No such thing as “casual racism" at work

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Casual racism is often written off as harmless banter but two top diversity experts say it’s much more sinister and can cause serious harm in the workplace.

“Casual racism, or as I like to call it, racism, does exist in Kiwi workplaces,” says Philip Patston, managing director of Diversity New Zealand.

“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.”

Patston works with individuals, teams and organisations to develop leadership capacity in the areas of diversity, complexity, uncertainty and change – he says racism comes in countless different forms, many of which are overlooked at first glance.

“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,” says Patston. “As she saw it, she was being targeted by white male expectations that Māori women shouldn’t swear.”

Patston says other examples include ‘harmless’ jokes, throwaway comments, and assumptions of values or opinions – all of which he thinks can actually be more damaging than overt discrimination.

“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,” he tells HRD.

“It often isolates the targets and mutes them because there is no permission to confront it as a serious issue,” he continues. “Targets of casual discrimination are often laughed-off as being over-sensitive, PC, or simply wrong.”
Patston, who became chair of Auckland Council's Disability Advisory Panel earlier this year, says HR professionals have a key role in eradicating all forms of racism from their workplace.

“It is important for HR professionals to understand and communicate that the threshold of casual discrimination needs to be defined by the person being discriminated against, not the person discriminating,” he says.

“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.”

Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie, CEO of Diversity Works New Zealand, agrees – she, too, says the term casual should never be attached to discrimination.

“I have a problem with the words ‘casual racism’ because it implies it’s not serious,” says Cassidy-Mackenzie. “I think it absolutely exists in New Zealand workplaces and it is a real challenge because it involves negative stereotypes and prejudices about people on the basis of race which is absolutely not okay.”

Cassidy-Mackenzie has headed up organisation for the past five years – she says HR professionals should focus on capability building if they want to prevent racism from creeping into their workplace.

“HR can focus on capability building for their leaders certainly around training and inclusive leadership or around cultural competency or cultural intelligence to help them better understand the issue,” she tells HRD.

“HR can also build their own skills to recognise and change behaviours in themselves and certainly in others in their organisation.”

Employers that fail to do so, she says, are not only putting employees at risk of discrimination, they’re also likely to be damaging their own organisation.

“If we don’t create inclusive cultures and workplaces with 213 different ethnicities in New Zealand – 186 of them in Auckland alone – then we’re going to miss an amazing opportunity,” she warns.

“There are so many advantages to having a diverse workforce around innovation and market share and creativity and productivity – it would be such a wasted opportunity if we let off-handed comments and insensitive jokes exclude people.”


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