The workplace – a hotbed for subtle racism

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Since 1966, the United Nations (UN) designated March 21 as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Canada was among the first countries to support this initiative and launched its first annual campaign in 1989. Despite the advantage of this early adoption, racism and discrimination remain lived experiences in our community.  

What is racism? The UN describes it as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing”. Racism is an unfair social system where some view themselves as superior and others as inferior based on stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. When a person is disenfranchised, or a decision is made either in favour of or against a person because of skin colour, race, or ethnicity, a racist act has happened. This act is illegal and violates the rights of the victims. In this article, we will focus on racial discrimination in the workplace.  

Members of a visible minority group
Members of a visible minority group

Unfortunately, in 2022, racism is still prevalent. Racial discrimination knows no boundaries; hence the workplace is not exempt. Due to the global uproar against racism, it might be difficult for perpetrators to display it overtly. Whether blatant or subtle, racism can negatively impact one’s professional and personal life.   

Why is the workplace a hotbed for racial discrimination amongst adult immigrants? According to a recent York University study, around 96 per cent of Black Canadians say racism is a concern at work, and 78 per cent say that “the workplace racism they have noticed is severe”. A typical immigrant is already shortchanged, struggling to get the required Canadian experience and perhaps using a survival job as a launchpad for their career. Naturally, they tend to accept whatever is thrown at them because of economic insecurity. In the process, racist slurs strip them of their self-esteem and dignity, replacing them with psychological pain and distress.   

Racial discrimination can present itself in a workplace in various forms. Workplace racism can be disguised as:  

Humour  

Racism can be disguised as humour when such jokes end with, “I hope you didn’t take offence; it was just a joke”. They knew the joke was offensive, hence their effort to gaslight you into thinking you’re overthinking it.  

Stereotypes  

Racial discrimination is often based on misconceptions, incorrect perceptions, incomplete information, or false generalizations based on race. Imagine ascribing the wrong acts of less than 1% of a country’s population as the norm for over 200 million people! When I worked in a bank, a colleague would always say: “Your brothers are at it again. I don’t know how you Nigerians are so educated yet; many of you are fraudsters.” A journalist recounted her experience with her producer, who would always send her to cover the report of her ‘cousins’ anytime there was a criminal activity by people from her race.  

Patronizing compliments  

Have you received accolades for how good your spoken English is? Have you been asked if you learnt how to speak English on arrival in Canada? Barely four weeks of being in Canada, I was praised for “speaking so well” and was asked if I learnt English on arrival in Canada. To say I was shocked was an understatement! It can be exhausting to explain why you speak good English constantly. 

Unwelcome comments about your food, clothing or grooming  

Mrs. B was having lunch in the eating area, and her colleague walked in and exclaimed, “what is smelling here?” When he got no response, he asked, “Is that your food smelling so badly?” That was such an unkind comment. Mrs. B lost her appetite and her confidence. Never unwittingly accept such unwelcome comments about your look, food or accent. Learn to speak out for yourself and immediately end such disguised racism before it becomes a norm in your workplace.  

effects of workplace racism
Are you experiencing workplace racism?

What is the effect of a racially hostile work environment? A dedicated workforce is ultimately lost. Unfortunately, many put up with the discrimination because they need to secure the paycheck but change jobs at the slightest opportunity. My dad’s mantra, which he shared with me as a fresh graduate on my first job, was that a workplace is a home away from family. When I curiously asked why he said, “you spend the most productive part of your day with your colleagues.”  

Imagine working in an environment where your heart beats faster when you remember you must be at work, sweaty palms, stutter out of confusion, or keep quiet for fear you might be the subject of the next joke around the office. This results in reduced productivity and mentally, physically, and emotionally battered people. 

If you’re experiencing this, what are your options? Engage in active dialogue and education, which builds respect and leads to a shift in thinking and behaviour. Though ignorance is not an excuse, many people are honestly ignorant of how racial minorities feel about such comments or actions. If the racism persists, report to a supervisor and let them know how the oppressor’s behaviour impacts you.    

Employees do not give their best if they must endure racial discrimination in a workplace, whether subtle or overt. Employers should not stay silent when they receive such complaints. Constantly seek out the opinions of other races and see opportunities to do better in hiring, promotions, company culture, and work socialization events. 

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