Building an anti-racist workplace culture

Racism has been front and centre of the news lately. 

If you consume any kind of mainstream or social media, you will have seen the mass Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the USA, and related protests against Indigenous deaths in custody here in Australia. 

There is a lot to learn, and a lot to digest from these movements for all of us. If you’re not sure where to start engaging with the issues facing Indigenous people in Australia, this is a really great article and collection of resources by Yuin/Kamilaroi woman, Tahnee Jash. 

Bringing conversations about racism into the workplace context is complicated, and critical. This post is intended to introduce us to some different forms of racism, and a starting place for building a workplace that is actively anti-racist. 

When we think about racism, we might think about interactions between individuals, such as stories of racial harassment on public transport, or other evidence of an active dislike or hatred of people of colour. This is an overt form of individual racism - that is, it’s easy to see these incidents as racist. 

Less obvious instances of individual racism occur frequently in workplaces. This might include jokes based on racial stereotypes, social exclusion of people of a racial minority, making assumptions about a person’s background based on their skin colour, or asking someone of colour to speak on behalf of their community in an inappropriate way. This is sometimes referred to as casual racism, and can be harder to recognise. 

Systemic and institutional racism refer to the ways in which racist ideologies play out in social structures more broadly - including the workplace - which confer dominance on whiteness. There are multiple studies that have found that anglicised names on job applications are more likely to be offered interviews, for example. 

Those of us who benefit from systemic racism are much less likely to be aware of it, or how it benefits us and excludes others. Check out this list of considerations that white people rarely, if ever, need to consider in their daily lives.

Being an anti-racist community means more than not being racist. It means actively learning and talking about racism, being open to new ways of discussing race and ethnicity, and thinking about how racism may play out in our teams or lab groups. 

There is a great paper doing the rounds, called ‘Ten Simple Rules for Building an Anti-Racist Lab’. The first thing the authors do is acknowledge that there are many more rules than ten, and that combatting racism is rarely simple!

Nonetheless, there are some excellent suggestions in this paper that might be useful tools to facilitate discussions on racism in our teams, labs, or units. I’ll quickly adapt/summarise them:

  1. Have informed discussions about anti-racism regularly
  2. Address racism in your team/lab and field safety guidelines
  3. Publish papers and collaborate with colleagues from diverse cultural backgrounds
  4. Evaluate any mentoring schemes or practices from the perspective of cultivating networks for people in racial or ethnic minorities
  5. Amplify voices of culturally diverse people in your field (a good way to do this is include images of key authors in lectures or presentations - if there’s not much diversity there, take the extra time to demonstrate the diversity in your field)
  6. Organise spaces in which people of colour can meet and share experiences with each other
  7. Intentionally recruit culturally diverse people into our communities
  8. Be open to a dynamic research agenda - enabling ‘out of the box’ thinking may help connect research and teaching practices to more diverse communities and contexts
  9. Sponsor people of colour into roles and opportunities that will elevate their leadership capabilities
  10. Create and uphold accountability mechanisms to build and maintain culturally safe environments

Some of these may be more or less relevant, depending on your particular team situation. The first step is a conversation. 

Racism that exists in society permeates workplaces, too. While instances of overt individual racism may be rare, or invisible, we all need to continue to be aware that racism operates on numerous levels. Awareness is the first step to challenging racism, and building a community in which anti-racism is central to our culture. 


Updated:  1 June 2019/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing