Everyone knows what overt racism looks like. It is when a person is excluded in some way, be it from a job, a home or a nightclub because of the colour of their skin or ethnicity. But casual racism is more insidious, less conscious and harder to pin down. A joke in the lunchroom that demeans an ethnic group draws uncomfortable laughter. Or the offhand manner in which a service is provided, or a line delivered without making eye contact.
Anecdotal evidence suggests casual racism occurs more frequently than it is reported, but when an employee does decide to make a complaint, HR professionals have a duty to act.
Casual racism is often revealing of an offender’s unconscious bias. They may be unaware of what they’ve done, or that they’ve made a colleague feel ashamed, subordinate or incompetent.
“In terms of prevention, it’s about being more conscious of how words can wound and behaviours can exclude, and having the humility to walk in another person’s shoes,” says race discrimination commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane. “We need to understand [how our behaviour] can diminish another person’s freedom or quality of life, or in the case of the workplace, their ability to participate as a worker.”
By the time someone approaches HR with a complaint, the event has progressed past the informal stage where two employees can deal with it on their own. The main thing is to validate concerns, says Malcolm Fialho, senior diversity officer at the University of Western Australia (UWA).
“An HR professional can fall into the common ‘racial detour’ trap which avoids an honest, authentic conversation about race,” Fialho says.
“We tend to minimise it. ‘Oh, it’s not happening. [The offender] is nasty to everyone in the workplace. It has nothing to do with you personally.’ Or, ‘You’ve just got to toughen up and get rid of the chip on your shoulder. Come on, it was only a joke.’”
It’s important that HR professionals listen, validate and be comfortable with the grey space, says Fialho.
“I’m not saying race is always 100 per cent a factor when someone is maltreated, but it’s simplistic to assume it has nothing to do with it. Casual racism can exist somewhere in the middle.”
Even in those exchanges between peers where casual racism occurs, most people have a hard time saying something in the moment, says Winnifred Louis, associate professor of psychology at the University of Queensland.
“It’s often those [missed] windows of opportunity where people are frozen in shock and don’t know what to say,” she says. “People are looking around at others to see if they are the one who is supposed to react.
“For example, if a casually racist comment is made in a meeting and an individual contests the racism, the whole room is paralysed by anxiety at that moment. There’s a feeling of ‘Should I say something in support, because it clearly was racist? But at the same time, we need to finish this meeting because time is ticking away.’”
The AHRC and the University of Western Sydney’s Challenging Racism Project strongly encourage a recipient of casual racism or a bystander speaking out and taking a stand.
But Louis says it’s not always the easiest option, particularly in an office situation. If a group member does speak out, there are tensions and anxieties that can prevent a good resolution, such as leaving the whistleblower open to retaliation.
Evidence suggests the best person to address the racist remark is the senior ranking person in the room, she says. In terms of respect, they are best placed to make an intervention, shape the behaviour and uphold the company’s diversity culture.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the May 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘To face and efface’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.