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What workplace investigators need to know about how anti-Black racism presents in the Workplace

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In a recent blog, my colleague Katharine Montpetit discussed three pivotal human rights cases involving anti-Black racism. These cases demonstrate an advancing awareness of how anti-Black racism manifests in the workplace; arguably, this awareness has grown and changed even since some of these decisions were released.

This presents a challenge for workplace investigators. Many workplace investigators are lawyers, and as of 2016 almost 80 percent of lawyers in Ontario identified as white. How does one understand and investigate complaints of racial discrimination when racism presents in forms that are outside our personal experience; when our collective understanding of racism is changing rapidly; and when the discriminatory acts might manifest in ways that are subtle (at least to those who are not experiencing them)? Keeping up to date on what racial stereotypes and microaggressions look like in the workplace is more difficult – and yet more important – than ever. Below are some examples of racist behaviours that you might not yet have considered.

1. Fetishization

What it is: Scholars have widely discussed the European colonial narrative that Black people are hyper-sexual as compared to their white counterparts. As noted by Caren M. Holmes in her paper The Colonial Roots of the Racial Fetishization of Black Women¹, this narrative – while having no basis in fact or science – “paved the road for the dehumanization and sexual exploitation imposed upon [B]lack men and women brought to the New World.”

What investigators need to understand: While fetishization of Black people may have its roots in sexualization, in today’s world it is not always sexual in nature. Fetishization can involve any type of fixation on a person’s race, even when it is intended to be a compliment.

Examples of how it can manifest in the workplace:

  • Someone describing having a particular attraction to Black men or women, or using the racist term “jungle fever” to describe that attraction
  • Asking to touch a Black person’s hair
  • Describing a Black person’s features as being “exotic”
  • Offering compliments based on stereotypes, including assuming a Black person is a good dancer or good at sport

2. White Saviorism

What it is: White saviorism presents as a white person making ostensibly sincere efforts to help less fortunate Black people, but has undertones of condescension. There has been much discussion in the media of how the white savior complex presents in mainstream films – including The Blind Side and The Help – and also in wealthy white individuals engaging in “voluntourism” to impoverished African countries seemingly for Instagram likes as much as for charitable purposes.

What investigators need to understand: Allegations that someone is engaging in white saviorism could be very difficult to investigate, since the individual engaging in the behaviour might have the best of intentions and no understanding of why their conduct was considered offensive. In these cases it is important to listen to the complainant and to identify how and if the workplace became toxic for them. As is the case in many workplace situations, impact matters more than intent.

Examples of how it can manifest in the workplace:

  • Speaking for or over Black people during meetings, or re-explaining something that they have said
  • Assuming that Black individuals need someone to defend them or to be offended on their behalf in the face of potentially derogatory comments
  • Explaining something – in particular something having to do with race or racism – to a Black person in a condescending manner (sometimes referred to as “whitesplaining”

3. Othering

What it is: Othering occurs when someone who is different from the majority is also seen as being an outsider. It can lead to a “them vs. us” mentality that effectively reduces a person to a single feature, such as their race or place of origin.

What investigators need to understand: Like white saviorism, othering can seem to come from a place of good intentions. For example, someone might ask probing questions about a Black co-worker’s background in an attempt to get to know more about them. Whether this crosses the line into harassing or otherwise objectionable behavior will depend on the specific facts of the case.

Examples of how it can manifest in the workplace:

  • Asking a co-worker where they are from, and if they say they are from Canada asking, “No, where are you really from?”
  • Expressing surprise that a Black co-worker likes a particular television show or type of music, because of their race
  • Telling a Black person that they are “so articulate” or that they “speak English so well”

These are merely a few examples of the more subtle forms of racism that can happen in a workplace. Investigators need to understand that in 2020, we have moved past a point where most racist incidents in a workplace are going to be easily identifiable, or where we will be able to definitively say that any offense caused was intentional. The more subtle nature of the incidents we are seeing, however, does not mean that they are not serious or harmful. Especially for white investigators, an approach of actively listening to a complainant’s own experiences is key, as well as a willingness to think beyond our own perspective.

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1  Holmes, Caren M. (2016) “The Colonial Roots of the Racial Fetishization of Black Women,” Black & Gold: Vol. 2.