‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin’ (Nelson Mandela).  Very true, but we are all capable of viewing the world through a racially biased lens … even when we don’t realise it. As we enter Black History Month, we explore the concept of ‘casual racism’ in the workplace.

In 2014, CNN produced a fascinating report exploring the concept of ‘racism without racists’. The theory, created by an American sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, is based on the principle that “the main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits … the more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the tea party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.” (The New Threat; Racism Without Racists, CNN Nov 2014).

And it’s an interesting point, because, as the article highlights, the language of racism has changed in the eyes of those falling victim to it. Overt and shocking acts of racism make the headlines occasionally, and they are, quite rightly, met with widespread outrage and disapproval. But for racial minorities, it is the more subtle and ‘casual’ forms of racism – those dictated by our unconscious bias and the way in which our world conditions us – which have come to define racism in today’s world, and which represent the biggest challenge to overcome if we are to create a world (and a workplace) with a truly level playing field.

At great{with}diversity, we’re all about fairness, equality and keeping an open mind. So, it may seem somewhat of a departure from our values to indulge in a bit of flagrant stereotyping. But stick with us, and you’ll see that it rather illustrates a point. Ask the average person on the street to list the defining characteristics of a ‘typical’ racist, and the same few words would be likely to crop up; bigoted, uneducated, unreasonable, unkind, ill-informed and ignorant. But the truth is, whilst these are all true and reflective descriptions of people who exhibit racism at its most overt and extreme, they aren’t actually very ‘typical’.

The truth is, every single one of us (educated or otherwise, and regardless of race, colour and creed) is capable of allowing our unconscious bias to impact our assumptions about (and our actions towards) others, albeit to a greater or lesser extent. In fact, Howard J. Ross (author, ‘Everyday Bias’) says that it’s even more difficult to get intelligent and smart people to admit bias. “The smarter we are, the more self-confident we are, and the more successful we are, the less likely we’re going to question our own thinking.”

Back, then, to the ‘folks in suits’. Those of us who would be mortified to be labelled racist (after all, we have established what that stereotype looks like, and the picture isn’t favourable), and who consider ourselves to be reasonable, rational, at least moderately intelligent, and broad minded. Isn’t it time we admitted that we are all capable of viewing the world through a racially biased lens … even when we don’t realise it?

The inescapable truth is that racism in the workplace remains all too commonplace, but it often takes on such a subtle form that it slides under the radar. This kind of ‘casual racism’ is something in which more of us than we would care to imagine are at risk of being complicit.

So what is ‘casual racism’ and how does it manifest itself in the workplace? Casual racism is racially insensitive behaviour that often goes unnoticed in everyday interactions. It can include jokes or statements that highlight (in a negative way) cultural differences such as physical appearance, cultural practices or accents. It can also be expressed through beliefs, prejudices or behaviours that we sometimes don’t realise we exhibit, and that can go on to impair our judgement on key decisions such as hiring and promotion.

The thing about ‘casual racism’ is that it doesn’t generally set out to cause offence or harm. It’s often hard to spot, because casual racism is so commonplace and normalised that it sometimes forms part of our daily lives. But the lack of intent or malice doesn’t make it OK, because when all is said and done, racism is as much about impact as it is about intention.

 

Eradicating unconscious bias and the resulting ‘casual racism’ in the workplace is no quick fix. And it isn’t a one–off initiative, or a ‘project’ that you can tick off the corporate strategy list and call a done deal. It takes on-going and sustained management and regular introspection, and it has to start with a process of heightening awareness.   In essence there are three simple questions, which every employer should continually ask in order to keep the door to casual racism firmly shut:

  • What is it really like to work here as a racial minority?

When was the last time you asked that question? The answers are all out there amongst your people. We don’t just mean the ’big’ stuff like pay, promotion and position. We’re also talking about the sense of engagement and inclusion; the sense of being a part of something as opposed to an outsider looking in; the sense of ‘fitting in’ for all the right reasons, not ‘standing out’ for all the wrong ones. At great{with}diversity, our engagement audit tools all contain a specific diversity and inclusion focus, allowing you to seek out the answers to all these sorts of questions and find out exactly where and how bias might be affecting your business.

  • How inclusive are our processes and procedures, in practice?

Be your worst critic. How do your policies and practices really measure up, from attracting a diverse candidate pool, to hiring people on the basis of merit alone, and rewarding in the same way through promotion and development. We’re guessing you’ve got an equal opportunities statement – everyone does. And there’s no doubting the sincerity behind it. Maybe it’s time to revisit it, hold it up alongside your procedures for interviewing, performance managing, pay reviewing and promoting your people, and ask yourself … are you really the Equal Opportunities employer you say you are?

  • How can we root out unconscious bias in our people?

The overt racists are easy to spot. And as unpleasant a business as it is, they’re easy to tackle too. After all, there are very clear lines in the sand drawn about overt and intentional racism. It just isn’t acceptable. Ever. But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about the ‘folks in suits’. You and me. The ‘little’ things we do and say that we don’t even realise cause offence, but which all add up to make a very big thing called racism. From a bit of ‘harmless’ office banter, to ill judged assumptions about a colleague’s capability or lifestyle based purely on the colour of their skin; none of it is acceptable. Employers have a choice to make in these moments – either take responsible action or be a bystander. Unless you create a culture which encourages the former, rather than the latter, then you might as well rip up the Equal Opportunities statement. Instead, why not empower your people with racial awareness training, flood your business with messages of diversity and inclusion, and make it more acceptable to stand up to racism (however ‘mild’ its form) than to stand back from it. Then, and only then, can you proudly flaunt your Equal Opportunities statement as a real working doctrine.


 

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