This month Rice University’s Religion and Public Life Program released a fascinating study on how different religious identities experience workplace discrimination. They drew primarily on interview data from a mixed-methods study that included a national population survey of 13,270 people as well as 194 in-depth interviews with Christians, Muslims, Jews, and nonreligious respondents. What did it show?
Nearly a third of all survey respondents from their subsample reported perceiving religious discrimination at some point in their working tenure. A larger proportion of Muslim (63 percent) and Jewish (52 percent) respondents reported religious discrimination compared with other religious groups. Additionally, perceptions of religious discrimination varied within Christian subgroups, with 36 percent of evangelical Protestants, 24 percent other Christian/other Protestants, and roughly 20 percent of Catholics and mainline Protestants each reporting religious discrimination. A little more than one quarter of all nonreligious respondents perceived religious discrimination in the workplace. It is also worth noting that respondents who perceived religious discrimination at work often reported other forms of discrimination tied to their social location. Of the 27 percent of people who reported experiencing religious discrimination, 24 percent reported experiencing one or more other forms of discrimination in the workplace. This was especially true for Muslim and Jewish respondents, of whom 60 percent and 44 percent reported experiencing other forms of discrimination, respectively.
The study discusses verbal microaggressions, stereotypes, social exclusion, othering, religious holidays, and religious symbols. All of it is interesting, but I can’t help but be drawn to the individual examples drawn from the interviews. They highlight the complicated nature of workplace discrimination, particularly with regards to religion.
One of the examples:
A white evangelical man who worked as a truck driver in Ohio described how he believed he was “let go” from a previous job after he requested not to work on Sunday mornings. Although he acknowledged this may have been because of scheduling needs, he also felt that those who made the decision “did not like me, because I was a Christian.” However, paradoxically, the same respondent shared later that he felt that Muslims in his current workplace “use their faith as a way—as a victim card, to get whatever they want,” including changes to shifts for religious reasons. Although one might expect the man to be sympathetic to Muslim requests for scheduling accommodation given his own experience, here he dismisses Muslims as being manipulative and questions their religious sincerity. He also describes how his current boss created a part-time position for him, so that he could also serve as a part-time pastor without losing regular income. However, in this case, he does not question meriting this treatment, drawing an implied distinction between himself and Muslim colleagues.
Another memorable example:
An African American mainline Protestant woman from Alabama reflected that early on in her work life, about 15 years ago, when she was an office manager of a department store, her coworkers would “insult” her by calling her “Holy Roller.” This incident seemed to be precipitated by the fact that she would be “turning my Christian music on to encourage myself and to encourage others.” The fact that her non-Christian colleagues did not appreciate this illustrates how this respondent may also have been an enactor of unwelcome behavior in the workplace.
I highly recommend reading the study. It provides some excellent viewpoints and some things to think about. You can read it here.
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