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What is Racial Harassment?

By Daphne Mallory
Updated May 17, 2024
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Racial harassment is discrimination against an individual based on that person’s race, color, or ethnicity. Harassment is carried out by physical conduct or by verbal or written statements. It is prohibited in many countries where citizens can submit complaints with a government agency or file civil lawsuits, and some racial harassment laws are a part of the penal code, making the offense a crime. A victim of harassment often has to show that she was intimidated, offended, or subjected to a hostile environment. Many claims are filed by individuals in education and work environments, and preventing harassment based on race is often an obligation imposed on institutions and employers by law.

Many complaints about racial harassment are based on hate speech or verbal harassment. Those accused of engaging in these types of harassment are often cited for speaking racial slurs, engaging in racial bullying, or using offensive language that can be objectively construed as racism. For example, in one racial harassment case that was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the United States, black employees complained that their employer often referred to them as boys. The commission found that this reference was a racial slur, and the fact that it occurred over a period of time led to a hostile work environment. Reporting harassment to government agencies like the EEOC is one option for resolving these issues, but individuals can also file discrimination lawsuits in the appropriate courts.

Certain acts may also be regarded as racial harassment under discrimination laws. For example, hanging a noose from a schoolyard tree was found by a court to be a form of harassment, and the defendants were charged with a crime. Common penalties for crimes involving racial harassment include fines and imprisonment. In civil cases, plaintiffs may often sue for monetary damages or equitable remedies. For example, a plaintiff may get a job position if a court finds that a promotion was not extended because of retaliation against the plaintiff for filing a complaint about racial harassment. The consideration of race in hiring decisions is another example of harassment that is the basis of many complaints filed with government agencies that oversee such complaints.

Individuals can violate racial harassment laws if they discriminate based on characteristics that are associated with a particular race. Some characteristics include hair, weight, or facial features. For example, references to how short a worker with Asian ancestry is may be considered a racial slur.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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