Race discrimination

Advice and Guidance

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  • employers
  • employees
  • individuals using a service
  • any organisation using a service
  • public sector

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      Great Britain

What is race discrimination?

This is when you are treated differently because of your race in one of the situations covered by the Equality Act.

The treatment could be a one-off action or as a result of a rule or policy based on race. It doesn’t have to be intentional to be unlawful.

There are some circumstances when being treated differently due to race is lawful, explained below.

What the Equality Act says about race discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 says you must not be discriminated against because of your race. 

In the Equality Act, race can mean your colour, or your nationality (including your citizenship). It can also mean your ethnic or national origins, which may not be the same as your current nationality. For example, you may have Chinese national origins and be living in Britain with a British passport.

Race also covers ethnic and racial groups. This means a group of people who all share the same protected characteristic of ethnicity or race. 

A racial group can be made up of two or more distinct racial groups, for example black Britons, British Asians, British Sikhs, British Jews, Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers.

You may be discriminated against because of one or more aspects of your race, for example people born in Britain to Jamaican parents could be discriminated against because they are British citizens, or because of their Jamaican national origins.

Different types of race discrimination

There are four main types of race discrimination.

Direct discrimination

This happens when someone treats you worse than another person in a similar situation because of your race. For example:

  • if a letting agency would not let a flat to you because of your race, this would be direct race discrimination

Indirect discrimination

This happens when an organisation has a particular policy or way of working that puts people of your racial group at a disadvantage. For example:

  • a hairdresser refuses to employ stylists that cover their own hair, this would put any Muslim women or Sikh men who cover their hair at a disadvantage when applying for a position as a stylist

Sometimes indirect race discrimination can be permitted if the organisation or employer is able to show to show that there is a good reason for the discrimination. This is known as objective justification. For example:

  • a Somalian asylum seeker tries to open a bank account but the bank states that in order to be eligible you need to have been resident in the UK for 12 months and have a permanent address. The Somalian man is not able to open a bank account. The bank would need to prove that its policy was necessary for business reasons (such as to prevent fraud) and that there was no practical alternative


Harassment occurs when someone makes you feel humiliated, offended or degraded. For example:

  • a young British Asian man at work keeps being called a racist name by colleagues. His colleagues say it is just banter, but the employee is insulted and offended by it

Harassment can never be justified. However, if an organisation or employer can show it did everything it could to prevent people who work for it from behaving like that, you will not be able to make a claim for harassment against it, although you could make a claim against the harasser.


This is when you are treated badly because you have made a complaint of race related discrimination under the Equality Act. It can also occur if you are supporting someone who has made a complaint of race related discrimination. For example:

  • the young man in the example above wants to make a formal complaint about his treatment. His manager threatens to sack him unless he drops the complaint

Circumstances when being treated differently due to race is lawful

A difference in treatment may be lawful in employment situations if:

  • belonging to a particular race is essential for the job. This is called an occupational requirement. For example, an organisation wants to recruit a support worker for a domestic violence advice service for South Asian women. The organisation can say that it only wants to employ someone with South Asian origins
  • an organisation is taking positive action to encourage or develop people in a racial group that is under-represented or disadvantaged in a role or activity. For example, a broadcaster gets hardly any applicants for its graduate recruitment programme from Black Caribbean candidates. It sets up a work experience and mentoring programme for Black Caribbean students to encourage them into the industry

Last updated: 19 Feb 2020

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Phone: 0808 800 0082

You can email using the contact form on the EASS website.

Also available through the website are BSL interpretation, web chat services and a contact us form.


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Alternatively, you can visit our advice and guidance page.