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Racism at Work

by Tracy Boyd and Rahnghild Watson Reinartz

She was one of the fortunate ones: she had begun working for the organization shortly after her arrival from the West Indies 12 years previously. Vari- ous opportunities for promotion had come up within that time; feeling confident that her experience and skills met the criteria, she had applied. She was always unsuccessful, however. On enquiring, management told her their policy was to give positions to employees with seniority who met all the criteria. She applied again, certain this time the job would be hers as she had three years seniority. Once more, she was passed over. An isolated incident? Unfortunately not.

With cultural diversity increasing in our community, racism-related incidents are not uncommon, whether in a social, educational, or professional setting. As employer or employee, have you ever been aware of racism as an issue in your work place? If so, have you wondered what can be done to ensure that worksites respect and support all employees regardless of their cultural backgrounds?

Harinder Dhillon is an Anti Racism Support Worker at the Capital Region Race Relations Association. This anti racism support centre is a place where people of colour can receive counselling to help them through incidents of racism and where they can share their thoughts on racism. Voices spoke with Harinder about her perspective on racism in the workplace and asked for suggestions on how to create a racism free zone.

Harinder pointed out that there are many categories of racism: genocide, attitudinal, systemic, as well as environ- mental. For many, facing the issue of racism or even being confronted by the issue can create cautionary or defensive responses. For those who experience racism, fear of acknowledging these incidents may come from not wanting to "rock the boat" which could result in potential job lose. When these two attitudes meet in the work place it can lead to an environment which becomes unhealthy, where respect is soon lost and inequality surfaces.

Related incidents may vary, depending on the work environ-ment. Harinder suggests there is a kind of measurement of the work culture that is based on visual, gestual and non-verbal language. Such a measurement may judge employees of colour whose background does not stem from Eurocentric work values. In situations such as these the message conveyed is that employees of colour don't quite fit in and would likely not become the CEO for they don't reflect the mainstream membership. On the other hand, they run the risk of being the token employee of colour.

She cited an example where a South Asian bank teller was occassionally treated disrespect-fully by some of the bank's customers. Harinder sees a real challenge facing the employer and worksite when an employee of colour has been the object of racial slurs from their consumer base. She suggested several ways to deal with the situation.

To create a racism free work site, an employer should have a strong relationship with the staff of colour and assure them that support around racism related incidents will be taken seriously. (In the example of the South Asian bank teller, Harinder believes the employer may process these complaints from specific consumers in a manner that suggests his staff member was not doing her job well, thus sending a very negative message to the employee, consequently affecting her work record.) In order to be prepared for difficult consumers who may show racism to some staff, he needs to be more pro-active in his staff meetings, addressing how such potential disasters can be avoided.

"Be honest in terms of what the challenges are and what could be achieved. There's no pat formula," Harinder emphasises. Employers could ask themselves the following questions in an attempt to create a racism free work environment:

Harinder concludes, "I think what we need in the worksite is some personal responsibility and accountability. If this issue is unfamiliar and overwhelming to you then you need to make a commitment to become informed, by reading, by discussion groups, and by allyship building." When commitment on this level is made, she believes, outcomes are very positive for the community.

The benefits, says Harinder, are a healthier worksite, one where everyone is valued and seen for who they are. Other benefits follow when the working environment is more cohesive. Better connections between staff and clients can lead to an increase in business. Harinder sees making a commitment to a racism free worksite in more simple ways. "If you take a small group, five or six committed people and you are truly sharing power equally, this would be a significant experience for the person of colour who will not experience that level of equality out in the mainstream. If we can do this with five people in the neighbourhood or the PTA groups, etc., can you imagine what we can do with 50 or even with 5,000 people."

Tracy Boyd is a volunteer with multicultural agencies in the community and is committed to social justice and equality. Rahnghild Watson Reinartz is the Coordinator of the Voices Project.

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