Opinion | Witnessing discrimination in a white workplace

By Lynnette Tibbott, Staff Columnist

TW: Racism, sexism, homophobia.


A National Institute for Health 2019 study found that Black people experienced race-based discrimination seven times more often compared to white people. The study also determined that women experience a 53% higher rate of discrimination in the workplace compared to men. Unfortunately, discrimination and harassment in the workplace are nothing new, even when more than half of all Black Americans and a third of women experience adversity at their jobs.

Despite the government’s attempts at preventing discrimination with laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination continues to pervade workplaces. Even when minority groups are not present in a white-dominated workplace, discrimination toward them still exists. 

I recently heard one of the most shocking stories I’ve ever heard from a friend. She came over to my house, and we were talking about the horrible state of the world, about the hypocrisy of our government and then about her experiences working as a queer white woman in a male-dominated career field. 

She told me about a racist encounter she witnessed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. An old, white male walked into the store where she works. He scoffed, and made a comment about their store being open on the “supposed holiday.” At first, it seemed like it was just a microaggression, but it soon morphed into full-scale racial aggression. His previous comment was a test to see what he could get away with saying.

He said, “You know how my friends celebrate MLK Day? They all get together to put on monkey masks and eat watermelon and fried chicken.” 

This comment left my friend speechless in the moment, and it left me speechless when she recounted the story. She didn’t know what to say or do, so she froze. She told me that a couple of the people around her laughed, likely to appease the customer who said it. 

It’s a privilege in life to not experience racism firsthand. In small towns in central Pennsylvania like the one I grew up in, Black history and American slavery were taught in high school, yet we didn’t have a diverse community. People who know nothing of other experiences and cultures are the ones who are quick to stereotype and hate other groups, which is why small-town lifestyles can be so laden with ignorance.

Of course, we constantly hear about discrimination online. However, the internet is not always the most conducive to the truth behind discrimination. Our electronic screens keep us separate from the experience. Hearing about racism and discrimination on a personal level humanizes the incident in a way that the internet may fail to capture for those who don’t experience overt oppression.   

I’ll never know what it’s like to experience such outward racism, but I know what’s morally right and wrong. In a white-dominated workplace where old white men feel comfortable spewing racism, the people they’re talking about aren’t even around to stick up for themselves. And even if they did, would they be met with verbal or physical violence?

Racist comments aren’t the only atrocious things my friend hears on a daily basis at her job. One time she told me a customer looked at her and then turned to her male boss, and spoke about her as if she wasn’t even there. The customer told the boss, “I don’t want a woman touching my order.”

As a lesbian, my friend also experiences homophobic comments in her workplace, especially when straight white males try to perceive relationships between lesbian women and gay men. At her work, someone said when he sees two girls kissing, it’s hot. But if two men kiss? It disgusts him. 

I can’t help but think about perspective, severity and specificity of the act, and how all of these aspects shape how we individually process these verbal aggressions. For instance, my friend was completely appalled by what she had heard, and she remained silent in the situation. Others laughed but didn’t say anything else. Did they really think it was funny, or did they feel obligated to laugh? No one forced them to react, and how they reacted spoke volumes. My friend regrets not speaking up in the situation.   

Specificity plays a huge part in how we react to aggressive comments. It’s easy to fall into the trap of generalizations. It’s so easy to take someone else’s word for a situation, but until you hear the entire story, you may never fully know how to relate. Racism, sexism and homophobia fall under an umbrella term, where anything from microaggressions to physical violence is included. In this way, it’s hard to determine severity when every situation is listed under the same term. 

I’m led to believe this is why most intolerant people so easily denounce the word “racism” or “sexism.” To them, it’s just another buzzword. There’s not a story behind the situation, and they cannot relate to the hatred because they refuse to see that there’s an actual person as the victim of their hate.  

I want to clarify that racism, sexism and homophobia are all distinct issues. Although I’m categorizing them in a similar way, I’m not fully grasping the nuances of every situation. Racism, sexism and homophobia are defined by different histories and communities. It’s not fair of me to classify them as the same problems. I can’t fully expand on the scope of these issues in this article.

What I can discuss is how hateful speech plays into the bigger role of workplace discrimination. White people need to prioritize what’s morally good as opposed to their comfortability in social situations. 

People, especially those who say awful comments, tend to project their hate onto other people. However, if you don’t speak out, you’re letting the other person know that you will not argue with them. In the future, they might start escalating their discriminatory speech. It’s best to shut these comments down before it can happen.  

If you’ve ever witnessed racism, sexism or homophobia in your work environment, know that you’re not alone. If you can, I encourage you to speak out — whether it be in the moment, or later to a trusted supervisor, friend or family member. Everyone experiences discrimination differently, but it’s never good to push through these adversities alone. I implore you not to remain silent. 

Lynnette Tibbott primarily writes about topics in the sciences and humanities. Write to her at [email protected].