Racism is when a person is treated worse, excluded, disadvantaged, harassed, bullied, humiliated or degraded because of their race or ethnicity.

At an organisational level, it can also be the collective failure to provide an inclusive and professional working environment to people because of their race or ethnicity*. This is sometimes described as ‘institutional racism’, based on the definition recommended by Sir William Macpherson in the 1999 Lawrence report (UK). 

*Race or ethnicity includes people’s colour, and nationality (including citizenship) ethnic or national origins.

How racism manifests

Racism does not need to be deliberate. Someone may discriminate against you without realising it or meaning to, but this might still count as racism. Whatever the motives of the perpetrator, the perception of the victim or any other person is central to how a racist incident or complaint is defined.

Racism can be an action by an individual or a culture of a workplace: ‘normal’ behaviour that underpins everyday practices.

It can be a one-off action, or subtle every day behaviours that can add up to negatively affect a person (known as micro-aggressions).

Racism can also be the deliberate or accidental outcome of an organisation’s policy or practice. It can be seen in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, and thoughtlessness.

Racism, like discrimination more broadly, is often linked to power. It can determine who gets hired, trained, promoted, and dismissed. It can determine who feels included in a workplace, who feels safe and confident to be themselves at work, and who feels that their individual needs and strengths are recognised.

Examples of racist behaviours

In practice it can mean the following actions, based on race and ethnicity:

  • not addressing allegations of racism appropriately or treating complainants as ‘trouble-makers’
  • blocking progression, acting up or learning opportunities within employment and education
  • avoiding or isolating people, or not inviting them to social or networking events
  • subjecting people to greater scrutiny or monitoring
  • using negative language or making ‘jokes’ about people’s race/ethnicity
  • ‘colour blindness’ (ignoring race and its impacts)
  • not providing appropriate support or not responding to cultural or religious needs
  • assuming superiority of ‘people like me’ over ‘people like them’
  • stereotyping (generalising or making assumptions about all people from a specific ethnic group, culture or religion are the same)
  • making people into ‘other’ (perceiving them as different from what is ‘normal’)
  • behaviours that signal that someone doesn’t belong or isn’t welcome
  • directly insulting or hurting people