Guide to Addressing Ethnic or Racial Slurs in the Workplace

According to the 2020 Census, the decade 2010–2020 is the first time since 1790 that the white population did not grow. It means that other racial and ethnic groups are responsible for the overall population growth of the U.S.

As the country shifts to a more diverse population, it will undoubtedly affect the future of the workforce and how businesses will address diversity in the workplace. Unfortunately, racism is still prevalent, with mostly Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians on the receiving end.

The workplace is not an exemption when it comes to people experiencing racial discrimination. It can manifest in subtle ways, such as unfair pay or biased judgment in performance. There are times, racism is expressed more obviously, like physical threats or through racial slurs

In most cases, it’s easier to shrug it off when a co-worker casually throws around racial jokes or ethnic slurs–but you shouldn’t. These derogatory remarks are a form of harassment. You should know how to approach the situation so that it won’t happen again or to anyone else.


Racism in Corporate America

For most people, a situation comes to mind when it comes to racism in corporate America: the infamous Texaco incident, a lawsuit in 1994 in which six Texaco African-American employees filed a discrimination lawsuit against the oil company.

The incident became a national scandal when an audio recording of company executives surfaced. They could be heard belittling black employees with racial slurs and discussing how they would withhold and destroy documents pertinent to the court case.

While the Texaco incident is one of the largest settlements of a racial discrimination lawsuit in the country (US$115 million in damages), there is no denying that racism is still happening in workplaces today. 

In recent events, protests over George Floyd’s killing called attention to systemic racism. Black employees seized the opportunity to share their stories of workplace racism that they were too fearful of discussing before. 

From racial slurs to pay inequality, people of color came forward with their stories supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Some corporations from nearly every industry proclaimed their support for the movement and implemented real change for racial equity in the American workplace.


The People Mostly Affected by Ethnic and Racial Slurs

The U.S. has a diverse society, so you’ll likely collaborate with people of different races in your workplace. It’s essential to be aware of the different minority groups and acknowledge both their race and culture so that you can avoid imposing stereotypes and saying ethnic and racial slurs by accident. 

Who are at the receiving end of ethnic and racial slurs in the workplace? What are the kinds of slurs you shouldn’t say, and why are they problematic? Here are the common racial groups in the U.S. and what you shouldn’t say to or about them. 

  • African Americans (Blacks)

African Americans arrived in North America as slaves, and they were stripped of their rights and privileges while at the mercy of their owners. For African Americans, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s indicated they would no longer submit to oppression. 

The movement also led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a rights and labor law that banned discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. However, many argue that racism persists today, with Blacks still experiencing poor terms of employment. 

There are numerous racial slurs for African Americans. The most common ones are the words related to simianization like apes, baboons, or monkeys. It’s also offensive when you make noises that imitate monkeys or apes.

Variations of the word negro are also common racial slurs. The word has a history with anti-black caricatures that portray blacks as lazy, ignorant, and obsessively self-indulgent. Additionally, the term implies black inferiority. 

  • Asians

Asian Americans come from different cultures, like Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, and Arabs. Stereotypically, they are perceived as a positive model minority; it’s when a minority group excels in their education or profession without much of a challenge.

Terms like oriental, chink, or yellow are considered ethnic slurs and are derogatory to Asians. These offensive expressions belittle them for their descriptive attributes, like their eyes and skin.

For South Asians, it’s derogatory to refer to them as brownies or curry munchers as it imposes stereotypes and makes fun of South Asian culture.

Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled Asian hate since the virus originated from China, so far as attacking them physically on the streets.

Regardless of their nationality, Middle Easterns may be called slurs like 7-11, hajis, and sand monkeys. They are all offensive as they play into the stereotype and disrespect their culture.

  • Latin Americans

Latin Americans or Hispanics come from various nationalities, and Mexican Americans are the largest and oldest Hispanic subgroup in America. This minority group is often at the forefront of national immigration debates, as many are undocumented.

After the 2016 election, there was a rise in anti-Latino hate crimes. Racial slurs against Hispanics like beaner, greaser, and taco head were thrown around predominantly. In 2018, a Hispanic customer received his coffee order with a racial slur written on the cup.

Not only shouldn’t you say slurs against minority groups, but you also shouldn’t write them, whether it’s in the form of emails or bathroom vandalism.

  • Jews

Is antisemitism a form of racism? While Jews are not a race, if a slur intends to express the hatred of Jews, it’s racist. Racism is derived from the belief that there is a superior race, like how Hitler and the Nazis believed the Jews were a weak and inferior race.

For Jews, kike is an ethnic slur. The term’s history is from how immigrant Jews didn’t know how to read English and signed their legal documents with a circle or “kikel” instead of an “X” because it symbolizes a cross. Now, the word kike is an insult to people of Jewish faith or ethnicity.

  • Native Americans

The brutal confrontation between European colonists and Native Americans led to a historical tragedy that caused the decimation of the latter’s population. To this day, Native Americans are still experiencing degradation, and their culture is often appropriated.

Even the most progressive, non-Native person in your workplace can say offensive words to their Native American co-workers. For example, calling them chief is derogatory as it is a nickname that reduces them solely on their race. Racial slurs such as redskin or Injun are also not okay.


Laws That Protect Against Racial Slurs in the Workplace

Several laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protect employees from racial slurs at work; primarily, the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The law prohibits harassment—including racial slurs, comments, and jokes—that creates an intimidating, abusive, or hostile work environment. Unfortunately, it’s only applicable to employers with at least 15 employees and doesn’t cover teasing if it’s not at a level of prohibited harassment.

A single incident of racial slur will most likely not be sufficient to rise to prohibited harassment. But, if your supervisor puts up a sign in the office saying not to trust an Iranian employee because they are a terrorist, this can create a hostile work environment and is punishable by law.

In addition to Title VIII, state laws offer additional protection against employment-related discrimination. If your state doesn’t have regulations on employment protections against discrimination, you can always refer to federal law.


What to Do When You’re a Victim of Ethnic and Racial Slurs

When you’re at the receiving end of racial slurs in the workplace, it’s common to feel uncomfortable or angry. Still, you should know how to approach the situation the right way to communicate your concern better and be comfortable with speaking up. Here are some ways on how you can deal with ethnic and racial slurs at work.

  • Accept that there’s a problem

When your co-worker or supervisor says a racial slur, your first reaction may be, “Did I hear that right?” then brush off the comment. Denial can be a powerful thing, but you must acknowledge your experience.

  • React calmly to avoid violence

Offenders may want to push your buttons and get a rise out of you. You mustn’t show that you’re affected. Instead, react calmly by asking, “Why do you say or do that?” or questioning their fear or ignorance. You can also inform them of how you feel when they make these comments or jokes.

Speaking up is good. When you stay silent, the offenders will think that what they’re doing is okay. When you call them out calmly, they may reassess their actions and make the change not to repeat it.

  • Be kind and address the issue, not the person

Sometimes, when people make ethnic or racial slurs, they are just ignorant that it’s offensive. Remember to be kind and reach towards the issue and not the person. Avoid calling the person racist; instead, point out that the comment they made sounds or is racist.

  • Document everything

As soon as you receive racial slurs, you must write down exactly what happened. Note all the specifics: the person/s involved, places, dates, times, and possible witnesses. Documenting the incident will help your case if it’s qualified as harassment and you plan to take it up to the HR department.

  • Submit a complaint to your supervisor or human resources

If you’re experiencing racial harassment, your company must know about it. For them to be legally responsible for an employee’s misconduct, you should inform your employer about the situation. You can do this by following company policy on how to report harassment.

Notify your supervisor or HR department by formally filing a written complaint. Describe the problem and indicate how you want it resolved. A formal complaint creates a written record of your situation. Remember to keep a copy of the complaint you submitted.

If you don’t submit a complaint to the company, your employer can claim that they could’ve done something to stop the situation if they had known about it.

  • Approach social media protests cautiously

While free speech is a constitutional right, you must be careful when speaking out on social media. Check if there are any company policies on engaging in behavior that can “damage the company’s image or brand.” Your employer can use the policy as an excuse to fire you.

A way to avoid negative consequences is to keep your activism separate from being an employee. For example, don’t wear your uniform or share any company identifiers when you make a protest post. It’s also advisable to keep your personal social media account separate from your work profile. With this, you can share your activism with close friends and family without overlapping with your work life.

  • Consider your legal options

If you’re still receiving racial slurs from co-workers or supervisors despite all your efforts, it may be time to review your legal options and take action. Our law firm Shegerian & Associates can help build your case with the EEOC.


Know Your Rights

Regardless of intention, ethnic and racial slurs are never okay. The first step into addressing these slurs is to identify the situation. You should know which words are considered offensive, and if it plays into the stereotype of a race, it’s most likely derogatory.

When you receive ethnic or racial slurs, it’s in your best interest to know your rights and the proper approach to address the situation. To the best of your ability, you should stay calm and follow company policy when filing a complaint. If you need legal assistance, Shegerian & Associates has a superb team of racial discrimination lawyers available to help you discuss your options.

Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.