Racial Emotion in the Workplace

Tristin Green

University of San Francisco - School of Law

November 4, 2013

86 S. Cal. L. Rev. 959 (2013)
Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper No. 2012-26

Almost everyone in the United States is likely to experience or have experienced racial emotion in the workplace. One person feels uncomfortable making conversation with her co-workers of a different race, for fear that she will use the wrong name or say something that is perceived as biased or offensive; another is anxious that his colleague will judge him as less intelligent than the whites on his team. One feels anger at the telling or emailing of a racial joke; another feels frustrated when a colleague raises concerns about bias during a post-interview debriefing. These emotions — and the behaviors that give rise to them and respond to them — are sometimes difficult to describe. We lack a language of racial emotion in the workplace, in no small part because many of us (especially whites) prefer not to see it. But racial emotion does exist, and we ignore it to the detriment not only of our individual relationships, but of our visions and efforts for equality.

Drawing on a rich body of social science research on emotion and interracial interaction, this Article pushes beyond the recent cognitive turn in understanding discrimination to expose racial emotion as a source of discrimination at work. It uncovers the ways that the law (through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) and organizations currently close racial emotion out of antidiscrimination discourse and close space for developing positive racial emotion at work. By theorizing racial emotion and the relationships that result as a potential source of discrimination, the Article positions the law to better see and address workplace discrimination and to set normative and regulatory grounding for organizations to open space and develop conditions for positive racial emotion and interracial relationships at work. To this end, the Article proposes several specific doctrinal changes, particularly around behavior of “racial assault,” in individual disparate treatment, hostile work environment, and retaliation law. It resists, however, calls for greater policing of all racial behavior through these laws, urging instead legal regulation of discrimination at the systemic level as a way of directing organizational attention toward developing work conditions that will foster conversation and learning across difference.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 67

Keywords: workplace discrimination, racial emotion, social science, interracial relationships

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Date posted: October 15, 2012 ; Last revised: January 16, 2014

Suggested Citation

Green, Tristin, Racial Emotion in the Workplace (November 4, 2013). 86 S. Cal. L. Rev. 959 (2013) ; Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper No. 2012-26. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2161698

Contact Information

Tristin Green (Contact Author)
University of San Francisco - School of Law ( email )
2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
United States

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