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Racism at work

Tuesday 19 October 2021, writing this on a sunny Melbourne morning two days after the announcement of easing of COVID restrictions that will take effect from Friday. Feeling pretty excited to be let out and be somewhere that is not my kitchen table.

If you’ve read the AFR in the last two weeks, you might have seen reporting of two HR people at PwC organising a trivia event where one dressed up as a bat from Wuhan and there were other racist trivia questions like, ‘choose a communist logo’.

As someone who helped start the cultural diversity and inclusion network at PwC back in 2016 - with a fabulous group of people, I’ve really struggled to say something public about this incident, and also felt really guilty about not saying anything. I’ve felt the pull to be a good leader and lead from the front and step into discomfort, while at the same time wanting to hide under the covers.

I am also torn because this isn’t the PwC I know, this isn’t the PwC where we’ve had really difficult conversations about race - like an event that we held in the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings in 2019 at a mosque where someone who worked at PwC was killed. Or an event for Hannukah where we learned about Judaism and lit candles and said prayers. Or another event where we celebrated Diwali and danced and were flipping proud of our Indian colleagues being so visible and sharing their culture with us. I also do not want to be one of those naive people that stands around in bewilderment saying ‘how did this happen’ and all the regular people throw their hands up in frustration and say how could you not know?? I know racism happens and that no matter how many events our people hold, or how much training we deliver, racism will continue.

And racism hurts. It really really hurts. There might be people who see a costume and a trivia question and think how can this produce so much hurt? And I’m reminded of this rhetorical question that Magda Szubanski asked at the height of the marriage equality debate. She responded, when asked to explain her viewpoint on the debate, (something along the lines of), “how can I explain my life experience in a way that you’ll understand what that feels like, in five minutes?” How can I help you walk a mile in my shoes when your experience is so different from mine? How can I explain discrimination and oppression when you’ve always been part of a dominant culture?

Racism hurts because it tells every one of us that identifies with being Asian / non-white, that you don’t belong, you’re not welcome, you are lesser, you are not respected, your culture is not respected, your values aren’t respected. It’s akin to being bullied in the playground, to seeing someone pull up their eyes and saying “ching chong chinaman”. It’s akin to someone telling you to go back to where you came from, when you’ve been here all your life. It’s the pain of seeing your parents and your family publicly disrespected or threatened or assaulted when you’re little and you don’t understand why.

So what do we do now? What do we do with the hurt? What do we do with the people who behaved in this way? I don’t have answers, but I have some thoughts:

  • Stick, carrot and learning - This is a tricky one and I completely understand a lot of people who are angry and are calling for people to be fired. PwC’s response email indicated that people had been ‘moved on’. BUT, how do we have open and honest and challenging conversations about racism? How do we support genuine learning and allow people to make mistakes without condoning racist behaviour? For some sexual harassment training that I’m developing, I’ve searched - without much luck - to find someone role modelling what it looks like to genuinely reflect on their own privilege and own mistakes that they’ve made in the past. Any suggestions on this welcome. I have no idea what conversations are taking place behind closed doors but I hope that there is space for the people that engaged in those behaviours to genuinely reflect on the impact of their actions and learn.

  • Leaning into conversations about racism - How can we use this as an opportunity to lean into conversations about race? I think one of the good things to come out of this is a realisation that racism is real, it’s prevalent and it hurts. While I’m proud of the work that we did at PwC’s cultural diversity and inclusion network, I’m extremely conscious that most of the time we were preaching to the converted and the people that really needed to be part of those conversations didn’t participate. It reminds me of this fantastic resource that two wonderful people (thank you Zuleika and Tavale) both pointed me to. This book Lost Conversations created by black and white Australians uses a case study to highlight the courage it takes to lean into conversations “Rather than holding myself back because I’m afraid to offend, I now bring myself into the conversation and tolerate some of the whacks I inevitably get (at least to start with)”.

  • Systemic, sustained change - I make this point a lot in everything that I do, but racism is more than the acts of a few individuals. Racism is perpetuated and institutionalised in structures, systems and norms. We can’t solve a problem like racism if we focus on the actions of a few individuals. For PwC, there is a program of work that will be undertaken (no comments on the work) but it has to be systemic, it has to be sustained, it has to tackle the hard things like culture. And I would encourage PwC to share power with people of colour (that means partnership and Executive Board positions) and use its power to advocate for systemic change.

  • More than race - If you’ve read any of my earlier blog posts, I’m going back to study with an amazing mentor, some seminal texts in feminist and critical race theories. There is a fantastic quote from Mari Matsuda that says all that I want to say here, “it is simply not possible to struggle against racism alone and ever hope to end racism”.

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