On Responding to Subtle Acts of Discrimination

Ebun Joseph

Dr Ebun Joseph is the module coordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies module in Ireland. She lectures on race, migration, social policy and equality. She is a career-development specialist, author and chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland (AfSAI). She is a citizen of both Nigeria and Ireland, and has lived in Ireland for more than 17 years.

What should I do if an employee of a venue treats me unprofessionally as organiser of a cultural event, because she doesn’t like other cultures? She is obliged to process my request as she is part of the whole team, and it is difficult to prove her prejudice. She provides some service – it is difficult to prove the attitude, as she is “passive aggressive” and it is more than likely her managers won’t do much.

Thanks for your question. Being a person of migrant descent myself who organises various events, I have been at the receiving end of differential treatment from staff at event centres. Sometimes it is really hard to challenge the behaviour for fear of seeming petty and picky.

Think about it: how do you complain that a staff member spoke to you more sternly than the person before you? That they did not smile at you when processing your order? How do you complain that they did not go through the list of options with you like they did for the White guy who went before you, without appearing finicky? How do you complain that your meeting started and there were no pens on the table, no notepads, and you had to phone reception to get jugs of water in the room?

These might seem like mundane things, but you notice that for other groups’ events, the staff are more cautious, they tell you all the options, they laugh even when nothing is funny. They are polite to others’ guests and give them directions courteously. How do you make that complaint without seeming like you are just a troublemaker? Yet you know a differential treatment based on preconceived prejudice when you experience it.

Let’s not be too quick to say those are little things that should be ignored. That’s how microaggressions work. They are the everyday experience of race which is often ignored. The enormity of the harm microaggressions cause is even more difficult to articulate and can often be seen as sporadic individual incidents.

Racial microaggressionshave been defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group”. It is like a dripping tap that people endure until they reach a breaking point.

The main issue is not really that you do not know what to do. The last line of your question says it all – that you know you should report the behaviour and the quality of service you’ve received. What I hear as the challenge is that your prejudiced treatment by staff is hard to prove, and the possibility that the manager will not, or might not, do much. These are among the main reasons that racist and prejudiced behaviour is underreported.

In Ireland, we don’t have a strong record of disciplining people for discrimination, providing prejudiced services to others, or clearly racist acts. When staff know they can get away with certain behaviours, it becomes the way they treat others. Particularly if it comes from the top. If junior staff have witnessed how managers treat people from other ethnic or racial groups based on how they look, their nationality of descent, accent, postcode, the car they arrive in, or the colour of their skin, then it teaches others that it is okay to treat people in a similar way.

One benefit of a diverse workforce is that the work environment is no longer conducive to discriminatory behaviours. When I am in a meeting, people are a bit more cautious about how they speak about Blacks or Africans, and recommendations for what to do are a bit more professional. People are more cautious when dealing with different groups if there are staff from other parts of the world who are vocal about inclusion and diversity.

The most annoying part is that sometimes you can’t even threaten to take your business somewhere else, because such staff are not the business owners and don’t care about a satisfied, or dissatisfied, customer. Though I laugh now as I write about it, it wasn’t funny then when I challenged a member of a hotel’s staff on the way they were presenting the business to me, in an offhand, I-don’t-care attitude. He simply told me I could go and try somewhere else.

To clearly answer your question: irrespective of whether the manager will reprimand the staff member or not, if you notice it, and it’s bothering you, report it. We cannot change it if we do not name it. So please report! Report!! Report!!! Most places also have feedback forms or emails after events. Many organisations use this feedback for staff training. Make sure you give detailed feedback, and be as precise as possible about the time, the service, and what happened. That way it can be addressed.

I remember when my kids were much younger we had a Sunday after-church routine where we had lunch in a fast-food place. There was this particular girl, and she just didn’t like my face or my kids. Waiting in the queue, I would watch her. She would joke with other kids and help them with orders. Once I got to the front of the line, you’d think she’d been struck with the father of all headaches. She’d frown, and become impatient.

I made sure to complete one of those feedback requests you could connect to your order receipt. I kept giving feedback – both for good staff and bad – until I noticed a massive change in behaviour from the woman. I knew my feedback had been heard and addressed. In the feedback, I mentioned the basis of my complaints, that it felt like colour-based prejudice. I clearly stated that if my “Black” money was good enough to be taken, I am good enough to be respected and treated with courtesy in the store.

In addition to giving detailed feedback to the organisation, clearly stating what happened and its impact, you can also ask to see the manager and make a formal complaint. If the reports pile up for a particular member of staff, they will know to do something about it.

Also, don’t hesitate to mention it directly, and politely, to staff that you’re being treated differently. Some people act out their prejudice and appear ignorant of the impact. If you mention it, they can’t claim ignorance. I know this is more difficult. People hate confrontation. The key thing is to not be accusatory, but state your observation clearly.

People generally know when they have been given a discriminatory or prejudiced treatment. Don’t doubt yourself. That’s how microaggressions find their power. From doubting yourself and your experience. But as theThomas Theorem states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” and should be worth investigating.

Remember the saying popularly credited to Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher and politician: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Let’s do something. Start by reporting it.

Got questions about race and identity in contemporary Ireland that you’d like UCD lecturer Ebun Joseph tackle in her column? You can send them to us through this contact form.


Ebun Joseph: Dr Ebun Joseph is the module coordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies module in Ireland. She lectures on race, migration, social policy and equality. She is a career-development specialist, author and chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland (AfSAI). She is a citizen of both Nigeria and Ireland, and has lived in Ireland for more than 17 years.

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