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SPLF Employment Blog

What Does Casual Racism Look Like in the Workplace?

Overt, malicious racism still happens every so often in the workplace, but Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it completely illegal. Additionally, overt racism is almost universally frowned-upon today, so it is not too common.

However, casual racism is quite prevalent in many facets of life, including the workplace. Unfortunately, it is hard to make legal claims against casual racism due to its more subtle nature.

Below, we will explore how casual racism affects people of color in the workplace and what you can do if you experience or witness these acts.

Ways Casual Racism Manifests in the Workplace

It is common for people to think racism doesn’t go beyond explicit slurs or negative stereotypes. However, these attitudes allow other, more “casual” forms of racism to persist in the workplace.

Here are some examples.

  • Off-color jokes: Jokes that take advantage of racial stereotypes
  • Off-color questions or comments: Questions such as, “Where are you from originally?” and comments such as “You speak well for a/an *race*” are both racist.
  • Social exclusion: If white employees avoid social interaction with coworkers of color, they may be excluding them based on their race.
  • Company parties or events: For example, an employee dressing in a culture’s traditional garb for Halloween and acting in a manner that takes advantage of a racial stereotype.

How Casual Racism Negatively Affects People of Color in the Workplace

Casual racism negatively affects an employee of color’s career and outside life, even when it appears to be innocent fun to white employees.

One of the most prominent examples is social exclusion. Excluding an employee of color socially prevents them from forming relationships with coworkers and managers. This has several adverse effects.

For one, a lack of coworker relationships can lead to lower job satisfaction. When an employee is less satisfied with their job, they do not perform their duties as well. Consequently, they may be passed over for promotions or raises, even if they possess the necessary skills and abilities.

Additionally, the excluded employee’s work will be less visible. They will not have the same level of rapport as the other employees do, so their accomplishments at work won’t come up as often in casual conversation.

All forms of casual racism — not just social exclusion — are also detrimental to the victim’s mental health. Jokes, insults, and comments/questions can create a hostile work environment where the victim does not feel welcome.

What to Do if you Witness or Experience Casual Racism

Your coworkers likely don’t mean to be racist, but it’s not your job to educate them about their behavior.

When you experience or witness casual racism, take note of it. Keep track of what was said, who said it, when it happened, and who was present.

Then, review the complaint procedures in your employee handbook. It may take some time for your employer to address and respond to the incident, but make sure you follow the proper channels.

If someone else is the target, you can offer them comfort and support them in reporting the incident.

Now, if casual racism becomes persistent enough — especially if you report it and it continues — you may have a legal case for workplace harassment.

Lastly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that retaliation may be considered unlawful employment discrimination.  Retaliation includes anything that negatively affects your experience at the workplace following your report of an incident, such as

  • Verbal or physical abuse
  • The “cold shoulder”
  • Transfer to a less desirable position
  • Unfairly poor employment evaluation
  • Increased scrutiny

If you experience any of these after reporting an incident, reach out to the EEOC or your state’s labor agency and inform them that your employer may be retaliating against you.

The Bottom Line

Casual racism is a bit of a gray area, as the person engaging in casual racism isn’t always intending to be racist. They may simply be uninformed.

However, no one should have to be subjected to any form of racism, casual or otherwise. It can hinder career advancement and harm mental health. It’s not your job to educate coworkers, so if you experience or witness casual racism, take action through the proper channels.

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