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It’s not just black and white


Snéha Khilay discusses what constitues racism and how diversity training can help organisations better deal with this contentious topic.

In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of racism - what it is and the effects it can have. The recent edition of Question Time highlighted this where Nick Griffin of the British National Party (BNP) was a panel guest. His appearance, justified by the BBC as being appropriate - the BNP is a recognised political party.  Nonetheless, Nick Griffin's inclusion caused a furore amongst some, to the extent that additional security staff had to be sited outside the BBC studios to enable the show to go ahead.

On one level, Nick Griffin's inclusion reminded us that we live in a democracy where free speech is a right, and where an individual can air their views, however distasteful these may be to others - as Voltaire said, "I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it". But is it possible to draw a clear distinction between those who are, at heart, merely racists and those who especially in the economic recession believe that UK would be a better place without immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers? What about those who don't understand fully what racism means? Do they fall into either category?

What counts as racism?

Racism may be inadvertent - using inappropriate language (say the word 'coloured'), or perhaps asking an Indian person whether they are going to have an arranged marriage or whether they can cook a good curry.  Or racism may be through ignorance, asking whether everyone speaks the same language in Africa, or making comments like 'I'm not racist, my neighbour is black and I treat everyone the same whether they are pink or blue or from outer space'.
What do such comments actually say about the individual speaking? That I'm a nice person, I don't discriminate and have every right to ask you personal questions because you are so different to me? Or, that I'm just so interested about you? The lack of awareness of the impact of these types of questions may be offensive or, depending upon the individual(s) concerned, the response may offer an opportunity to correct misconceptions, make others think twice and / or provide a positive example to others.
Racism may also be due to an unconscious or irrational fear. Historically, when a Black young man (especially wearing a 'hoodie') got onto a bus, some women would hold on to their handbags especially carefully. And how many of us, since the London underground bombings of 7/7, have looked at a (bearded) Asian man carrying a backpack getting onto the train and wondered? Can this 'wondering' be considered as racism?
The definition of prejudice is when thoughts and perceptions are based on factors such as upbringing, education, personal experience, media coverage, peer pressure with the resulting views that equate to stereotyping.  Discrimination in effect means prejudice combined with the power or ability to take action, to the detriment of another.
So, precisely where is the line between prejudice and discrimination? Does a hushed silence and commuters feeling uncomfortable when a bearded Asian man enters a tube train constitute a form of discrimination that can be defined as racism?  Ironically, many commuters, if challenged that their behaviour was racism, would be horrified and mortified that they are perceived as such. 
There's another angle. Unless you've actually experienced racism (either everyday, on an adhoc or a structural basis), for example reflected in the low percentage of promotions for Black and Minority Ethnic staff, can a white person actually understand what it feels like to experience racism? Equally, can a Black or Asian person understand the level of fear that a white person may have of being accused of being racist which, if proven, would mean that you're not a very nice person or, worse, must be nasty. Would being seen to be a racist put you in the same category of the Nick Griffins of this world - admired by a select few and loathed by millions.

How can this be tackled?

Sometimes, it can be difficult to deal with issues internally; the sensitive nature of the topic, the fear of negative repercussions or the issue of office politics may prevent certain employees from airing their views or concerns. Rather than trying to tackle these concerns at ‘half-mast’- many HR departments do not have the depth of knowledge (or skills) to deal with these kind of emotive issues, bringing in an external (and objective) diversity consultant is often the easiest and most effective way of dealing with any issues relating to equality and diversity in the workplace.
Employees and managers often find it easier to speak openly and honestly with a third-party who has no link to the organisation. The angst and distress that individuals experience because it could be racism does have a detrimental effect on staff relations and work output. In a number of cases, I find that diversity concerns I am brought in to deal with arise from a lack of communication between people in the organisation and rarely because any true racism exists.

Snéha Khilay is the director at Blue Tulip Training and supports organisations struggling to deal with cultural and diversity issues including bullying and harassment. An NLP Master Practitioner and an accredited business executive coach, Snéha has provided training for public and private organisations for more than 15 years with a specialist area in training and consultancy to meet needs of employers and staff. For more information visit

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