, the bank’s security guard approaches him to ask why he’s there. Despite his answer, the security guard continues to harass and monitor the applicant. Later, despite giving a stellar interview and having the qualifications needed, the applicant ends up not getting the job.
  • Additionally, racial discrimination can also happen through association. For example, a white employee is married to a Latino women. His coworkers constantly make derogatory remarks about Latinos in his presence, despite him asking them to stop and them being aware of his wife’s race. This employee would have a case for racial discrimination or harassment in his workplace.
  • Another common form of racial bias can happen even before the interview. Black or Latino sounding names have a disproportionately lower call-back rate than white names when it comes to landing an interview, according to a 2017 National Academy of Sciences research project. As a business leader or hiring manager, make sure that an applicant’s skills and qualifications are prioritized, and never make a callback decision based on the name of an applicant.

Natural Hair Discrimination

Another common form of racial discrimination is that of limiting or regulating physical characteristics in the workplace that might negatively and disproportionately affect people of color. According to the EEOC: “An employment policy or practice that applies to everyone, regardless of race or color, can be illegal if it has a negative impact on the employment of people of a particular race or color and is not job-related and necessary to the operation of the business.”

The most common examples of this are employee dress codes that ban “inappropriate” hairstyles or facial hair. Often, the hairstyles listed will be considered natural hairstyles for people of color: such as afros, cornrows, dreadlocks, or braids. Black Americans, especially, have natural hair that grows thick and in tight curls. Asking an employee to straighten or “manage” their hair is unacceptable. Setting standards on what is “allowed” in the office for hairstyles can very easily be linked to discriminatory practices if it is not related to the job. The same goes for facial hair, as many people with a darker skin tone often grow thicker facial hair as well. Shaving can cause severe razor burn and thus disproportionately impact people of color.

Unfortunately, fighting natural hair discrimination in court does not always result in a guaranteed win. In 2016, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the favor of a business that refused to hire a black woman who had dreadlocks. Although the EEOC represented this individual throughout the trial, they were unable to win their case. The court ruled that Title VII only protected individuals with “immutable characteristics,” or characteristics that are impossible to change or adjust. Since dreadlocks were seen as a hairstyle that could be changed (such as removed in some way, shaved, or cut), the court ruled in favor of the business that refused to hire the black woman with dreadlocks.

However, this court decision shows that racism within the justice system is still a glaring problem. Unfortunately this ruling might have a negative impact on Black Americans, and could result in less racial discrimination cases brought to the EEOC. But it’s important to remember that the court is subject to change and adapt to our present culture, and if people continue to seek justice for the discrimination they have faced because of natural characteristics, the court will be forced to reconsider their stance. In the future, this could result in a more favorable ruling.

Even the United States Armed Forces has been criticized for racial discrimination due to their limitations on what constitutes “appropriate” hairstyles. If a business has any sort of limitation to natural characteristics written in their dress code, then they should consider what impact that might have on people of color. Are the rules important and necessary for the job (such as hair or beard nets in a kitchen)? Or are they simply in place because of outdated ideas of what is an “acceptable” appearance in the office?

Affirmative Action

Racial discrimination is often closely tied with the term affirmative action. However, there are far too many misconceptions about the impact affirmative action has had on our country.

To start, affirmative action is defined as “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination, especially in relation to employment or education; positive discrimination.” In the United States, affirmative action has taken a few different forms, but is always intended to help “even the playing field” for marginalized identities that have been disproportionately affected by past discriminatory practices. This has led to many universities increasing their recruitment efforts in minority communities, or to businesses trying to hire a more diverse staff.

However, affirmative action is not a band-aid for the transgressions of the past. It is an attempt to create equity for marginalized groups, and has helped increase the diversity of the workforce and open new educational opportunities to students of color. Nonetheless, affirmative action and the communities it promotes still have a long way to go before things are “equal” for everyone in our country.

Despite this, many people — predominantly white men — see affirmative action as a threat to their chances of landing a job. Most of the objections to affirmative action lie in the assumption that a person of color will take a job that a white man somehow deserves. However, this only exposes the racist argument underneath: that a person of color (despite being fully qualified for the job) doesn’t deserve the position that should instead be saved for a white man. Many also argue that merit alone — and not identity as a protected class — should warrant hiring and college acceptance. Unfortunately, this too expresses the idea that people of color are not capable of earning their merit for a job or for college.

For people of color in America, there are still far too many setbacks already in place that can limit a person’s access to education, advancement, and a promising career path. Although affirmative action was created to help bridge some of those gaps, it certainly hasn’t fixed all the problems still existing in today’s society. Additionally, the criticizing of its implementation is often based in harmful assumptions, further exposing how important affirmative action truly is.

Racial Harassment in the Workplace

According to the EEOC, racial discrimination becomes unlawful harassment when it becomes pervasive or severe enough to create a hostile work environment, or when retaliation has occurred (such as being fired, demoted, or withheld pay due to your protected class). Although the EEOC does not protect individuals from small slights or annoyances, those petty issues should still be brought to the attention of business HR members or leaders so they can properly prevent the issue from escalating to full-blown harassment.

Harassment of any form is strictly illegal, however that doesn’t stop it from happening. It can be from anyone within the company: from coworkers, management, or even people that contract with the company. For some individuals, too, they may experience multiple forms of harassment. Women of color, in particular, can and have experienced both racism and sexual harassment in the workplace.

If you believe you have been the victim of racial harassment at your place of work, here are some steps you should take to either prevent it from continuing or to seek justice.

  • Take notes: Your first step in addressing harassment is to take detailed notes of the occurrence. Be sure to note who was present, who the harasser was/is, what was said, when it happened, and how it affected your workday. If there are specific moments that have happened within the past few months, be sure to write those down as well with all the details that you can remember. These notes will help you keep track of the harassment, as well as build a case for your experience and struggles.
  • Consult the employee handbook: Before you can bring your complaints to the EEOC, you must first follow through with notifying your business of the harassment so they can take reasonable steps to prevent it from continuing. The EEOC will not hold the business liable for any complaints that they were not made aware of, and thus could not address. So after taking notes, be sure to consult your employee manual on how to properly address harassment in the workplace.
  • Speak with your HR representative or direct manager: Each manual will provide different steps of who to report harassment to, and some may not have a section on harassment at all. If you are unsure of how to report harassment, speak with your HR representative or direct manager to report the issue. If your manual requires you report the harassment to your direct manager, but your direct manager is the harasser, go instead to the next person up the chain of command or HR and explain the situation to them. Be sure to bring a copy of your notes with you to the meeting. Once you’ve had a chance to explain your situation, they may require you to fill out a formal complaint. Make sure you get a copy of that complaint for your records.
  • Report harassment to the EEOC: Once you’ve filed the complaint with your company, it is now in their hands to confront the harasser and put a stop to the harmful behavior. If you feel that they were unable to successfully address the harassment, or that they ignored your complaint, then you should reach out to the EEOC to file a charge of discrimination. Additionally, if you experienced retaliation for filing a complaint, or due to your protected status, the EEOC can help you seek justice. Be sure to reach out within 180 days of the last incident. Once you file a charge, they will investigate your case as thoroughly as possible and deliver one of four possible verdicts, as explained in our previous piece about filing a complaint:
  1. “They may suggest mediation between yourself and the company, and the EEOC will provide an experienced mediator to help suggest a solution. This could result in both parties resolving to agree on a voluntary settlement. This is also typically the fastest resolution, and the EEOC says it could be resolved as soon as 3 months after reporting.
  2. “The EEOC may investigate your claim and find your experience to be worthy of a lawsuit. If they decide this, they will send you a letter detailing your right to file a lawsuit in court, and you will have 90 days to do so if you decide to pursue. You can also directly request a Notice of Right to Sue from their online portal. There are also extremely rare cases where the EEOC might file the lawsuit on your behalf (this is normally reserved for extreme cases).
  3. “The EEOC may investigate your claim and be unable to find if a law was violated, but will see merit to your case. In these circumstances, they will also send you a Notice of Right to Sue, and will leave it to the a judge’s discretion to determine a verdict in court if you decide to pursue a lawsuit independently. You will have 90 days to decide if you want to file a lawsuit.
  4. “The EEOC may investigate your claim and find that the business was not in fault, or that the claim brought to their attention was not legally classified as harassment. If this is the case, they will notify you of their decision and dismiss your charge.”

If you believe you have been the victim of racial discrimination or harassment in your workplace, know that you have a right to defend yourself and seek justice. No matter what your situation may be, harassment is never your fault, and should always be taken seriously. Discrimination can be traumatizing, too, so it’s important to make sure you surround yourself with a support system if you need it.

Don’t let discrimination in employment silence you. Speak up, fight for your rights, and seek compensation if you can. Every little fight will help make the workplace a better place for everyone.

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