“Accidental” Racial Discrimination: Is It a Real Thing?

Victims of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and other workplace violations often feel fairly confident that the perpetrators “knew what they were doing.” A boss, for instance, who makes lascivious suggestions to a secretary, clearly understands that he is engaging in illegal or at the very least untoward behavior. A plant manager who intentionally demotes (or fails to promote) an African-American might not admit out loud that he is “racially discriminating” – but in his heart of hearts, he is clearly aware of what he’s doing – and that it’s wrong.


Perhaps… but perhaps not.

Clearly, many cases are cut and dry. Some superiors who mistreat their workers just don’t care, or they think they can “get away with it.” But others may simply be running unconscious scripts or deferring to what they perceive to be the normal culture of their industry. The unconscious forces that play on all of us – employers and employees alike – are quite profound.

If you take a look at some of Abraham Lincoln’s statements about African-Americans — even just a few years before the Civil War, you might be shocked at how “racist” Lincoln comes across. Here’s a real quote from the 16th President:

“While [blacks and whites] do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Remember: this is the man who literally put his life and his country on the line to liberate African-Americans from their shackles. The cultural influences on the way Lincoln thought about race were so powerful that they locked him into a certain way of thinking.

We often tend to demonize the people who do the harassing or discrimination as monsters and uncaring and evil people. And their actions and comments – intentional or not, conscious or not – can certainly have monstrous effects. But as the eminent psychologist Dr. Marshall Rosenberg — Founder of a school of thought known as Nonviolent Communication (NVC) — puts it, we are often so blinded by the “enemy images” we have of one another that we fail to see the broader pathologies at work in any given situation.

For instance, say your boss screams at you every morning if you make her coffee even slightly wrong. You might be tempted to think that the woman is crazy – or that she is harassing you or discriminating against you. And, indeed, she may be. But once you get away from the “enemy images” you have of her, you may see that she is concurrently responding to pressures from her superiors or she is simply imitating cultural norms of her industry. For instance, as the Kevin Spacey movie Swimming With Sharks illustrates, executives in the entertainment industry can often adopt terrifying and dictatorial personas – not because these people are intrinsically dictatorial but because they are, for whatever reason, attempting to mimic an archetypal “Hollywood exec” persona.

A quality, experienced law firm, such as Joseph & Kirschenbaum can work with you to identify and put an end to workplace misbehavior and mistreatment. For a free consultation today, call (212) 688-5640, or review the firm’s resources at www.jhllp.com.

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