We’ve all experienced unintentional discrimination in the workplace. Here’s how to address it with a level head.

We experience micro-aggressions – subtle, unintentional acts of discrimination towards an ethnic minority or group – constantly, and they’re especially prevalent in the workplace. They may not come from a place of outright hate, but instances like this can make you hit that side eye, scrunch your face or shake your head … and, most importantly, bite your tongue in order to keep calm and composed on the job.

But enough already. It’s time we set a few guidelines – the dos and don’ts, if you will – to help ease the tension and discuss these situations with your co-workers in a way that will actually bring about change.

The Hair Grab

How many times has someone just reached out and touched your hair? One time when I was with my friends, a young woman turned around and said, “I love your hair,” and then immediately grabbed my bun. And this wasn’t even the first time it had happened to me! Talk about a personal space violation.

Do: Speak up. If someone does the hair grab, respond with a firm, friendly, “You can touch my hair, but can you please ask and wait for me to respond first?” You can also encourage questions about your hair and its maintenance – but only if they come from a place of genuine interest.

Don’t: Just let folks reach out and touch your hair! Just like the rest of your body, this is your personal space, and it deserves to be respected.

The Cultural “Jokes”

Our culture is not a joke! Here’s a real example of using black culture as a joke that I experienced in the workplace:

Co-worker: “Wait one cotton-picking minute!”

Other co-worker: (Laughs) “That’s such a funny saying. I wonder where it came from?”

Me: (Blank stare) “Well, who picked cotton for 500 years?”

Co-worker: “Way to ruin the joke!”

Me: “I forgot slavery was a joke …”

Do: Take a stand against “jokes” that make light of a minority group or past historical atrocities like slavery. Don’t be surprised if the joke makers try to defend their actions. Keep your cool, explain your stance and, if the jokes continue, don’t be afraid to speak with your HR department.

Don’t: Accept the excuses: “It’s just a joke” or “No one’s ever been offended before.” We’re all adults here, so we should all know the difference between right and wrong.

The “I Have Black Friends” Excuse

We’ve all heard this line before: “I’m not racist – I have black friends!”

Having black colleagues that you hang out with sometimes doesn’t make it OK to speak or act in a bigoted way.

Do: Point out that actions speak louder than words. Work with your HR department to organize volunteer days for underserved black communities, or coordinate an office-wide donation to the United Negro College Fund. Efforts like these will help others see that they can’t just talk about it – they have to be about it!

Don’t: Put up with racism, regardless of whether the person spreading it thinks they’re actually racist. Keep anger or frustration at bay, but don’t back down. You owe it to yourself to call out racism when you experience it.

By supporting ourselves with the tools to educate and empower our co-workers who don’t understand, we can strive toward creating a more equal playing field for all of us.

Author: Ray Ball