When do jokes cross the line to become racial harassment?

Harassment is illegal if it is severe or pervasive enough to alter the victim's working conditions or create an abusive work environment.

By , J.D.

Question: Jokes About Race: Are They Allowed at Work?

I work at a manufacturing plant, where most of the employees are white. I'm African American, and a group of coworkers have started making jokes and teasing comments about the fact that I'm the only African American employee in our work group.

At first, it seemed like they didn't mean anything by it, but the comments have become more frequent and more hurtful. They say things like, "let the black guy do it" when some grunt work has to be done, or "that's reverse discrimination!" when I get to take my lunch break first or I pull more overtime. (These perks rotate, so they get them just as often as I do.) Is this harassment?


Harassment based on a hostile work environmentthe kinds of jokes and comments you're facingis a form of illegal discrimination. People are most familiar with sexual harassment cases, but harassment can be based on other protected characteristics too, including race.

To cross the harassment line, workplace conduct must be unwelcome, and it must be sufficiently severe or pervasive to change the terms and conditions of the victim's employment. The "unwelcome" requirement means simply that the conduct offended you, and you didn't solicit or actively participate in it.

In the context of jokes, employers sometimes argue that the victim was part of the group telling jokes or engaging in banter, so the conduct wasn't really unwelcome. If you have told your coworkers that their conduct offends you or asked them to stop, they will have a tough time showing that you "welcomed" their comments. (This requirement is often an issue in sexual harassment cases, if the victim told jokes or stories with sexual content; courts are more likely to see racially tinged comments as inherently offensive and unwelcome.)

The severe or pervasive requirement is intended to recognize that not every inappropriate comment or crude remark is bad enough to justify a lawsuit. The law is intended to create equal job opportunities for everyone, not to enforce good manners. Conduct must affect the victim's working environment to be illegal. To determine whether harassment has occurred, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says courts should look at all of the facts and circumstances, including:

• the frequency of the conduct
• the severity of the conduct
• whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating
• whether the conduct interfered unreasonably with the victim's work, and
• the context in which the conduct occurred.

          The more serious the conduct is, the more likely it is to be harassment, even if it happens only once. For example, physical threats based on race, hanging a noose in an African American employee's locker or work space, or using "the n-word" are all sufficiently severe to constitute harassment based on a single incident. Jokes and comments that don't rise to this level individually may still add up to harassment, if they continue for a period of time.

          In your situation, whether or not the comments made so far are sufficiently pervasive and offensive to add up to harassment, you should take steps to stop them. If you haven't done so already, start by making clear to your coworkers that you find their comments hurtful rather than funny. If that doesn't end the joking, go to the human resources department at your company and make a complaint. Once you do so, the company is legally required to look into the situation and remedy it.

          If your efforts to stop the harassment from within the company fail, you should go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's antidiscrimination agency and file a charge. You should not have to put up with debasing behavior and racist remarks just to do your job. Filing a charge of discrimination is also a legal prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against your employer, so filing a charge will keep your options open down the road.

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