UK: Asian Professor Claimed Sushi Restaurant Recommendation Was “Racist Harassment” By Colleague

Bryndís Blackadder

A Japanese Professor of Translation Studies at the University of London, has been told by an Employment Tribunal Judge that being recommended a sushi restaurant by a colleague who “likes” sushi is neither racist discrimination nor harassment.

Professor Nana Sato-Rossberg took her employer to an employment tribunal in March, claiming that she had been racially discriminated against, harassed and victimized by her colleague, Provost Claire Ozanne. At the time, Sato-Rossberg was acting head of the department for Languages, Culture and Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.

In her complaint, Sato-Rossberg cited examples of Ozanne saying that she enjoyed “Japanese food and that her [Ozanne’s] family like it and eat sushi” whilst engaging in small talk in the workplace offices.

The Professor, who is a member of staff in the Japan Research Centre, told the tribunal that Ozanne “exhibits racist microaggression attitudes towards her [sic]” and referred to Ozanne discussing her husband having a job in a Japanese Bank and her family’s interest in Japanese cuisine. 

Sato-Rossberg found these conversations to be “racist” and told the tribunal that Ozanne “would not have said to a German person, ‘I like sausage.'” She went on to add that the assumption that she, a staff member in the Japan Research Centre, would be interested in the Japanese cuisine as a conversation topic is based on prejudice, with her telling the tribunal that Ozanne “anticipated that I like to talk about Japan. That is biased in the first place.”

But Sato-Rossberg’s complaints didn’t stop there, with the instructor also claiming that Ozanne had displayed “unwelcoming” behavior towards students. Her example of this was an email the Provost had sent during the first week of University which preemptively apologized to students for any delays in communication due to the hectic semester start.

Sato-Rossberg claimed the apologetic email was “very unwelcoming and sends a poor message to staff and students for the start of term.”

Other complaints focussed on email discussions about meeting durations and work arrangements, including disputes about payment audit trails, in which the Tribunal found that the Professor mischaracterized the discussions and “took exception to Ms. Ozanne simply seeking to establish an audit trail of payments.”

During the hearing, Ozanne refuted the claims that she only talked about Japan with the linguistics Professor, stating they discussed many topics over the 18-month period covered by the tribunal. 

A further bizarre claim of race discrimination and harassment hinged on a brief discussion where Ozanne corrected Sato-Rossberg’s use of the term “non-white people,” instead suggesting she use the term “people of color.” The Tribunal concluded this was not discrimination, and had been done to ensure Sato-Rossberg was utilizing terminology deemed appropriate by SOAS.

The tribunal heard that in previous meetings at SOAS that Sato-Rossberg had presupposed racism and discrimination, claiming that Ozanne “already had this bias” due to her race.

Prior to a work promotion to Professor of Japanese studies — which occurred during the investigation into her grievances — Sato-Rossberg emailed a colleague stating “… people like me, a non-white female, must constantly consider the possibility that they are treated unfairly because of gender or ethnicity…”

One month later in the grievance, Sato-Rossberg raised a complaint about the perceived discrimination she was experiencing in having to provide evidence she had been discriminated against.

 ““… when it’s come to racial discrimination, SOAS should not put all the burden of proof on me. If CO [Claire Ozanne] cannot prove that she does not have any unconscious/conscious bias, my claim should be accepted. Since she is not anybody, but the Provost, who is supposed to be a role model. She must avoid even the impression of bias.”

The Judge and panel of the Employment Tribunal unanimously rejected the complaint, writing that Ozanne had not subjected Sato-Rossberg to race discrimination, harassment, and victimization.

The judgment described Sato-Rossberg’s own “hypersensitivity and predisposition to find fault with Ms. Ozanne.” It added that “that Ms. Ozanne mentioning a sushi restaurant and her family’s love of sushi was not a detriment because a reasonable person would not consider themselves at a disadvantage when a manager, trying to be friendly and find common ground, was enthusiastic about food from the person’s country of origin.” Ultimately, it determined that a reasonable person would not take offense at what Ozanne had said.

The tribunal also cited Sato-Rossberg’s “preconception” that Ozanne would be prejudiced, concluding “that the Claimant had decided, from the outset, that Ms. Ozanne would be biased because the Claimant was not British and was a woman and BAME. In other words, the Claimant had decided, at the beginning of Ms Ozanne’s management of the Claimant, that Ms Ozanne would be racist in her dealings with the Claimant.”

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