Small talk or casual racism?

June 19th, 2024

When does a comment about someone’s culture, an attempt to make small talk become unacceptable and start to look like discrimination on the grounds of race?  The Employment Tribunal in the case of Sato-Rossberg v SOAS determined that comments made by Ms Sato-Rossberg’s line manager that she liked sushi, and recommending a local Japanese restaurant, were not racist.

Ms Sato-Rossberg is Japanese and employed by SOAS as Head of Languages, Culture and Linguistics. In 2020, Ms Ozanne joined SOAS and became Ms Sato-Rossberg’s line manager.  In engaging with Ms Sato-Rossberg, Ms Ozanne had expressed her liking for sushi and the fact that her family regularly frequented a Japanese restaurant.  

Ms Sato-Rossberg took offence at these comments and escalated them to HR. She stated that you would not have said to a German person ‘I like sausage.’ Ms Sato-Rossberg told the Tribunal that there were many things that Ms Ozanne could have discussed with her, given their professional academic relationship, but Ms Ozanne had chosen to choose topics related to Ms Sato-Rossberg’s race.

In the six months following the comment about sushi Ms Sato-Rossberg had repeatedly complained about Ms Ozanne and accused her of bullying and harassment. She asked that her line manager be changed as she considered that Ms Ozanne had demonstrated racist microaggression towards her.

The Tribunal rejected Ms Sato-Rossberg’s race discrimination claims and commented that Ms Ozanne had said nothing detrimental about Japan. The sushi comment was an attempt at small talk with the aim of establishing a common point of interest. The tribunal determined that Ms Ozanne made acceptable comments and had been friendly. Ms Sato-Rossberg was found to have been hypersensitive and predisposed to finding fault with Ms Ozanne.

This case is a good example of how difficult it can be for colleagues to engage with each other without causing offence. There is a balance to be struck between finding commonality, showing interest or understanding about someone’s race and culture, and not treating them less favourably because of it.  

From the reading of this judgment, I cannot see any indication that Ms Ozanne was at all hostile towards Ms Sato-Rossberg because of her race and the fact that she was Japanese was an attempted starting point for conversation. There are many other cases and examples where comments about race and/or culture have been offensive, and discrimination established.  

It is always a difficult balancing act and concern over causing offence can often inhibit normal working relationships. I for one would not think it offensive to tell a Spanish person that I like Paella. I have lived and worked in Spain and would use my knowledge of the country/cuisine as an ‘in’ to make conversation. I would hope my comment would be reciprocated with I like ‘toad in the hole’ (or another common British dish)!

This blog was written by Elizabeth McGlone, Partner at didlaw

Race Discrimination

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