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Posted by Philip on 28 September 2017, 10:38 am in , , , , , , ,

Casual racism? Er, no

Long time no blog. My wrist is slowly healing, however, typing is still arduous. I was recently asked to contribute to an article on casual racism for an Australian publisher, so I thought I'd make the most of it and paste my responses. Hopefully I'll be back to blogging regularly in a few weeks.

Do you think casual racism still exists in many Kiwi workplaces?

To begin with, I think it’s important, from a diversity perspective, to recognise that discrimination exists in many contexts, including gender, race, sexuality, class, function (disability) etc. Often people discriminate on more than one ground.

Secondly, terms like 'casual racism’, 'unconscious bias’ and 'confirmation bias’ seem to have become commonly used as euphemisms for what is essentially discrimination. This allows people to discount their discriminatory behaviour as something that they are not aware of and therefore not take responsibility for it.

So, to answer your question – casual racism, or as I like to call it, racism, does exist in Kiwi workplaces. The real issue is, in my opinion, lack of awareness and self-awareness, combined with a neo-liberal tendency to minimise the impact of it through euphemism.

What are some examples of casual racism that employees and leaders often overlook?

A recent example of 'casual’ racism that I heard about was that of a Māori woman who was told off for swearing 'too much’ in her cis, white, male-dominated workplace. As she saw it, she was being targeted by white male expectations that Māori women shouldn’t swear. As I mentioned before this treatment was not only racist, but sexist as well, which is why it is more useful to frame discrimination as intersectional, rather than as discrete 'isms’.

Other examples include 'harmless jokes’, assumptions of values and opinions and, again, 'invisible’ cis-white-heteronormative, etc. organisational cultures. A quote I heard describing attitudes to disabled people, is a good example of casual discrimination on many levels: "the soft bigotry of low expectations".

Why is casual racism harmful in the workplace?

My view is that 'casual discrimination’ is more harmful than overt discrimination because it is often hard to quantify and often flies under the radar because it is subtle, invasive and cultural in an organisational sense. It often isolates the targets and mutes them because there is no permission to confront it as a serious issue. Targets of casual discrimination are often laughed-off as being over-sensitive, PC, or simply wrong.

People often see casual racism as harmless or just joking – how can HR professionals communicate to leaders and employees that this isn’t the case?

As in the case of sexual harassment, it is important for HR professionals to understand and communicate that the threshold for casual discrimination needs to be defined by the person being discriminated against, not the person discriminating. There is a need for courage in naming this phenomenon and my advice would be to drop the casual label, as it implies that it is less harmful or serious than overt discrimination. Ideally, HR professionals would be encouraging a culture that values the entire spectrum of diversity. They would also be modelling the ability to openly converse about issues relating to difference and similarity (or uniqueness and commonality), and facilitating employees to become more aware of privilege and judgement.

As a final point, I would encourage people to think about privilege and judgement as natural, human processes. Rather than trying to eliminate privilege and judgement, the challenge is to accept them as part of the way society and people are conditioned. It is important to be aware of privilege and judgement and be conscious and intentional about how you respond to other people.

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