Guide to addressing racism

Ragg & Co > Commentary > Guide to addressing racism

Racism is a fraught topic – how do you address it effectively? The Australian Human Rights has published a very clear and simple guide for organisations so they can address racism in the workplace. Here is an extract.

Conversation Question 1: How does race shape our lives?

This question sets up the whole substantive discussion. Participants may be quiet at first (this is normal at the start of any discussion of this nature). One way of handling this is to ask participants to write down any initial thoughts that come to mind on a post-it note and stick it up on the whiteboard or wall. Give participants a few minutes to do this. The notes can act as prompts for discussion.

Feel comfortable to use additional prompts, and consider asking individual participants to share their thoughts if you sense they might have something to contribute. Participants may wish to focus more on their personal lives and society at large rather than the organisational context, but this is fine for Question 1.

Possible prompts:

  • How much do you think about race in your day to day life? What do you think prompts this thinking?
  • How has the racial or cultural composition of Australia changed over time?
  • How has the racial or cultural composition of our organisation/industry changed over time? What are the benefits of cultural diversity in any organisation?
  • Do we have a racially or culturally diverse organisation? Why or why not?

Conversation Question 2: What does racism look like?

This question is designed to introduce participants to conceptual understandings of racism. Consider it optional for facilitators who feel comfortable introducing the topic of racism in a conceptual way before asking about participants’ personal experiences.

Ask participants to quietly read the ‘Defining racism’ section of their Participant Information Sheet. Consider asking the following questions:

  • How would you personally define ‘racism’, and why?
  • What strikes you about these varying definitions of ‘racism’ described in the ‘Defining racism’ section of your Participant Information Sheet?
  • Are there particular aspects that resonate, and why?
  • Is there anything that doesn’t align with your personal understanding of racism, and why?

Allow participants a few minutes to discuss these questions in small groups, and report back to the wider group.

Then, consider showing the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2017 Community Service Announcement videos ‘Taxi’ and ‘Elevator’, or the New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s video ‘Give Nothing to Racism’ to continue the discussion (see below).

Invite participants to share their reflections on these videos. Do they align with what participants consider to be ‘racism’?

Suggested points for discussion:

  • Racism can play out in subtle and non-obvious ways.
  • Racism can involve prejudices and stereotypes about criminality and antisocial behaviour—and lead to decisions that involve discrimination.
  • Racism can involve acts of exclusion, which may seem innocuous to some, but if they are rehearsed and repeated over time, can have harmful effects.

Conversation Question 3: What does racism ‘feel’ like? Have you experienced racism, or witnessed someone else experience racism?

This question moves the discussion from the big picture to the specific. Facilitators may need to remind participants of the Chatham House rule, and the set of ground rules that the group agreed to before to the discussion. Bear in mind that if people are willing to share their experiences, they may become emotional while telling their stories. Facilitators should comfort the person and remind the rest of the group that some level of discomfort is to be expected in these conversations. Those in the room who may not have experienced racism might, for the first time, be witnessing its impacts on people they know. This can be confronting, but it is valuable.

Ensure that if people do become emotional they have the option of withdrawing from the conversation or taking some time out in a separate, safe space without judgement.

Possible prompts:

  • You may wish to consider events or experiences that have happened in this organisation or elsewhere.
  • Please feel free to share as much or as little of the details as you like.
  • How often do you think such events or experiences have happened, or continue to happen? Why?
  • Who do you think is more likely to experience racism? Why?
  • Do you think experiences of racism have to be based on direct, interpersonal interactions? Can there be systemic or cultural forces at work?
  • Do you think interpersonal interactions reflect broader social attitudes? How and why?

Conversation Question 4: What can people do to actively address racism?

This question asks participants to reflect on their own past and prospective behaviour as bystanders of racist behaviour. Some participants may suggest language or other behaviour that can be employed to effectively challenge interpersonal racism, including in an organisational context. Others may reflect on their role in supporting anti-racist causes or campaigns. The discussion that ensues may involve some critical reflection on existing organisational processes, or the organisation’s overall approach to racism. Let participants have their say. If appropriate, connect this discussion back to examples raised in response to Question 3 to provide specific examples.

Possible prompts:

  • What sort of language can make a difference to tackling racism?
  • What do you think stops people from intervening when they see something happen?
  • How do you think witnesses of racist behaviour could be appropriately encouraged and empowered to take action against racism?
  • Who can people talk to about racism?
  • Do you feel comfortable and confident using the existing systems in place to deal with formal complaints of racism? Why or why not?

Conversation Question 5: What can we do to address racism?

This question should commence the process of wrapping up the conversation, by putting the onus back on the organisation to take action against racism based on people’s reflections relating to conversation questions 1-4.

Participants may suggest changes to procedures or processes, or identify organisational cultural issues that may be able to be better addressed, for example:

  • more leadership from the ‘top’ on racism
  • involvement in anti-racism campaigning (such as supporting the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Racism. It Stops with Me campaign)
  • other follow-up meetings or discussions.

Make a note of all suggestions. Consider using the whiteboard to jot them down for everyone to see or ask participants to write them down on post-it notes and place them on the whiteboard.

Possible prompts:

  • What are the priorities going forward?
  • What should the leaders of this organisation be aware of following this conversation?
  • Who wants to be involved in developing an organisational anti-racism plan or a wider Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP)?
  • Would the organisation benefit from an anti-racism working group, to keep the conversation going and coordinate further planning and action?
  • Do you see a difference between non-racism and anti-racism, for our organisation? What might that difference involve?


Video 1:

Question for the group: What does this video tell us about how we talk about race and identity?

Videos 2, 3 and 4:

Question for the group: How does racism play out in these videos?

Video 5:

Question for the group: What does this video reveal about racism and responsibility?

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Mark Ragg
Location: Sydney, Gadigal land
Description: Write, edit, research | Yulang Indigenous Evaluation with @MegBastard | Adjunct Fellow Indigenous health @UTS | Ragg & Co | Equity, justice
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