The idea of racism is alive and well in our workplaces. The problem hinges on the fact that racism has evolved over the decades. It’s true we have made progress in tackling overt acts of racism. However, racism has undergone its own transformation. Therefore, it can be difficult to even determine whether an act of racism is, indeed, an act of racism. So, what exactly should we consider to be racist, and how should we respond?
What Is Racism At Work?
Racism is often understood as overtly hostile behaviour and attitudes. It may take the form of verbal abuse and physical intimidation. The defining characteristics of ‘modern racism’ is subtle enough to overlook.
For example, Kira (name changed to protect her privacy), is a person of Persian ethnicity. She applies to be a receptionist at a hotel which predominantly serves a western clientele. She meets all of the job requirements. However, following an interview the employer tells Kira, “You wouldn’t fit in here”. A Caucasian with similar qualifications is hired instead.
Real Cases Of Racism In the Workplace
One famous case would be the case of Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola made headline back in 2012 when 16 current or former African American and Latino employees filed an official complaint against Coca-Cola. A number of accusations pertaining to discriminatory work environment were made against the company. This included inequities in promotional advancement, punitive and retaliatory actions against minorities. Not to mention, disproportionate dispersion of overtime hours.
Apart from Coca-Cola, Creuza Oliveira, a domestic worker in Brazil was also a victim of racism. Born in a family of poor rural workers with no schooling, Oliveira began life as a domestic worker in Bahia. She was merely 10-year-old then. Not being able to balance work and school, she had to pick work and dropped out of school numerous times.
At work, Oliveira would be beaten and taunted whenever she broke something. If that wasn’t bad enough, she would be called lazy, monkey, even racial slurs. To top it all off, Oliveira was not paid.
The sad part is that this is something that is happening everywhere no matter which continent you’re from. So, what do you do under such circumstances?
How Should You Respond To Racism In The Workplace?
Having the confidence to stand up to racism can be incredibly difficult. Most of us would rather not ‘make a big deal’ out of racial jokes, hoping that it will eventually stop.
I was once in this very position when I was working part-time in a hotel. This happened when I was 20 years old. I wasn’t aware that the jokes my workmates had made regarding my skin colour were racist then. I swept it under the carpet and pretended it never happened. However, it never stopped. They further taunted me on Facebook and ended up cyberbullying me.
Address these hostile attitudes immediately if we are to ensure that workplace racism doesn’t go unnoticed. There are actions that leaders and employees alike can take to address racism in the workplace:
1. Accept There’s A Problem
Racial profiling can be an uncomfortable subject. If a racism incident has taken place though, the worst response is to do nothing. Whilst many people are hesitant to report a racism incident, it is the right thing to do. Whether it be to HR, a manager, or simply another colleague, make sure the act is known.
2. Create An Environment Of Psychological Safety
This mainly involves leadership positions. Employees need a safe environment to be able to voice out their opinions and dissatisfaction. This includes complaints they may have regarding racial incidents. Leaders need to make sure that they have made this a known rule at the workplace. Recently, I had a discussion on this with Angeline Choong who is a programme coordinator at KOMAS (human rights popular communications centre that promotes equality among races). She suggested that education also plays a role.
She further explained how workshops that focus on educating employees and employers alike about racism can help. In fact, it is vital in combating racism at the workplace.
3. Make People Accountable
To allow someone to get away with an act of racism sends a powerful message: that they can do it again. They should be accountable for their actions. Consequences for those who cross the line will indicate to others that racism won’t be tolerated. As well as helping to provide closure for those who have been affected.
But, What To Do If The Leaders Themselves Are Racist?
This is a difficult question. We have so far discussed how leaders must be aware and create a safe working environment for their employees. However, what can the employees do if their employers or leaders themselves are the problem?
Well, the good news is there are people who aim to resolve this issue. Non-profit organisation and government bodies that are ready to help in the fight against racism. United Nations is a good example. United Nations’ Let’s Fight Racism movement focuses on racism, xenophobia and intolerance in all societies inclusive of the workplace. Getting in touch with United Nations is a smart move to tackle racism at the workplace.
For Malaysians, We Have KOMAS
If you’re in Malaysia, you can always get in touch with KOMAS. KOMAS is a human rights popular communications centre that promotes equality among races. KOMAS has been actively promoting equality and the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination in Malaysia. And this, includes the workplace. They will be able to identify if what you are facing is a racial discrimination. Additionally, they will also suggest a proper solution on the matter.
A suggestion that Jeremy Robeiro, a programme coordinator at KOMAS gave is to check with SUHAKAM (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia). SUHAKAM is the national human rights institution of Malaysia. It was established by the Malaysian Parliament under the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999, Act 597. SUHAKAM accepts and investigates complaints for the violation of human rights and makes sure the right solution is given to the victim.
Every country has organisations like KOMAS and SUHAKAM. Make sure you get in touch with them. Know your human rights and keep yourself updated with development on such issues. This will help you to promptly identify racism at work and find a solution to stop it.
Everyone Has A Responsibility To Reduce And Challenge Workplace Racism
It can be difficult to judge the best approach when you’re not on the receiving end. Just as it would be hard when it’s unclear whether the incident you have just witnessed is racist. There are ways in which we can all proactively tackle the issue of modern racism.
The challenge that modern racism poses is its subtlety. Unless we are actively looking for it, it can easily fly under the radar. That’s why we all share a responsibility to stamp it out. Awang Ilham, another programme coordinator with KOMAS also added that KOMAS does host events and discussion. It is open to the public. These events are focused to spread awareness on the topic of racism not only at the workplace.
If you are a victim of racism, you can get in touch with KOMAS at +603 7968 5415. If you would like to visit them, they are open from 10am to 6pm, Mondays to Fridays. Or you can drop them a message on their website.
This article is part of Espoletta’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives.