Insults and Mockery of Your Accent or English Language Skills as a Case of National Origin Discrimination in New York

It is sometimes said that anti-discrimination laws are not general civility codes. While that’s true, certain uncivil misconduct, if it occurs sufficiently frequently, be something more, exposing improper bias based on protected characteristics like race, sex, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, etc. When that happens, what you’ve endured crosses the line from rudeness to workplace discrimination and, with the aid of a knowledgeable New York employment discrimination lawyer, you can take action to obtain compensation for the damage you suffered.

One way this kind of discrimination can occur is when a worker endures mockery or insults based on their culture and/or language. This recent national origin discrimination case from here in Manhattan is an example.

The worker was a man of Chinese ancestry who worked as a director for the New York City Department of Finance. According to his lawsuit, coworkers targeted him on multiple occasions. These actions allegedly included correcting his pronunciation of certain English words (the director spoke English with a Chinese accent,) insulting his proficiency with the English language (pretending to be unable to understand him and frequently asking him to repeat himself even though they understood what he said,) and mocking his dish at a holiday potluck with comments like “you’re Chinese you bring those dumpling things.”

While no individual comment or insult was enough by itself to create a hostile work environment, the array of things the director alleged was collectively enough to meet his burden of proof. As the federal Southern District of New York court explained in a similar discrimination case, a “combination of ‘seemingly minor incidents’ may ‘form the basis of a… claim once they reach a critical mass.”

The insults and jabs the director endured over Chinese food, by themselves, fell short. However, the cuisine insults, when taken together with the comments about the director’s accent and English language proficiency, were cumulatively enough, according to the trial court.

Cumulative Evidence as Proof of an ‘Abusive Working Environment’

The Appellate Division agreed that the director had a viable hostile work environment claim. As that court stated, while “most of the incidents of which plaintiff complains were relatively minor, at least the repeated mocking of plaintiff’s accent and pretending not to understand him, if true, could affect his ability to do his job and create an abusive working environment.”

Courts from other places are grappling with this same issue. Some have found that allegations of this sort of mockery can run afoul of federal laws like Title VII.

In one example, the plaintiff was an Iranian-American assistant director at the U.S. Government Accounting Office in Washington, D.C. According to his complaint, his white female supervisor “mimicked and caricatured [his] Iranian accent, mock[ed] his national origin with a deeper male voice, and… ‘corrected’ plaintiff’s pronunciation of her name in several successive team meetings, despite plaintiff explaining multiple times that her name was difficult to pronounce due to his accent, even while others also mispronounced her name without being corrected.”

This was enough to give the assistant director a valid claim for national origin discrimination. As the trial court in the District of Columbia explained in a December 2022 ruling, the assistant director’s supervisor drew attention to, overtly criticized, “and most egregiously, “mimick[ed] and caricatur[ed]” plaintiff’s Iranian background and accent, with these incidents occurring regularly throughout the time period.”

Like the New York worker’s lawsuit, the Washington, D.C. worker’s success relied upon the cumulative effect of all of the mockery and insults he alleged. Any one or two, by themselves, might have been insufficient. However, when put “together, these allegations give rise to a plausible inference that [the supervisor] was motivated at least in part by her demonstrated animus towards plaintiff’s national origin in taking the adverse employment actions against him.”

In recent years, the term “microaggression” has become increasingly popular, but the debate is still ongoing in the fields of psychiatry and psychology about what the term should mean. What isn’t debatable, though, is that many workplaces are settings where people degrade, insult, or disparage others based on their race, gender, ethnicity, age, etc. When that happens to you frequently, the totality of harm can reach a critical mass and constitute illegal discrimination. Winning this kind of case requires careful legal argument and a wealth of evidence to back your claims. The skilled New York national origin discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are experienced in helping workers succeed in their discrimination and harassment actions, whether their claims arose from a single extreme act or a litany of smaller ones. Contact us online or at Insults and Mockery of Your Accent or English Language Skills as a Case of National Origin Discrimination in New York to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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