Winter 2002
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TCU Magazine Feature

Discriminating tastes

You think it is funny. Others call it illegal.

By Shari Barnes '88 (MLA)

If the managers at XYZ, Inc. had been sensitive to Ed Garza's feelings, the company wouldn't be fighting a discrimination judgment.

Garza, born in Mexico City, moved to the U.S. when he was a toddler. A congenital defect didn't keep him from excelling in school or from understanding that people stare at his cleft palate and blind eye. "I know my face is distracting," he said, "but my brains and personality always made up for my funny face."

Life at XYZ was awkward. "My boss took an instant dislike to me, and I became a moving target. Sometimes I felt like we were in a bad Western movie╔you know -- There's not room enough in this town for both you and me. "

In XYZ's culture, everyone had a nickname, and Garza's manager quickly dubbed him Mexican Cyclops. The epithet stuck, and people began to call Ed "M.C." Repeated objections to management accomplished nothing. "They accused me of being a soft college boy who couldn't take a joke," Garza said. When Ed complained, the company president told him to adapt if he wanted to be successful.

So Ed Garza filed a charge of racial and disability discrimination and eventually won a large jury award. "The company has appealed the decision," he said, "but I won a victory when jurors agreed that XYZ took bad manners all the way to discrimination."

Ed has a new job. "I've found a manufacturing plant that follows the golden rule ╔ they treat me as they'd like to be treated ╔ and they didn't give me a nickname."

Blue collar doesn't equal bad manners.

Not every form of discrimination is illegal. "If your boss thinks you're a smart aleck and discriminates against you on that basis, he probably hasn't broken the law," says Michael Langford, a Hamilton mediator. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, color, national original, gender, age and disability. "You may think the boss shouldn't treat you differently because you're bald or skinny," Langford said, "but the law doesn't cover that kind of intolerance."

Carla Vogel, supervisory attorney for the Dallas District Equal Employment Opportunity's Alternative Dispute Resolution Unit, says a lot of people don't understand that unintentional discrimination is just as illegal as deliberate discrimination.

An isolated incident may not rise to the level of discrimination, but Vogel asserts that an employee should be held accountable for bigoted behavior. "That may just be the way she was raised," Vogel said, "but the company will still be liable. It doesn't matter if it's intentional ╔ what matters is that it happened.

"A lot of these discrimination cases are about power, control and arrogance. Companies may keep abusive employees on the payroll because they're big money makers or because they're related to someone in the organization."

Vogel believes that everyone is intolerant about something. "You aren't being honest with yourself if you don't admit your biases, but you should keep them under your hat. Thirty to 40 percent of my workload would diminish if people simply treated others with respect."

Wendy Slocum, training manager for Accredited Home Lenders in San Diego, started her career as a loan processor. She worked with an officer who was rude and demanding. "One day he came to my office when I was with a borrower and started talking to me. I asked him to wait, and he stormed out of my office."

Deciding she could not tolerate this behavior, Slocum informed him that she would not process his loans if he did not treat her with respect.

The co-worker told Slocum he hated working with women. "He said I was trying to live the life of a male and that I would be much happier staying at home with my babies ╔ who happened to be teen-agers," Slocum said. A single mother, Slocum needed her job, but she determined to take her co-worker's remarks to the boss. "I knew this guy had gone beyond rude and had entered discrimination-land big time," she says.

"The boss told this man that if he couldn't show me respect and offer an apology, he could find another job," she says. "And so the guy left that day."

Slocum understands that some women choose to keep quiet and allow abuse and discrimination, and some managers refuse to take action against inappropriate behavior. "As a trainer, I'm now in a position to educate our employees and warn them about the consequences of discrimination," she says.

Mean-spirited behavior under the guise of joking is a poor legal defense, and it isn't an ethical excuse. Even well-intentioned kidding can have unfortunate results.

Alcoholics and substance abusers are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act as long as they are not using or drinking. This category of discrimination is frequently misunderstood. Take the case of Jerri Lee Young, a Seattle-based actor/director and recovering alcoholic.

"Closing night on a production, the props people were doing all kinds of stupid things," Young recalls. "I got onstage only to discover plastic spiders on the dinner plates ╔ the scene was a tense one ╔ a family dinner in which I try to coax my anorexic daughter to eat ╔ not funny." The stagehands put real liquor in the glasses instead of water or tea.

"Fortunately, someone discovered it and put an end to it before the scene in which I took a big swig of vodka. It would have been truly disastrous for me, not that I would have started drinking again, but it would have taken me totally out of the play." A not-so-funny joke can quickly degenerate into a calamity.

Political correctness, which grew out of a need for sensitivity, is hotly debated. Should you change vocabulary that is hurtful, discriminatory and outdated? Should language be more progressive in regard to gender, race and inclusiveness? Politically correct speech is embraced, laughed at or reviled. But politically correct language leads to better manners, more civility and less discrimination.

The Rev. Mary John Dye, pastor of Archdale (North Carolina) United Methodist Church, says, "I know people who think those two words -- political correctness -- are cuss words. But political correctness has done something to make us aware of our obligation to fairness and kindness that all our years of Christian teaching have not."

In a statement issued by the United Methodist News Service, Dyer emphasizes that political correctness keeps people from telling racist jokes and from denying housing, jobs and promotions to minorities. "I know that political correctness has caused some genuine awkwardness and self-consciousness among good-hearted, kind people. And I'm sorry about that," Dyer said. "But it seems to me that their discomfort is a small price to pay for the benefits."

Emily Post was right. Sensitivity toward others helps you mind your manners ╔ and it may keep you from discriminating.

Shari Barnes is TCU's director of employee relations and a conflict resolution facilitator. Contact her at Or send your thoughts about this article to