First-person perspectives on the world of work
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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 39
Racial discrimination in the workplace

When race holds you back in the workplace

24 May 2023

Imagine landing a great job after a long time trying. You’re well qualified, were the best candidate but are told by a new colleague on your first day, that you only got the post because of positive discrimination. Over time you prove your worth but every year are passed over for promotion. Sometimes you don’t want to go into work because of the little digs about your braids or about the way you express yourself.

Race discrimination in the workplace is a reality for many Black people, despite the existence of a multitude of ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives. While overt racism may be a thing of the past, systemic racism, microaggressions and biases mean the world of work is far from being a level playing field, according to the authors of an ILO publication, ‘The future of diversity’.


Hello, and welcome back to the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Rosalind Yarde.

This is the programme where we explore key issues in the world of work,

and one of those big issues is discrimination,

in particular, racial discrimination.

It seems we hear the buzzwords 'diversity and inclusion' all the time,

and 'the need to create more inclusive labour markets for all',

but how does that reflect in workplaces?

Is the overt racism of previous eras a thing of the past,

or is there still much work to be done to achieve

a level playing field in the world of work?

The ILO has recently published a book called The Future of Diversity.

It explores the biases and stereotypes that lead

to discrimination and violence in workplaces,

and the policies that are needed to address structural inequalities.

With me is one of the book's editors, Christiane Kuptsch,

Senior Specialist in Migration Policy at the ILO.

Also with me is Marlihan Lopez,

coordinator of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University,

Montreal, Canada.

Marlihan is the co-author

of one of the chapters in the book which explores Black women's experiences

in feminist workplaces.

Christiane, Marlihan, welcome.

First, Christiane.

According to an ILO report, about one in four workers worldwide

is discriminated against in the workplace,

with racial discrimination being one of the most common forms.

How does racial discrimination manifest itself in the workplace?

Well, I think there are several ways.

There are actually three main forms, but we also witness new forms.

The three main forms are direct discrimination,

indirect discrimination, and structural discrimination.

Direct discrimination is something where you have an intent,

and in many legislations, you have sort of also a prohibited ground.

Indirect discrimination takes place when there are harmful effects,

it's less visible already.

Structural discrimination is something where you have rules set up as a system,

but since in many countries now,

we have legislation against discrimination,

that prohibits direct and open discrimination,

at least, what we witness today is many more forms,

much more subtle discriminations appearing, all of a sudden.

Microaggressions are one form,

and we will surely discuss that a bit more.

Yes, sure.

In fact, I was just about to ask you about that, Marlihan, because in your chapter

in this book, The Future of Diversity,

you focus on Black women in feminist workplaces,

and also address the issue of violence in the workplace,

which includes microaggressions.

Can you explain, Marlihan, what this actually means?

In the context of Black women's experience,

we talk about gendered and racial aggressions,

and how they intersect.

For us, microaggressions can be harmful comments

or actions that usually target minority groups.

In our chapter, we address those that target Black women,

and they are called microaggressions

because they are usually normalized in the workplace.

They're frequent and repeated, but they're not micro in their impact.

They have proven to have a very harmful impact

in a Black woman's life, mental health, physical health, et cetera.

Can you give some examples?

I know that in your chapter, there are quite a few examples.

We interviewed several Black women in our research,

and a lot of anecdotes came out, of experience of microaggressions,

such as comments about hair, skin,

body figure, comments about Black men,

addressing a Black woman as being scary or intimidating.

These are some of the examples that came up in our research.

That, in fact, reminds me of several instances in my own kind of experiences.

I know that I started a job once,

where I'd come with ten years of journalism

behind me, and I kept being asked,

"You must be a trainee."

I kept being told, "You must be a trainee,"

and I didn't understand what they were talking about.

In fact, I realized later that they were assuming

that I'd come on a positive discrimination course.

I think the underlying thing was,

"Well, maybe you don't deserve to be here."

Have you done research

on the impact of these microaggressions on individuals, Marlihan?

Then I'll ask the same question to you, Christiane.

The Black women that participated

in the research all mentioned

how these microaggressions, due to their frequency

and the fact that they're normalized and rarely addressed,

the impacts that they had on mental health,

the impacts they had on physical health,

and the ways that Black women find strategies

to preserve their mental and physical health.

Yes, it came up a lot during the research,

but unfortunately, there are limited resources,

even in the workplace, to address these impacts.

What about you, Christiane?

What have you found?

In some of the other chapters of The Future of Diversity,

authors also mention how minority workers, if I may call them like this now,

are discouraged and leave the places where they are abused.

This then has a scarring effect on their career.

Yes, it will always keep them down, sort of.

Of course, that, on the other hand, in turn,

has an impact on equalities,

or inequalities, in the labour market,

because this is the way how you perpetuate inequalities.

Yes, certainly.

Marlihan, you just mentioned about strategies.

I know something which-- I think it's just become ingrained with me,

is that I meet a new group of people, or whatever,

I immediately go straight to them.

I speak in a very direct manner.

I look them in the eye, shake them in the hand, shake their hands,

and I always make sure that they know a little bit about my background,

which I drop in the conversation, just to head them off at the path, so to speak,

so that they don't make assumptions about me.

I think that there are quite a few stereotypes

about people of colour in the workplace.

Marlihan, you can maybe unpick this idea

of stereotypes and what we're talking about.

Yes, in the context of our chapter,

we address stereotypes that affect Black women specifically.

For example, the stereotype of the angry Black woman.

When a Black woman identifies

a microaggression or a racist comment,

if she addresses it or talks about it, sometimes,

she is perceived as being aggressive, as being angry.

That really creates a barrier in terms

of addressing racial harassment in the workplace.

Another thing that I would like to bring up is, a lot of times,

in policies around harassment in the workplace,

there's nothing on racial harassment.

Since it's not considered as being an offense or an aggression,

a lot of times, racial harassment in the workplace is not addressed.

What happens is, in the context

of the Black women that we interviewed,

they would leave the workplace

due to what we often identify as burnout,

as professional burnout, but the reasons for this burnout

are usually centered around racial harassment.

Why do you think, Christiane,

that racial harassment doesn't appear to be addressed in the workplace?

We know there are lots of measures

where we're talking about gender equality, for example.

It's something we talk about a lot, which of course is very, very important,

but why is it that it seems that there isn't so much

a focus on racial discrimination or aggression?

Is it because sometimes it's just really hard to pinpoint?

I suppose so, and I think this is linked,

as well, to these new forms of racism, if you like.

Everyone says, "I am not a racist,"

and that's one form

of a microaggression already, because usually,

"I'm not a racist because blah, blah blah,"

that already introduces a racist comment.

Many people are not aware of the types of racist

acts that they also commit on a daily basis, in the workplace and elsewhere.

If you take an example,

let's say I'm working in a Hamburg enterprise,

for instance, and I'm German.

I look German, in the sense, of talking about stereotypes

again, I'm blonde, with bright light eyes.

I'm asking my new Black colleague, "Where do you come from?"

She says, "I'm coming from Düsseldorf."

If I ended there,

that might still be okay, but if then I continue,

"But where you really come from, where your parents do come from?"

Et cetera, et cetera, there, I'm really portraying her

as a foreigner, as someone other,

and I'm really committing a microaggression.

Many people do these things,

and they're absolutely not aware that they are doing this.

Yes, because the underlying message is that, "Do you really belong here?"


You don't, if I continue asking those questions.

Yes. I should say-- I'm sure maybe it was the same for Marlihan as well.

Certainly, when I was growing up in London,

that was the question that was always asked me, "Where are you from?

Where are you really from?"

I'm very, very familiar with that.

You mentioned-- You're coming from Germany,

and in fact, we've seen

that there's been a report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

They revealed that discrimination on the grounds of race

or ethnic origin is a widespread problem in the EU,

with more than one in three respondents from an ethnic minority group reporting

that they had experienced discrimination

when looking for a job, or in the workplace.

Does this surprise you at all?

It does surprise me in some sense, and I find it utterly depressing.

It does surprise me because we have been

in the European Union, people have been working

on the topic for over 30 years now.

The ILO had a first project combatting discrimination against migrant

and ethnic minority workers in the world of work as from the early 1990s.

That was quite interesting as a project, because it was relying

on a methodology of situation testing, practice testing.

You had two candidates, a minority, majority worker,

both applying for the same job offer, with identical CVs.

Then, let's see what happens.

A large, huge discrimination was documented at the time.

I would have thought that in 30 years, we would have made more progress than with

the figures that you present me here with.

In fact, I was going to go on to that about

previous generations,

because my parents' generation, racism in the workplace was much more overt.

I remember my father, who came to the UK, or went to the UK in the 1950s,

and studied for many years,

became an architect, worked in a local council,

wasn't getting any promotion at all.

He was there for decades.

In the end, he applied to another council, he got the job.

Then, when he got the job, they complained.

They supposed that he got the job because he's black.

They actually launched an inquiry into his appointment,

which meant that he was in limbo for quite a few months,

until they looked at all his background

and realized that he came with a lot of experience.

That was then, but now, have you seen--

Marlihan, do you think that things are actually improving?

I know we don't have the same overt type of racism, but in your own research,

have you seen any improvements at all in the workplace?

Just to comment on the study, I'm not surprised at all.

I actually believe that the numbers are probably quite higher.

A lot of folks are dissuaded to report,

or don't feel safe in disclosing experiences of discrimination.

For me, we've mentioned a lot of microaggressions

that could be considered as not systemic in nature,

but it's important to also name

systemic force forms of racism and how, for example,

minority groups, and in our case,

Black women, Black populations,

have limited access to positions of leadership, for example.

We did a lot of research around the community sector.

How most of minority groups, racial minority groups,

are hired in precarious positions or non-permanent positions,

contractual positions, and how they do not account for,

or are not represented in leadership positions.

This is important to find out.

There's also systemic forms of racism that are quite pervasive

in the workplace, and how they manifest.

What steps can employers and organizations

take to promote diversity?

I'll go to you first.

I'm not really interested in diversity.

I'm interested in anti-racism, because sprinkling a little bit diversity,

that's why I believe we haven't really advanced

in our struggle against systemic racism, because representativity

is not the solution, the sole solution.

There needs to be action.

There needs to be social transformation.

When we talk about work and organizations,

organizations need to go under transformation,

because we're talking about systemic forms of racism.

Just hiring one or two people of colour is not going to address

the systemic nature of racism in the workplace.

For me, it's important to centre equity.

You centre equity through programming that addresses the gaps in access,

programming that promotes representativity

in leadership roles, for example, and also programming

that addresses the inequities in the workplace.


What do you say about that, Christiane?

Yes, I fully agree.

I would like to highlight that some other chapter authors,

Marie-Soleil Tremblay, Hanen Khemakhem, and Patrice Gélinas,

they actually proposed a few ways to overturn

unconscious biases and strategies to value differences.

They do this in relation to women in their chapter,

but this also, of course, goes as tools for racism, I would say.

For instance, they very much highlight that decisions are very often not taken,

as we always say, on a rational basis, as standard economic theory would suggest.

Decisions are very often taken

with an instinct, and not so rationally.

What you also have is that people tend to hire people who look like them,

and of whom they think that they are alike.

That, of course, also never gives access to people of a different colour.

If the majority is White, then you have very likely White hires.

These authors, they try to give ideas on how to combat

all these unconscious biases that we also have.

For example, suggesting that we could train

our brains to positive associations,

and sometimes, mingling opportunities, or informing peers

about how someone in the group of a minority origin has done

really great things for the enterprise, et cetera.

Those things would help much

more than simply putting a strategy of a few people, as Marlihan has said,

a few people of diverse backgrounds in the enterprise without letting them

also play the role which is in line with their education, for instance.

This is a topic we've been talking about for decades.

It's not new.

I'm sure that some of these solutions

have been researched and suggested for some time.

I know there have been a gazillion reports

on racial discrimination in different work settings,

be it the police, in schools, or health care.

Just wrapping up, and I'll start with you, Christiane--

Do you believe there will ever be real change,

or will the research, the reports, will they just sit gathering dust?

I don't want to be pessimistic,

but do you imagine that there will be some change?

No, I would say

that I would also not like to be pessimistic,

and I would like to probably hope that all new knowledge is not futile.

I think people need to be more aware,

and people are not aware of these new forms

of racism that have appeared.

I also believe that there is hope

for the future in the sense that we are witnessing, after all,

a new generation of people.

This generation, I would hope, will link the concept

of diversity much more with collaborating with people

from different horizons, and that that's a need,

that it's not just an odd thing to do, but a need,

something natural, and I see it with younger people.

Marlihan, are you hopeful?

Yes, I'm hopeful, but I'm hopeful in the context of folks

that are working beyond diversity,

towards equity, because-- like I stated before,

we're talking about systemic forms of discrimination,

and just by embracing diversity,

we're not going to address the systemic forms,

the historic forms of discrimination,

and the historic barriers that have affected

minority groups in the workplace.

While it is important to value diversity,

it is insufficient, in my opinion.

There needs to be concrete work towards equity in order for,

in the long term, in a sustainable way, minority groups benefit,

and are able to move

and flourish within the workplace.

Yes. Diversity and inclusion have to go hand in hand.

That's also one of the main messages of The Future of Diversity.

Fully agree with you, Marlihan, there.

Thank you so much, Christiane and Marlihan.

I think we could go on talking for much, much longer,

but we're going to have to wrap up there.

Thank you so much for joining us today

and for shedding light on such an important issue.

To find out more about this and about broader

issues of discrimination in the workplace, you can find links to the book The Future

of Diversity on the webpage of this podcast, and on the ILO website.

Until the next time, goodbye.