In 2009, Nathaniel Burrage requested a transfer from his job in Youngstown, Ohio, where he worked as a driver for FedEx. He alleged that he was experiencing ongoing racially motivated harassment. According to Burrage, his supervisor, Dennis Jamiot, alternated between referring to him as “Mexican” and “cheap labor,” and shouted “ándale” and “arriba” at him as he walked by. Soon after, he said his other supervisors began to chime in with the same racist insults, and Jamiot began to lob paper clips and chalk at him. One co-worker asked him to weigh in on whether what was etched on a graffiti wall was true: Mexicans are proof that American Indians had sex with buffalos.
Burrage filed a lawsuit under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet, despite the verbal and physical abuse he alleged he’d experienced, his case was dismissed. The reason? Nathanial Burrage was not actually Mexican, or even Hispanic. Burrage was a black/white biracial man experiencing what I have termed in my research as “identity incongruent discrimination.” Identity incongruent discrimination occurs when someone experiences racial discrimination for a race they are misperceived as.
As the browning of America continues, identity incongruent discrimination will only continue to rise. It’ll be a pressing problem for the growing multiracial population—a group that is the fastest growing racial group in America and that’s set to triple in size by 2060. Research finds that members of the multiracial group are more likely to be miscategorized than members of any other racial group. Compared to categorizing people into a single-race category, categorizing someone as multiracial is more mentally cumbersome, takes longer and is less likely to occur. And the most common race that black/white biracial people, like Burrage, are categorized as is Hispanic.
Identity incongruent discrimination reveals the stickiness of “race,” a concept traditionally defined by one’s physical appearance. Some race scholars have acknowledged this stickiness and responded by breaking up “race” into components, such as racial identity (how one racially identifies, informed by racial ancestry) and racial identification (how one is racially perceived).
On the one hand, it may seem easier to endure identity incongruent discrimination than traditional discrimination. It doesn’t carry the same baggage of being discriminated against in the same way that one’s ancestors were, or of being discriminated against for an identity that one holds dear.
But identity incongruent discrimination is its own psychological whirlwind. Just like traditional discrimination, it is linked to poorer mental health. Furthermore, whereas research finds that traditional discrimination comes with a built-in coping mechanism—a community of people who you can identity and commiserate with—identity incongruent discrimination doesn’t. Where do you go to work through the bizarre experience of being discriminated against for a misperceived identity? Instead of increasing one’s sense of belonging within one’s racial group, identity incongruent discrimination is linked to feeling that one doesn’t belong anywhere or is “culturally homeless.”
As Burrage’s case reveals, identity incongruent discrimination does not just make people psychologically vulnerable but also legally vulnerable. In contrast to the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not explicit about protecting people based on actual or perceived identity. In Burrage’s case, the Northern Ohio district court ruled that “if Congress had intended Title VII to protect persons from discrimination based on perceived characteristics, it would have explicitly done so.”
The lack of attention to identity incongruent discrimination signifies that we need to catch up with the complicated ways that racial discrimination shows up in people’s lives.
Because by 2060, it will be too late.
The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Harbani Ahuja for locating and analyzing legal cases related to identity incongruent discrimination.
Burrage v. FedEx Freight, Inc., 4:10-CV-2755 (2012).
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