If I had to sum up discrimination using only one word, I would pick stereotypes. More often than not, workplace discrimination occurs when we make assumptions about others who are different than us – by race, religion, gender, or national origin, to name a few. Why do we stereotype? Part of it is simple neuroscience. Our brains are hardwired to detect differences so that we can react to them in a way that helps ensure our survival (think “fight or flight”). While this evolutionary tendency is beneficial in many ways, it can get us into trouble, too.
Making assumptions about someone based on a protected category – as natural as it may be – is just plain illegal in the employment context. One area stereotyping occurs that we may not be as familiar with is color-based discrimination. You know Title VII covers race, religion, and national origin. Did you know it also covers “color”? What exactly is color discrimination? Treating someone adversely based on the pigmentation of their skin. In other words, color discrimination most commonly happens within a particular racial category.
Oprah did a story on colorism faced by lighter skinned African Americans recently. Colorism sometime takes the form of lighter skinned African Americans discriminating against darker skinned members of their race. As Oprah’s segment showed, the reverse happens as well. One woman explained that because of her lighter-toned skin, many of her African American peers treated her poorly and called her names. She was basically accused of “not being black enough” and thinking of herself as prettier than her peers, a view she said she did not actually hold. She said she faced racism from other races and colorism from members of her race. Talk about a rock and a hard place.
The problem, in a word, is stereotypes. We need to be aware of those we hold, understanding that stereotyping happens naturally for most of us. Only with an increased awareness can we move beyond them.