Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Non-Racist vs Anti-Racist

Most people today are quick to tell you that they are not racist... and most of those people say so quite sincerely too. 

However, the most common translation of this sentiment is "I don't mean to be racist"... but if all the statement is really saying is what the person feels about themselves, what does it say about the feelings, interpretations and experiences of others? 

Saying "I don't mean to be racist" suggests that you have the moral will, but says absolutely nothing about your moral skill. Even the original version, "I am not racist", just says that a person is not openly pro-racism. It does not say anything about their stance against racism, or their knowledge of what racism is. 

Saying "I am anti-racist" however says: "I know what racism is, I am morally opposed to it and I am able to address it professionally". In any professional context, this is a minimum standard in today's workplace. 

This is not me on some sort of moral high horse by the way. This is policy.

The NSW DET has a very strong Anti-racism policy clearly saying that all staff are expected to have both the moral will and the moral skill to back up the claim "I am anti-racist".

The NSW Department of Education and Training rejects all forms of racism. It is committed to the elimination of racial discrimination – including direct and indirect racism, racial vilification and harassment – in its organisation, structures and culture, in its curriculum, and in the learning and working environments for which it is responsible.
All teaching and non-teaching staff contribute to the eradication of racism by promoting acceptance of Australia's cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, challenging prejudiced attitudes and ensuring that sanctions are applied against racist and discriminatory behaviours.
This means that fighting racism is no longer solely a personal choice, it has made the leap into professional standards of behaviour, and an expected level of professional skill and understanding. 

It is the responsibility of employers to ensure that staff are provided with the training, support and guidance to adequately ensure their workplace maintains a high level of professionalism towards colleagues and clients regardless of race, gender, age, ability or any other factor.

As I have said, it is easy to claim to be non-racist, but to claim you are anti-racist requires a keen insight into how to understand a given situation through the eyes of those who may potentially be offended, discriminated against, be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, or in any way receive less than equitable treatment. It requires having an intimate professional understanding of how to ensure these situations can be avoided, and also of how they must be addressed if they arise.

At the moment, many people instantly put up a brick wall at the mere mention of the words 'racism' or 'racist'. This is not just those who may be fearful of having those terms directed at their own behaviours, but also those who might fear long term professional repercussions from raising the issue of racism in either a 'direct' or 'indirect' context. 
It should not be something that professionals need to fear. Not if they, and their employers already have the moral will to be anti-racist. The moral will is usually the hardest part to teach. It can be encouraged, and situations can be provided that are designed to inspire moral will, but it cannot be forced upon someone. However, once someone has the moral will, developing the moral skill to back it up actually becomes a joy, and is quickly recognised as an essential professional tool. It also means that those who already have the moral skill can become more of a positive influence in the workplace, as their experience, insight and understanding becomes recognised as a valuable professional resource rather than a potential impediment to their professional development.

One comment from the blog I wrote about why "Indigenous" should have a capital letter sums up a sentiment I want to hear expressed at the end of an anti-racism or cultural awareness workshop.

"I'm very pleased to learn about this. In all honesty, I never thought of it before and now it's so obvious!" 

This is how anti-racism training, cultural awareness training etc needs to be viewed. 

Like any form of education and training, it needs to be relevant, engaging, challenging and rewarding.

So, they next time someone tells you they are not a racist, tell them you don't really care about that... you want to know if they are anti-racist. 

It is what every employee, employer and client has a right to demand in a professional context: To know the professionals they deal with will not tolerate racism.

"It is not so much our friends help that helps us, as it is the confident knowledge that they will help us". Epicurus.

It is safety in this knowledge that creates a 'safe work environement'. 

An anti-racism policy is nice. It says you have moral will, but there is no substitute for moral skill.

Moral skill is implied in policy, but is reflected in training, guidance and leadership; measured in long term outcomes and improvement of best practice; and experienced in the day to day lives of individuals.

Anti-racism is not about creating 'trouble'. It is about removing trouble.

Racism is a problem in Australia and anti-racism is simply about pro-actively finding solutions. It is about taking a stand and backing it up. 

It is about an entity being "committed to the elimination of racial discrimination – including direct and indirect racism, racial vilification and harassment – in its organisation, structures and culture" and ensuring all "staff contribute to the eradication of racism by promoting acceptance of Australia's cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, challenging prejudiced attitudes and ensuring that sanctions are applied against racist and discriminatory behaviours".


The terms 'moral will' and 'moral skill' which were a key focus in this blog I have linked back to their source (A TED talk from Barry Schwartz) and hope that people will watch it as well, it played a huge part in shaping my views on Cultural Awareness training and the need for a renewed focus on ability over policy. 


  1. I don't think I've ever made the distinction between non-racist and anti-racist, and I'm taking this on board and agreeing with you that anti-racism is a pro-active way to identify and deal with racism. I wonder if it's like one becomes an activist.

    I'm not sure I agree (and I'll need to think harder about this) that it's a moral issue as such. Morality (and the concept of right/wrong, good/evil) is a little too limiting for me.

    I'll get back to you on this one. Thanks for the post.

  2. Great piece my friend. It's a lot more than 'just words.'

    I particularly like the 'moral skill' idea and the suggestion to make good with our actions as well as our policies and words.


  3. Thanks for this post, an affirming and challenging read. I'm a person of colour who is pretty burnt out regarding well-intentioned 'not-racists'.
    I heard a recording of a panel 'Women of the First Nation' in which Tracey Bunda spoke about the privilege enacted when people say "I'm not racist" that I think is relevant. Notated here:


    Only just had your blog forwarded to me, I very much look forward to reading more. Thank you.

  4. I agree with Leesa, I've never made the distinction but will happily communicate the difference when the next person drops the 'I'm not racist' line.

  5. A well written and perceptive piece as usual Luke.

    Nice to see that Andrew Bolt's racist piece on Aboriginal identity has be adjudged as breaching section 18C of the RDA too!

  6. I hate racism its one of those thing I cant stand especially in the form of bullying in the school yard, it damages one's self esteem and makes them feel hurt for having a different cultural back ground then someone else. I believe that schools need to stand strong in the fight for racism and need to address the issue more especially in getting kids to speak up about whats happening as i tried to discuss in my blog that I hope as a new blog I can use it to fight racism. I love how you mentioned the moral skill part as a student in year 10, people need to realise to respectful and know thats racist comments aren't acceptable. I think my post in my blog on bullying is relevant. http://belowpapermoon.blogspot.com/

  7. Thank you for a great article. I posted "No Comment" in reply to your tweet about workplaces because after drafting a lengthy response I realised that commenting publicly breaks my employee agreement. So I cannot be specific publicly. But I really like your break-up of racist, non-racist and anti-racist. Social media is such a grey area between an interview with a paper and a tweet.