I have to say this almost daily, and I'll say it again here: general harassment at work is not illegal. Harassment because you are you is not illegal. Bullying is not illegal. However, bullies tend to pick on the weak and the different, and that may mean the bullying is illegal. EEOC just issued new proposed guidelines on what constitutes illegal workplace harassment and how to prove it. I'll touch on some highlights.
EEOC goes through characteristics that are legally protected and gives examples. Here's what they say about race and color discrimination:
Race and color: Race-based harassment includes harassment based on a complainant’s race, e.g., harassment because the complainant is Black, Asian American, white, or multiracial.Examples of harassing conduct based on race include racial epithets or offensive comments about members of a particular race, or harassment based on stereotypes about the complainant’s race. It also can include harassment based on traits or characteristics linked to an individual’s race, such as the complainant’s name, cultural dress, accent or manner of speech, and physical characteristics, including grooming practices (e.g., harassment based on hair textures and hairstyles commonly associated with specific racial groups). Color-based harassment includes harassment based on skin tone.
Example 1: Color-based Harassment. Shawn, a Pakistani-American with brown skin, files a charge of discrimination alleging that two of his direct supervisors have subjected Shawn to unlawful harassment based on color. Shawn alleges that on a near-daily basis, his supervisors call him “turd” and otherwise make comments to him that suggest his skin is the color of human feces. According to Shawn, one supervisor exited the bathroom, placed a cup containing feces on Shawn’s desk, and stated the feces looked like Shawn. Based on these facts, Shawn has alleged harassment based on color.
They also describe national origin, sex/gender, religion, pregnancy/childbirth/related conditions, sexual orientation and gender identity, age, and disability-based harassment and give examples.
Here are some other issues they cover:
Erroneous perception: "Harassment based on the perception that an individual has a particular protected characteristic, for example, the belief that a person has a particular national origin or religion, is covered by federal EEO law even if the perception is incorrect. Thus, harassment of a Hispanic person because the harasser believes the individual is Pakistani is national origin harassment, and harassment of a Sikh man wearing a turban because the harasser thinks he is Muslim is religious harassment, even though the perception in both instances is incorrect."
Association: "The EEO laws also cover “associational discrimination.” This includes harassment because the complainant associates with someone in a different protected classor harassment because the complainant associates with someone in the same protected class. Such association may include, but is not limited to, close familial relationships, such as marriage, or close friendship with another individual belonging to a protected group."
Same class: "Harassment that is based on the complainant’s protected characteristic is covered even if the harasser is a member of the same protected class."
Societal expectations: "Harassment based on protected characteristics includes harassment based on social or cultural expectations regarding how persons of a particular protected group, such as persons of a particular race, national origin, or sex, usually act, appear, or behave.This includes, but is not limited to, harassment based on assumptions about racial, ethnic, or other protected characteristics, or sex-based assumptions about family responsibilities, suitability for leadership roles,or sex roles."
Example 9: Causation Established Based on Sex Stereotyping. Eric, an iron worker, alleges he was subjected to sexual harassment from his foreman, Joshua. The investigation reveals that Joshua found a remark Eric made to be “feminine” and then began calling Eric “pu__y,” “princess,” and “fa___t,” often several times a day. Several times a week, Joshua approached Eric from behind and simulated intercourse with him. On about ten occasions, Joshua exposed himself to Eric. Based on these facts, the investigator concludes that Joshua targeted Eric based on his perception that Eric did not conform to traditional male stereotypes and subjected Eric to harassment based on sex.
Causation: The guidance gives many examples of how to prove that it was discrimination that caused the behavior as opposed to something else.
Example 10: Causation Established by Social Context. Ron, a Black truck driver, finds banana peels on his truck on multiple occasions. After the third of these occasions, Ron sees two white coworkers watching his reaction to the banana peels. An investigation reveals no evidence that banana peels were found on any other truck or that Ron found any trash on his truck besides the banana peels. Based on these facts, an investigator concludes that the appearance of banana peels on Ron’s truck was not coincidental. The investigator further finds that the use of banana peels invokes “monkey imagery” that, given the history of racial stereotypes against Black individuals, was intended as a racial insult. It thus constitutes harassment based on race.
Example 12: Comparative Evidence Gives Rise to Inference that Harassing Conduct Is Based on a Protected Characteristic. Tyler is a manager for an educational services firm. Tyler directly supervises two women, Kailey and Anu, and two men, Sandeep and Levi. Tyler grants Kailey’s request for time off to visit her dying sister. When Kailey returns, Tyler confronts her and yells at her for not reading her “damn email” while she was away. From then on, Tyler regularly hovers over Kailey and Anu as they work to make sure they don’t “mess up.” Tyler also yells and shakes his fist at Kailey and Anu when he is angry at them. This conduct continues, and Kailey and Anu file EEOC charges alleging harassment based on sex. During the investigation, the investigator finds that Sandeep and Levi report that Tyler, although occasionally irritable, generally engages in friendly banter with them that is different from the aggressiveness that Tyler displays toward female employees. Tyler sometimes even allows Sandeep and Levi to relax in his office in the afternoons, doing little or no work. Tyler also permits Sandeep and Levi to leave the office early and does not monitor their work performance. Tyler’s different treatment of women and men who are similarly situated would support an investigator’s conclusion that Tyler’s treatment of Kailey and Anu was based on their sex.
This proposed guidance is pretty comprehensive and is a good resource to review if you think you've been illegally harassed. When in doubt, talk to an employee-side employment lawyer in your state about your rights.