According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, casual racism refers to conduct involving negative stereotypes or prejudices about people based on race, colour or ethnicity. Examples include jokes, off-hand comments, and exclusion of people from social situations.
But this is just one definition of the term, which—for those who have experienced it—can be difficult to pin down. “It’s hard to put into words,” says Sarah*, a First Nations team member of a Sydney-based early childhood service. “A person doesn’t have to open their mouth … sometimes it can just be the way they look at you. It can be the feel of a place or the vibe they’re giving me.”
CELA early education specialist Rachel Ho, an Australian of Burmese-Chinese heritage, says:
For me, casual racism is discriminatory attitudes and behaviours that are shadowed with bias. There might be some awareness about it or none at all.
Rachel says that in early childhood settings, this might be seen in educators making negative judgements about a child’s development or behaviour (anything from their sleep schedule to their feeding routine) which reflects cultural practices.
Karthika Viknarasah is a service director, CELA facilitator, and researcher at the University of Sydney. She says casual racism can even be seen in the regulatory frameworks that have historically applied to services. “Some years ago there was a focus on having a ‘home-like’ environment, and a lot of the services that were highly regarded were places with a lot of soft furnishings—but what a ‘home-like’ environment looks like is very different for different people,” she says, reflecting on her own Sri Lankan heritage. “At my centre and others, we don’t have a lot of carpet–we tend to have tiles or floorboards because we are from Asian countries and our environments are very different.”
Unlike overt racism—which may include, for example, the use of racial slurs—casual racism can be easy to miss if you’re not the one subjected to it. But its effects can be equally devastating. “I think when it happens to you, then you feel like an outsider—like you’re inferior to the mainstream culture and you have to conform,” Karthika says, adding that this can create a sense of shame.
You might, for example, become self-conscious of your accent or the words you use.
Rachel adds: “Those who are affected can become withdrawn and unwilling to engage and share their knowledges and strengths. It means individuals don’t show up to their fullest potential because they feel silenced.”
Sarah says eliminating racism in all its forms is essential for any service to meet its regulatory requirements: “We talk about safety and supervision, and cultural safety sits right at the top. If you’re not making that a priority, then we don’t feel safe.”
For children exposed to casual racism, the effects can be lifelong. “Addressing casual racism in an early childhood setting is so important because children are watching, listening and learning from our actions,” Rachel says. “I don’t recall a lot of memories from my early years, but I do remember the casual racism I observed, and this still impacts me today.”
A number of strategies can help workplaces address the issue, from training programs to anti-racism policies. Karthika says that diverse hiring is a particularly useful approach. “If you don’t have diversity in the centre, how do you know if you’re being casually or intentionally racist?” she asks. “You’ve got no one to pull you up and nothing to compare against.”
Leading the way
It’s also important to remember that, when it comes to racism, policies and strategies are only as good as the leaders who implement them.
Those things mean nothing unless the leaders in centres are approachable when staff come to them with concerns around racism,” says Sarah. “Don’t just talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk, too.
All of the women interviewed for this article emphasise how important it is for service leaders to create a positive culture and genuinely reflective practice, since the best way to remedy casual racism is often through open dialogue.
“Having an attitude where you are able to role model that it’s OK to make mistakes, be corrected and accept that in a positive way is a really important thing for managers to do,” Karthika says, since this can empower staff to share their knowledge with others. “We need to have good relationships with the people we work with so that you feel comfortable talking about it.”
Even though these conversations can be intimidating, Sarah says it’s possible to address casual racism without being confrontational. “If you know in your heart that it’s wrong, there’s a way you can say it without coming across as defensive,” she says. “It comes back to respect and being heartfelt. People need to know that these things are not acceptable. We need to think about the example we’re setting for our little ones, and how we’re guiding them on their learning journeys.”
Calling it out and being an active bystander
One of the biggest barriers to addressing casual racism is people not knowing what to say when they observe it. Whether you’ve been personally impacted or a bystander to an incident, it’s helpful to remember the following advice:
“When it’s something unintentional, you can approach the conversation more in the spirit of sharing knowledge,” Karthika says. “For example, you might say: ‘Did you know that in some cultures it’s rude to look someone in the eye when you talk to them? So let’s be mindful of that."
Acknowledge the difficulty
“Having uncomfortable conversations is hard,” Rachel says. “One way you can navigate this is by verbally acknowledging with the person that you need to have an uncomfortable conversation with them. Don’t make this about the perpetrator but focus on how it made you feel.”
Protect your mental health
“We need to understand the reality of how a heavy cultural load can impact on our willingness to speak out,” Rachel says. “Fear is a legitimate reason, too… Don’t beat yourself up for not calling it out all the time. But do find someone safe to talk and debrief with. You need to know your feelings are valid, that racism is not okay and that you are not alone.”
Be an active bystander
When you're in a crowd or group of people and witness casual racism, it can be challenging to know what to do. It's easy to become complicit by saying nothing. Active bystanders make a choice to respond to the concerning behavior, which may be having a constructive conversation with the perpetrator right then and there. You don't have to be combative or confrontational, it can be as simple as checking in on the person who's been targeted and calmly asking the perpetrator to stop.
When no action is taken and people remain silent in the face of racism, it causes pain and suffering to the targets, it creates guilt in the mind of onlookers and it creates a false consensus that racism is OK," said Dr Derald Wing Sue in an article for The New York Times.
*Name has been changed for this story.