Dealing With Racial Discrimination In The Workplace

racial discrimination in the workplace

Let's talk about racial discrimination in the workplace. It happens very often but is less likely to be discussed for a variety of reasons.

For many people that experience racial discrimination at work, dealing with it can be difficult and confusing. You may worry about putting your job at risk. Or you might even worry about your work relationships. These are valid concerns.

However, it's important that you are able to work in an environment that protects you. And also makes you feel comfortable being there regardless of who you are.

So in this article, I will go over just how you can go about addressing and calling out racial discrimination in the workplace.

What is racial discrimination in the workplace?

According to the US Equal Opportunity Commission, “race discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because he/she is of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race (such as hair texture, skin color, or certain facial features).”

Racial discrimination is not limited to physical characteristics, however. It can also involve treating someone unfairly because of who they are associated with or married to.

Racial discrimination can be something as simple as a comment made. Or it can be something more severe.

For instance, one of the things I am questioned about most in the workplace is how I got my name "as a Latina". With humor I always answer "my mother" but I know exactly what they’re hinting at. I am very aware of the fact that my name does not match my ethnicity to those that are narrow-minded. Questions and comments about my name have been a form of racial discrimination for me in the workplace.

  • Racial slurs or jokes
  • Making offensive or derogatory remarks about a person's race or color
  • Asking to touch their hair or commenting on their features
  • Insinuating they must be good at something because of their race
  • Assuming what their economic background is based on their race
  • Questioning their citizenship
  • Implying they have their job due to affirmative action
  • Any hostile or negative actions meant to drive fear due to someone’s race

How racial discrimination at work impacts performance

Experience racial discrimination at work have severe impacts on your performance as an employee. Some of the effects of it include:


Discrimination of any kind can create a hostile or unsafe work environment. According to this Vox article, it’s not uncommon for people to use scare tactics when they want someone out of the workplace.

This is not just limited to traditional work environments. For instance, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace found a noose in his garage. He was then booed while confederate flags waved while he was racing. When his car crashed, the crowd even cheered.


A happy workplace usually creates happy employees. If you are repeatedly targeted with racial remarks or unfair treatment at work, this can affect your mental health.

Not can this cause depression at work, this depression can also transfer to other areas of your life. You deserve to work in an environment that doesn’t make you miserable.


Earlier, we spoke about the fear that a hostile and unsafe work environment may cause. Anytime you feel unsafe, this will cause a heightened sense of your body’s natural fight or flight response.

If you consistently feel on edge while at work, it could lead to ongoing issues, such as anxiety. Anxiety affects everything, including your financial wellness.

Fear, depression, and anxiety can all have a negative impact on your financial compensation. Since we already have a wage gap, we can’t afford this.

How to call out racial discrimination in the workplace as an employee

As an employee, there are certain key actions you can take to call out racism in the workplace. Not just for yourself but for others too.

Don't act like it didn't happen, even if it didn't happen to you

When racism occurs in the workplace, it’s not the time to turn a blind eye. An act such racial discrimination can easily turn into a “they said/ they said” argument on behalf of Human Resources.

Even if the insult or implication wasn’t directed toward you, you can still be a valuable witness, and ally, later on.

It is important to note that at one time or another, you yourself may be a victim. If this does happen to you, don’t sweep it under the rug in hopes of avoiding future conflict or tension. You may feel taken aback, hurt or even shame.

While you may feel this way, please remember you did nothing wrong. You also did not ask for something such as this to happen. It’s important to address this harassment not only on your behalf but for others as well.

You teach others how to treat you and as a result, you can stop it.

Address the act, ask a thought-provoking question, and respond objectively with an observation

When racial discrimination is observed, it is best to deal with it head-on and in a timely manner.

Feel free to respond with a “Hey, did you just say that?” If they act oblivious, repeat what they said in the least offensive way you can at the moment.

It does help the situation to reiterate the racial remark that was said. Whether they admit to it or not, explain this is an act of racism and it will not be tolerated.

Raise concerns to HR & leadership 

It is important to immediately report what has happened after the incident with HR & your supervisor directly. You can schedule a meeting or you can make an immediate phone call.

In either situation, I highly recommend writing a letter of the events after they happened so that you can keep one for your records as well as have one placed in the appropriate file.

When I was faced with discrimination due to both my race and gender from a former supervisor, I made sure to write a letter documenting specific examples of the harassment.

It is much easier for both HR and leadership to address specific examples of any form of harassment or discrimination instead of just a general observation. Make sure to pay attention and mention as many details as you can, especially in writing.

It’s easy to blank or forget the actions of others, especially after an uncomfortable situation, which is why it’s so important to document it as fast as you can.

Ask leadership to create a safe space for difficult conversations 

Another way you can use your voice to call for change is by asking leadership to create safe spaces to have these difficult conversations.

Having a designated point person in HR or an email address that can be contacted confidentially to express concerns are things you can suggest. You could also suggest panels, forums, or even a series of ongoing company meetings both private and public.

At the time of writing this, I am in the process of applying to serve on a board for diversity and inclusion, for a major financial institution. This would not be possible had the need not arisen for a safe space to have difficult conversations.

Racism is not going away anytime soon, unfortunately. But we can help speed up the process by demanding that these conversations take place and be a part of any future

ongoing company culture.

Know the law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the federal law that prohibits not only discrimination based upon race but ethnicity, sex, and religion as well, when in the workplace.

While this law is almost 60 years old, many do not know it exists or what legal ramifications can be taken if violated.

By knowing the law, you may be able to stop racial discrimination in its tracks by knowing when to take immediate action.

How to be an anti-racist employer

Anti-racism in the workplace does not just fall on the shoulders of the employees. Employers must take an active and vocal role against it and lead the charge. Here are some suggestions:

Take a bold zero-tolerance stance against racism

As an employer or supervisor, it is your duty to show others what behaviors and actions will not be tolerated, especially racism. If there is nothing in your employee handbook, make sure to add it in.

Check-in with your team regularly and let them know that you are there if needed. You can also let your employees know that if they feel uncomfortable addressing something with you directly, they may also contact HR if they feel it may be easier or more appropriate.

It’s important to create a safe space for others, even if it means not going directly to you.

Focus on inclusivity for all in the workplace, not just diversity quotas 

Harvard Business School study, among others, has stated that potential applicants may be less successful in getting an actual interview based on their name alone.

According to the study, companies are twice as more likely to call someone in for an interview if their name sounds Caucasian. While this may be a result of confirmation bias, it is still happening.

You can ask HR to present the policy used to screen potential applicants. You can also suggest that they consider blind recruitment strategies. This would now be the time to check on pay transparency to ensure no one is being underpaid due to the color of their skin.

Inclusivity doesn’t just include race. It’s important to make sure your company is observing any and all religious and cultural practices your employees may take part in.

For example, make sure your catered events offer multiple meat options due to dietary restrictions such as pork. Another example of focusing on inclusivity in the workplace is to honor religious holidays that may not be celebrated by everyone such as Kwanza, Hanukkah, or Ramadan.

Implement recurring anti-racism training, not just policies 

Consider bringing in a diversity and inclusion expert or someone from your HR team to hold regular anti-racism training or personal development days.

Offer incentives to those that successfully complete the requirement. If it is mandatory, explain why it is important ahead of time.

Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations with any employees that may be defensive or refuse to participate.

Hold yourselves accountable as an employer

Just like holding anyone else accountable, it’s important to make sure you are on the correct path.

Racial bias is something that most people do not unlearn overnight. It’s important to regularly check in with your employees to make sure you are being the example you want to be.

Consider writing goals as to how you see your company moving forward so that you can regularly check to see if you’re on track. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance or additional training when needed.

In closing

Racial discrimination may be a taboo subject in the workplace but it doesn’t have to be.

You can make sure your voice is heard and advocate for yourself and others. It may not start with you, but you have the power to help end it.


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