Five things you shouldn’t say to your ethnic minority peers

We attended Race Equality Week workshops in February organised by Race Equality Matters and listened to some inspiring and helpful seminars by Founder and Principal Coach at GKF Coaching and Consulting, Gigi Khonyongwa-Fernandez and Head of Inclusion and CSR at Osborne Clarke, Bola Gibson at the Health and Wellbeing @ Work Conference at the NEC. And in the lead up to the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21st March, we want to help organisations and their people improve the wellbeing of their ethnic minority or BAME (Black, Asian Minority Ethnic) peers. 

We want anti-racism to be something people adopt so that racism in the workplace and in places of study comes to an end.

Dr. Stephen Ashe from the University of Manchester along with the Trade Union Congress (TUC) analysed the 2016-2017 Racism at Work survey, titling it “Racism Ruins Lives”. After interviewing 5,000 people it found that a shocking 70% of ethnic minority respondents said they had experienced racial harassment at work in the past five years. 

Other high but not very surprising figures in the report include: 40% of employees who reported a racist incident to their employer said that their complaint was either ignored or that they themselves had subsequently been identified as “troublemakers”. 49% of participants reported that racism had negatively impacted their ability to do their job and 55.6% reported that their mental health had been impacted.

Specific research about the NHS shows that ethnic minority employees suffer some of the highest percentages of racism at work. For NHS staff, here is some advice on speaking up about racism that you can apply any time of year.

And at universities, students from ethnic minority backgrounds allege mishandling of racism complaints as explored in the BBC Three documentary “Is Uni Racist?” In addition, Universities UK published a new set of recommendations designed to tackle racial harassment against BAME students in higher education.

The “Racism Ruins Lives” report also showed that far too few of those who responded to the survey with their experiences of racism actually reported them. The figure was higher for those in full-time, permanent contracts. This correlates to the valid concern that people are afraid of reporting to their senior leaders, with fears of retaliation or losing their jobs.

These statistics and more fall in line with the findings in our own report “Protecting your people”, although the higher percentages prove that things are far tougher for BAME employees than their White counterparts.

To help you understand how simple things you say or do can affect your ethnic minority colleagues and fellow students, we have put together this list of five things you shouldn’t say to your ethnic minority peers. This extends to any non-native English speaking colleagues and fellow students who can also be discriminated against.

  • “Where are you/your family originally from?”

Even without the word “originally”, which can make someone feel “other” or “foreign”, this question can put some people on edge. Some people will be unsure of how to answer it. If they are born in the UK or lived there for a long time and reply with a British place name, the insertion of the word “originally” to a repeat of the question is often added to probe further.

Although some people who ask this question may simply be curious and interested, the receiver can find this insensitive. They are made to feel their identity and their sense of belonging are being questioned.

White people with native English-speaking skills are very rarely asked this question or at least not with the same undertones.

Some people may want to elaborate and tell you more about their family origins but if you’re asking, your tone and delivery as well as your relationship with the other person should be taken into consideration.

  • ”Your English is very good”

This can be a slightly confusing statement because the receiver of this apparent compliment might find it offensive if they do in fact speak fluent English but they are being perceived as “other” because of their appearance. Some may think it is ignorant or belittling. Non-native English speakers might find this complimentary, but it should never be assumed that English is not someone’s first language off the bat.

“I cannot count the number of times I have been 'complimented' for my good English by people who do not know me very well or pry further as to how or why I speak good English. “Is it your first language?” “Were you born here?” I was born in the UK, but I did not grow up speaking English as a first language at home. And while I speak and write more English now than my first language, I am proud of being bilingual but find comments about my English language skills to be patronising and assumptive purely based on race or ethnic origin.” - Choon Tan

  • Getting their names wrong

People with non-traditional or non-English names as well names of a different ethnic origin that are considered difficult to pronounce are too often renamed by their peers. Many feel there is no effort made to ask or learn how to pronounce their name properly. Names in other languages and cultures usually have meanings that tie that person with their heritage and background so this can be quite offensive and upsetting.

Mispronouncing someone’s name with no desire to correct yourself or making light of either their name or your lack of linguistic awareness doesn’t have to be the way. Simply asking someone for the phonetic spelling and pronunciation of their name and doing your best to remember it can improve work relationships and forgo any misunderstandings.

“I have had many previous employers and colleagues who ask how to say my name, which I do not mind, but also had some who will either look extremely confused by it or crack jokes about it. This has usually made me feel inferior and as if they do not take other people’s culture or feelings seriously. You can read more about my own name and experience here .” - Choon Tan

Race Equality Matters’ #MyNameIs tool has been well received by many who have made use of it and found it both helpful and educational.

  • “Maybe you don’t understand because English isn’t your first language.”

Blaming someone for not understanding what you are saying and assuming that is down to a lack of English language skills is degrading. This is a form of microaggression at the very least and should be avoided at all costs.

An example of this is the allegations of toxic behaviour against filmmaker Joss Whedon, who blamed actress Gal Gadot for misunderstanding him because “English is not her first language”. In reality, Gadot speaks English to a very high level, having learnt it at school.

It must be remembered that people who don’t speak English “fluently” will speak at least one other language fluently. Meanwhile, 62% of Britons can’t speak any other language apart from English. The remaining 38% can speak at least one foreign language, though fluency was not measured in this statistic. That means that the majority of Britons cannot know what it feels like to fluently speak a second language yet still get criticism for not understanding everything.

An EU survey in 2016 found that 22% of British working-age adults saw themselves as proficient in the foreign language they were best at. People who do not speak a second language often take the fact English is considered the world’s most global language, especially for business, for granted. This privilege of being able to speak English should not make one complacent or ignorant of other people and languages.

Whether or not someone speaks, writes, understands or reads fluent English is a moot point when critiquing work. Native English speakers also make spelling, grammar and pronunciation mistakes but their English language skills or their perceived appearance or place of origin are rarely seen as reasons for them. 

Anybody with physical, learning or speech disabilities should also be free of discrimination. Everyone’s work should be critiqued fairly in the same way and most will appreciate the corrections if pointed out without judgement or condescension. 

If someone’s role or course involves a lot of writing or a “good command of the English language”, this is obviously something that can be tested beforehand or discussed with them to see if they may need further assistance or have any disabilities they wish to disclose.

Jobs should be a learning experience as much as a way to put someone’s skills to the test and of course as a student, learning is constant. Any problems, the reasons for them and solutions should be identified along the way, rather than brought up too late and any possible discriminatory assumptions already made.

  • Avoid asking questions or making statements that hinge on stereotypes

Some may think this does not happen, but it absolutely does. Cultural ignorance is rife among a portion of the population who may have read something about another country’s culture that they deem strange. Asking colleagues and fellow students from ethnic minority backgrounds things like “is it true in…” or “do you eat…” again makes assumptions about the person and their cultural background. And of course if they are negative stereotypes - which many are - these questions can be deeply offensive.

“I was once asked if I had ever tried dog meat or eaten bugs when I lived in China. While I told them I had tried dog meat but didn’t want to eat bugs, this was met with shock and a conversation about the tradition and history - but mostly the so-called ethical implications - of eating dog meat in East Asian countries. In the same conversation, another colleague had admitted to trying kangaroo meat and crocodile in Australia. The contrasting reactions from people spoke volumes. People were surprised by this but not as shocked and didn’t pull disdained faces.” - Choon Tan

Unfortunately, cultural awareness is often not talked about unless driven by people from those cultures. This should change and companies could benefit from awareness workshops that educate others on different cultures so everyone in the organisation has a better understanding and greater appreciation of differing cultures. 

People who witness behaviour like those above should disclose it to their organisation, support those who are subject to it and call out the behaviours as well. It is now no longer good enough to just be not racist, but people must be actively anti-racist, understanding the multi-faceted layers of racist behaviours.

Racism can take several forms, such as systemic (for example, people often being overlooked for a job based on their name or the Black awarding gap in universities), microaggressions (subtle remarks where some terms or the tone of one’s voice used appear hostile or ignorant), mass stereotyping and generalising, and colourism (“preferring” lighter skinned Black people, for instance), among others. 

Anti-racist coaching sessions and workshops with DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) professionals and can also really help people understand the differences and ways in which they can act to stop racism. For tips on how to get senior leaders to buy-in to diversity and inclusion at work, you can read more here as well as ways to encourage workplaces to engage in inclusion conversations.

For more information you can watch our webinars on tackling racial harassment at university, how to create an open and inclusive workplace, and the cost of not preventing workplace bullying and harassment which bring together a host of experienced speakers in those areas.

To find out more about how Culture Shift’s reporting system can help your business or educational institution identify problems such as racism, book a free demo now.

Edited on 28th June 2022: this blog post has been updated to remove most references to the term BAME.

Keep in touch

Sign up to our newsletter to receive monthly insights and resources.