Ep 9: Racism – the cost to the workforce and what we can do.

Our guest on this episode of With, not, For is author, podcaster, producer and storyteller, Rojé Augustin. Rojé is a native New York based in Sydney. In this conversation Rojé and Manisha talk candidly about racism, it’s cost to the workforce and what we can do about it. 

Find more of Rojés’ writing on the costs of racism in her ABC article and listen to her exploration of the relationship between creatives and their workspaces on her podcast The Right Space.


Manisha Amin: Racism is with us whether we realise it or not, and it needs to be spoken about. It’s not just in the street, it’s in our workplaces. It’s a serious problem, having serious effects on our mental health and our economy. So how do we start the conversation? And what can we do to make a difference?

Welcome With Not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design. My name is Manisha Amin, speaking to you from the lands of the Cammaraygal people, here in North Sydney, Australia.  And joining me today on With Not For is Rojé Augustin. Rojé is an author, a journalist, a producer and director, and has worked in print, electronic and digital media. She is also the founder of Breaknight Films, producing creative works including Roje’s own podcast and web series, The Right Space. Rojé is originally a New Yorker, and now calls Australia home. Welcome to With Not For, Rojé.

Rojé Augustin: Thank you. I’m very glad to be here.

Manisha: Last year, you did a piece for Australia’s public broadcaster, ABC, where you revealed that racism was costing our economy millions. Can you tell me about that?

Rojé: So the researchers out of Deakin University found that racism does have an economic cost, and it trickles down in three, basically three kinds of areas; direct cost to the individual who experiences it. So constantly experiencing this kind of thing can have an impact on your mental health. And so that continues for too long, and you suffer through things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, you don’t show up for work, you’re less productive, the costs born out of your own pocket to treat your illness can be a cost to public healthcare system. And then there are the costs to the businesses, where talent is lost, for example, productivity goes down.

And overall, what they worked out is that in calculating all of these losses that are experienced through acts of discrimination, it costs the Australian economy something like $30 billion a year. To me, it’s just like, that’s a great way to start to talk about policy change, if you can show the effect to the bottom line, which is what people tend to pay attention to, is the money, then it’s a great argument for trying to change policy.

And that article actually was supported by research that I had done from another book, written by a woman named Heather McGhee, which is called The Sum of Us, a great book. And she basically outlines drained pool politics. So you know about that, right?

Manisha: Absolutely.

Rojé: Which means basically drained pool politics is the idea that, well, if they can also have all these benefits, then no one can. If we have to share with them, then we’re not sharing at all, we’re not even giving it to ourselves. And you saw that happen, from around the ’60s onwards, after the Civil Rights Movement, when desegregation became mandated. Before that, America, the example that she uses, America was just like resplendent in public pools and public parks and all these gorgeous amenities that were funded by local governments, communities were really invested in, that was during segregation, because they were white only.

And then, of course, the ruling to desegregate meant that now, black folks would be allowed to use these public pools and zoos and parks. And rather than let that happen, these communities decided, we’ll drain the pool, we’ll fill it with concrete, no one will use it, because we don’t want to share.

Manisha: That’s right.

Rojé: And that gutted communities all across America. And what people don’t realise is that policy continues to this day. And it’s the reason why you don’t have a universal healthcare system, for example, or childcare system, or social safety nets in America, because tax revenue has been so decreased. It used to be up until about the ’50s or ’60s, the tax rate was really high in America for the wealthy. They cut that back, because they didn’t want that revenue going into these social services that would benefit everyone, because black people would benefit from it as well.

Manisha: And this is the vicious cycle that we’re talking about, and I think why it’s so important for issues like race to be addressed by organisations. Because we might think that it’s just an issue about race, but it’s actually an issue about so much more.

Rojé: Yeah, and that’s where this article about the cost of racism to the economy is so important, because Heather McGhee really outlined brilliantly how those costs just end up hurting everyone. Racism ends up hurting everyone. And you see that here too.

Manisha: What do you think the difference is, especially your work experience, between the two countries?

Rojé: Obviously, in western countries, wealthy western countries, you do experience a lot of the same people with the privileges. So that has not changed. And between the two countries, and with those privileges, you get issues, like unconscious bias, and racial discrimination. Where it’s different is America, as you all know, has a very long history of African Americans being part of society there. Obviously from the horrible, long history of slavery. But because of that, I always felt a bit more comfortable, because there were a lot more people around who looked like me.

Manisha: And in Australia, I think sometimes when we think about race and diversity, it’s not about the colour of one’s skin, as much as where people have come from.

Rojé: That’s very true. Yeah, that’s another thing that I noticed here. My husband, who’s white Australian, we always have conversations about this. And he lived in New York with me for many years. So he knows the whole issue with race and black people and this and that. So we’re always chatting about it. And one of the things that I often hear him say, when I, say, come home and say, “God, that place wasn’t diverse, I was the only person of colour there,” and he was like, “Well, there were Lebanese people there. There were Greek people there, there were so and so.” And here, that represents diversity. Whereas coming from the States, Greek, Lebanese people, they would all be lumped in as white people. So when I see that, I actually don’t see diversity, even though technically, it is. But to your point, I think you’re right. I mean, here, it means something pretty different.

I mean, look, I always feel for me, maybe I’m speaking from my own personal world and experience as a brown skinned person, in America, that is what trumps everything, it trumps class, it trumps culture, it is the colour of your skin. Whereas in the UK, I found that class is what trumps everything. So I was treated very differently in the UK than I was in the States, because they could recognise my class and my education. Whereas in the States, that didn’t matter. You could be like magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University or something, and you can’t get a cab in New York City, because you’re a black man.

Manisha: So if you think about those two examples of the difference between the UK and America, how do you think that difference plays out in Australia? So if you had the same?

Rojé:  Well, it’s still overwhelmingly white, to me, is what I see in the – particularly, I mean, you look in politics, I mean, just there, I think this country absolutely should have an indigenous Prime Minister. I think it’s appalling that that hasn’t happened yet. I feel that Australia is a little bit behind the UK, and the US, in terms of its inclusion – inclusionary, whatever the word is – in terms of how it presents itself in these arenas, like politics and media. Those are the two main ones.

Manisha: Racism has actually impacted on you and your life in the past.

Rojé: Oh yeah.

Manisha: I’m sure it continues to just like it does any of us who are of a different race to the majority. How have you dealt with this problem in the past? And can you tell us a little bit about how this plays out?

Rojé: You know, it’s interesting, when you asked that question just now, a thought came to mind, because you said, “You probably still continue to go through it.” And to be honest, I think things have changed so much in my lifetime, that I’m really pleased to see the progress that is happening. I’m so pleased to see the conversation happening over and over again, that it’s really becoming part of the fabric of social life here, and around the – at least I know it’s happening in the States, the UK is pretty diverse. But you know, we’re here in Australia, we’re talking about Australia.

The way I experience racism nowadays, and I’m trying to be very self-aware, is more of internalised, self-inflicted. And what I mean by that is, because racism has been such a pernicious and horrible force throughout human history, its tentacles have just seeped into life, in all aspects of life. For so long, that’s been the way things are. So that now we’re at a point where things are changing.

But I have internalised so much of the racism from my childhood, what I experienced, like in the ’80s and the ’90s, growing up in New York, that I find, sometimes, I’m thinking to myself, “Was that person rude to me, because I’m black?” If I go into a shop, and somebody’s, the person behind the counter is not necessarily polite, or is very short with me, I think, I walk away thinking, “How do I know that wasn’t because of my colour?” And I’m the one planting that seed. For all I know, that person’s had a bad day, that’s all, and they didn’t even think about my colour. They might be treating everyone who walks into the store the same way. But because of the legacy of racism, a brown skinned person will pick up an extra thorn, because now you’re thinking it might be because of your colour. You never know. And that’s the worst part about racism to me.

Manisha: And what would your thinking be around how we, as people who might not have faced racism, actually deal with this in a way that’s sensitive, and where we’re doing the learning, rather than saying to that person, “Well that thorn doesn’t really exist,” become more resilient?

Rojé: That’s a great question. And again, it speaks to the horrible minefield that racism is. It’s just such a terrible, terrible force, because all of this confusion, right, it gets really muddied. I often feel really, I feel for white people, I really do, because, for the most part, I can tell they’re trying, they care. I have so many friends, I mean, most of my friends here in Sydney, obviously, are white, where I live, my husband and everything, and that’s fine. I don’t care. But I know that they really want to show that they don’t care about race, but I can tell it’s scary for them. Because they don’t often know.

I was talking to a woman recently, a lovely white woman, white Australian woman, who used the word ‘coloured’ with me to refer to black people. And she used it a couple of times. And I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, you don’t know that you’re not supposed to use that word,” and I wanted to say to her, “Don’t ever use that word.” I didn’t, because she clearly wasn’t a racist, she didn’t mean it with any kind of malice. And I could tell that it was just an innocent thing, she just didn’t know. And I wasn’t offended by that, you know.

So I think this is one of the issues with racism in general, is that it does create this minefield where you can’t necessarily just do a blanket kind of, “Oh, that’s racist, what you said, therefore you’re a racist, and you need to be punished,” or what have you. Because sometimes it’s just innocuous, and people don’t realise it, and you just have to see it for that, its intention.

Manisha: What can people do to support people who have been impacted by racism in the workplace?

Rojé: I think this is going to sound like kind of a weird answer. But I really think at least it’s a start. I think, in the workplace, if there’s, say, a white manager, right, and he’s got a team of people, and let’s say one person on his team is a person of colour. And let’s say you’re in a meeting, and you need to get suggestions from each member of the team. Start with the person of colour. Don’t leave them for last. Always do that, just start with them. Because that is a start. Because what the white manager may not know, is that if you consistently leave that person for last, not only does it speak to your unconscious bias, but that person thinks, “Oh, I’m the black person, the only black person here, and I’m always being called last”. Does that make sense?

Manisha: That’s really interesting, because what you’re, I think, alluding to, is that often we assume, especially if we come into the conversation with good intent, that we are all equals, and that we are in the meeting because of our merit. However, what that does, is the bias in that is the idea that life is equal. And so by actually asking the people who potentially have been impacted more by life, or by other systems, to speak first and to speak out, what we’re doing is we’re re-addressing and rebalancing the system, rather than saying, “Well, we’re all equal here. It doesn’t matter who I ask first or last.”

Rojé: Exactly, that’s very well said. That’s exactly it. And it’s not trying to be like singling out the person of colour. It’s more what you’re saying to just balance it out, to bring it back a bit. Because many times it has happened to me. One of the last organisations I worked with, this consistently happened. And it made me feel horrible. And it wasn’t the kind of thing that I could go and say to my manager, “Why do you always wait until – why do I always – I’m always the one who’s asked last.” We go around the room, no matter where I am in the position on the Zoom, I always came last. And that really stuck with me. And I wanted to say to her, “Can just once or twice, you could call me first or second or something, so I don’t always feel like I’m the last thought,” like an afterthought, it kind of felt like. So I think you make a really good point. You’ve crystallised what I’ve tried to say. And that, yeah, you redress it, you bring the balance back, at least it’s a good start.

Manisha: But it’s a really interesting point as well, because it’s a simple thing that people can do. You know, we’re not talking about changing the way we work completely. We’re not even talking about changing the days that we celebrate. We’re actually talking about how we include –

Rojé: Really small things. Yeah, really small things. That’s the things that managers or people, they don’t notice.

Manisha: Have you got another really small thing? Because these are really big things. And I’m loving it.

Rojé: Well, they can, yeah, they do end up being big things. Yeah, it’s about being aware of the nuances, because that’s what we have left, right? The big rocks of racism have been addressed, like the very, very big one was slavery, obviously. That’s gone and done with, for the most part, let’s hope. I mean, I don’t know what parts of the world may still have it, hopefully not many. But then you get down to the discrimination, and then you get down to the unconscious biases, and then you get down to the nuances that are leftovers from the unconscious biases. And I think that’s where we’re all kind of living these days. And these small interactions that still leave little thorns, because people aren’t aware that actually, this makes a difference. For example, calling on the one person of colour last.

Manisha: And you’ve worked in media for a lot of your life. How do you see media’s role in here? And do you think that there is a piece around socialisation and bias that comes into this?

Rojé: Absolutely. That is the meat of it, for me, it’s the media. The media, for me, is where it begins. Because I think, look, I think racial discrimination, racism, all of that stuff is a story. They’re all based on false narratives that have been around for centuries. And they’re reinforced through popular culture. So through magazines and newspapers, news broadcasts, movies, television shows, everywhere. Again, it’s changing more and more. But the reason that I got into the media is because I noticed, just walking down the street, everywhere I looked, it was just white faces everywhere. Billboards, magazine covers, commercials, everywhere. And wherever you did see brown faces, it was always quite negative.

And that has a huge impact on you. It’s psychologically debilitating after a while, to grow up feeling like you’re so unimportant. You so don’t matter to us, that we won’t even bother putting your face anywhere, other than to serve our narrative, which is to keep you down. And that’s why I got into television, and media and writing stories, because for me, that’s where it all begins. We have to change the narratives.

Manisha: How were you able to manage that? What were some of the tools you used to actually change the dialogue?

Rojé: The way I dealt with it, I think I always tried to push diversity. Like I was always trying to bring up suggestions that “Hey, how about we do a story on Laurence Fishburne, who’s just come out in The Matrix, one of the biggest films of the year.” And we’d be in editorial meetings and trying to come up with story ideas, who should we profile and this and that. And it was shocking to me that it was always shut down. It was always like, “Well, no, let’s do Mikhail Baryshnikov,” this retired ballet dancer that wasn’t really relevant at the time. I just remember – this is one of the last sort of meetings that I had at my job in the States at a broadcaster.

So that’s the way I typically dealt with it, is just trying to plant that seed wherever I went. And for a long time, no one was listening to it, no one cared. People looked at me like I was crazy. And then eventually, they caught up, through pressure.

Manisha: And then you moved to an organisation, and a country, I guess, that doesn’t have the same volume of, at least visible people of colour. And especially if we take into account the diversity that we have in this country with our First Nations peoples as well. How did that conversation then – did you have to start again, from scratch?

Rojé: Yes.

Manisha: So it was fallow land again?

Rojé: It was so hard. It was so, so hard. It was actually quite depressing for me. I just thought, what did I do? I had gone backwards. My whole mission in life, in my work in particular, was to push that message of diversity, inclusion, that was always my passion, my mission. And I came to Australia thinking, I can pick it up in my work here, or I didn’t even know what I was thinking. But when I landed here and started working, it was like I had gone back to the ’80s in America, and it was so just heartbreaking for me, because I had to start all over again. It was really hard.

Manisha: And what did you do to get through that? Because I think one of the things we sometimes forget is, that some of the difficulty when we are fighting the good fight, if you like, is just the emotional energy, and the energy it takes on the person doing the fighting.

Rojé: Yeah. I just kept going, I just kept trying, just never stopped. Just thinking about it now is almost bringing me to tears, because it was that difficult, to just be faced with the same shit all over again. And then to know that it was changing in my homeland, without me. That’s where I wanted to be, in that swell of change and be a part of it, and I wasn’t there. And I was here, where it wasn’t happening yet. And I’m like, one of the few people – well, I know that there are a lot, there are a lot of people, I think here in Australia, who are pushing for that. You just don’t see them. You don’t see them in popular mainstream media. So that’s what I did. I just kept trying, just kept going.

Manisha: And if you look at that today, how have you seen that change? Or where do you see, I guess, the rays of hope?

Rojé: I see a little bit happening in mainstream media. I see it in my industry, television, because I’m in scripted television, writing stories, because I think stories are really powerful to that end. And I see more and more of it – slightly more, not enough, not nearly enough. So yeah, I continue to push for it. I feel like in writers’ rooms it’s still – and the thing too, is because I’m not indigenous, I don’t fall into that – you know what I mean? Like, there are all these kind of charters and things, that production have in place so that enough indigenous people are brought in, which is fantastic. There needs to be way more. But in terms of ticking that diversity box, I don’t, I don’t think so much, because I’m not indigenous. I’m a foreigner, African American. So it’s been really, really difficult to find a place here, to find a home in television. And in fact, I’ve started to focus back on the States, and the stuff I write is America-focused, because it’s just really, really difficult here.

Manisha: So when is it important for people who haven’t experienced racism, to actually go out and do their own research, and gain some knowledge? And when is it important for them to actually engage with the person who has experienced racism in their organisation?

Rojé: I think all the time. I think it has to be something that you are vigilant about. It can’t just be a destination; well, I’ve done this, my work is done, and I’ve hired the person of colour, and blah, blah, blah, and now we’re diverse. I think it has to be like brushing your teeth. It’s something that you do every day, forever, where you’re always saying – because it benefits you as well. And this is why I was interested in what people who haven’t experienced racism, and have had a lot of privilege, I’m interested to know what they feel they will be giving up in order to level the playing fields. Because there is still resistance in many areas. And I see it most in media, and I want to know, why are you resisting? What are you afraid of?

Manisha: I think this is such a powerful question. And I think it’s a real gift that you’re giving out to the community actually, is this notion of what do we give up? Because I think we think we can have it all, and still work the way we’ve always worked. But the reality is, if we do that, someone’s always going to be lower down, and lesser. So when we think about what can we give up, what are some of the things that people could give up, or what are the things that they need to start thinking about? Because often, what I hear as a response to this question is, well, what we’re giving up is time to learn more. Or were actually raising awareness around racism, which is, I guess, what we’re doing here today. However, when you’re talking about what are we going to give up, you’re talking about how do we change the system really, as well, aren’t you?

Rojé: Absolutely. It’s power, it comes down to power and wealth. And I think that there is a fear that power – you see it a lot in the States. To give up that space on the pedestal, the throne, like I’m in a position of power, I wield a lot of control, I don’t want to give it up. And that’s the resistance. But what they don’t realise is, resisting like that, you just end up screwing it up for everyone in the long run, because then you create these very divisive societies that just give way to all kinds of division, that you find with poverty, and it just trickles down into health and communities, and all the things that are consequences of that sort of thinking of, I’m better than you, us versus them, whatever. It’s just, it’s ridiculous. It’s just there to maintain a power structure. And, yeah, I think there’s a fear.

Manisha: And that brings me to this term ‘white fragility.’ And I think it’s a term that’s bandied around a lot. In your view, what is white fragility? What does it mean?

Rojé: I think it means this kind of anxiety that comes when people of privilege are confronted with their privilege, and they’re confronted with the systemic racism that they’ve benefited from, and you point it out to them, and they’re just like, “I don’t know how to deal with that, because it’s not my fault. I didn’t do it, I didn’t even know.” And I do understand that, I totally understand that. Because it’s true; generations today, they aren’t necessarily the ones who put these systems in place. They definitely benefit from it, and maintain it. So that’s their role in it. But I can see how it must be very difficult also, on that side of the fence to suddenly be confronted with this slap in the face – you’ve got to change the way you think, you’ve got to change the way you do business. All of this. It’s a lot, I get that. And that’s why having these conversations together, is really good. So your earlier question was, when is it important to have the conversation with the people?

Manisha: All the time.

Rojé: All the time, yeah.

Manisha: So for people listening to this podcast, what is the last thing you’d like to say, to them, for them to be able to walk away with something in their back pocket that they’re going to do differently?

Rojé: I would like those people – and we’re talking about people with privilege, who are privileged, privileged Australians, and you know who you are. We know who you are. I think, in particular, pay attention to those people who don’t have the privilege that you do, and make an effort to level that playing field, like you were saying. So as we were discussing earlier, ask the person of colour first, or ask the woman first, if you’ve got a whole group of men and one woman, ask her first, do you see what I mean? Like, just make it a point to balance that out by just bringing awareness as much as possible. I just feel like they walk around, and they don’t see anything. Open your eyes.

Manisha: Absolutely. Thank you so much for that Rojé, fabulous conversation. I think we could talk for hours on this topic, it’s such a complex –

Rojé: Absolutely, yeah.

Manisha: It’s such a complex and interesting area. It’s not one that we talk about a lot. I think in Australia, we tend to talk about other issues. But I think racism is one of those ones that can be one of the biggest areas, and one of the most challenging areas.

Rojé: It’s the original sin.

Manisha: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. So thank you so much for being here.

Rojé: My pleasure.

Manisha: And thank you everyone for listening and being with us here today on With Not For. If you’d like to know more about how you can make your world more inclusive, contact us at www.cfd.org.au, or see the show notes. We will actually have some connections and links there for some of the things that Rojé has done as well. I highly recommend that you look at them, particularly the books she’s written. Until next time, this is Manisha Amin from the Centre for Inclusive Design.

Find more of Rojés’ writing on the costs of racism in her ABC article and listen to her exploration of the relationship between creatives and their workspaces on her podcast The Right Space.