Tackling casual racism in the workplace

Overt racism has, thankfully, become rare in the workplace over the past decades. Changing attitudes and legislation have given workers of colour the freedom to challenge and counter overtly racist actions in their place of work. The work of allies who work alongside them has also been important, as the change would have come much slower and would have been much more difficult without them. Unfortunately, this has led to the manifestation of casual racism in greater volume. Individuals either use this as a mask to conceal stronger discriminatory views in a way they consider “acceptable”, or are simply unaware of the impact of casual racism.


The ways in which casual racism can manifest are in themselves varied. The most explicit is social exclusion, wherein co-workers avoid or exclude others from conversations or events based on race. Another can be the appropriation of culture and religions in professional settings. People wearing traditional garb or stereotypes as costumes fit under this category of casual racism. Possibly the most common type of casual racism is comments and questions that can be construed as racist. Backhanded “compliments” fall under this label, things like “You’re very good at that, for a *race*” included. “Jokes” that use race and racial stereotypes are the other form of casual racism. While they are the most excused form of casual racism, they must still be challenged and called out.


The impact of casual racism being allowed to continue in the workplace can be enormous, especially on the minority ethnic people within that space. At its most basic, it creates a toxic atmosphere that excludes minority groups. An atmosphere that excludes and makes workers uncomfortable can have a real impact on the output of the team. Employees become unsatisfied in their roles, leading to a higher rate of people leaving the organisation. Fostering a racist atmosphere also actively disadvantages minority ethnic workers whose accomplishments will be less visible due to the way they are treated by their colleagues. On a personal level, allowing an atmosphere that allows casual racism can affect a person’s mental health as they are constantly mocked and derided for their race.


The question then has to be, what do you do when you come across casual racism in the workplace? There is always the possibility that some colleagues are genuinely unaware that their words are racist, and in these cases, it is best to educate them. It can be explained that the words they are using have a much stronger meaning than they may be aware of. The less fortunate route is through the relevant HR and complaints channels of the organisation. If truly racist attitudes exist and are hiding behind the guise of “jokes” and “banter”, then the best way is to follow the proper procedure to report it. Each company’s methods will differ, but there will be a proper way for the culprits to be held accountable and the culture of the team changed. Supporting co-workers who are experiencing or reporting racism is also key. It can feel isolating and daunting to stand up to what feels like an entrenched attitude, so it’s incredibly important to show allyship and support for anyone going through it or fighting back.


Just like any fight against bigotry and discrimination, the push back against casual racism will take time. People in positions of power have to be educated on the impact it has on teams and the reasons why it cannot be just accepted. Support among workers has to reach a point where people feel comfortable calling out casual racism, and those called out are ready to accept their wrongdoing and improve moving forward. No one should ever have to be subject to racism in their place of work, and only by working together will we be able to make workplaces into safe spaces.


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