The story of Rachel Dolezal, the recently-deposed head of an NAACP chapter in Spokane, WA, ignited a media firestorm last week with regard to claims that she, a Caucasian, “identified” as an African-American.  Opinions of Ms. Dolezal are passionate and varied, but regardless of one’s opinion of her, she illustrates an important point that New Jersey employers must remember- it is not the employee’s actual race (or sex, national origin, etc.) that matters, but rather what they are perceived to be in deciding whether they fall under a protected discrimination classification.

Let’s take Ms. Dolezal for example:  If she had brought an action against her employer for racial discrimination, she technically could have sued due for discrimination based on her African-American race (if she was perceived by her employer to be African-American) or, in the unusual circumstance of reverse discrimination, for being Caucasian (her actual race).  To wit, it is true that she allegedly sued a former employer in 2002 for discrimination based on her Caucasian race.

The point is that New Jersey discrimination statutes protect individuals for their actual characteristics as well as those which they are perceived to have by their employer.  Keep that in mind when evaluating exposure in the context of discrimination litigation.