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The modern form of racism: micro-incivilities

05 Apr 2019 | Binna Kandola Professor Binna Kandola is Senior Partner at Pearn Kandola and is acknowledged as an expert in the topic of unconscious bias, having been researching and writing about the topic for nearly 15 years. In this blog, he discusses what he describes as a modern form of racism: micro-incivilities.

It seems that a week can hardly go by without another story about racism on university campuses. In every case reported the behaviour is explicit and hostile. The response, as you might expect, is one of shock anger and condemnation.

Attitudes like these, we hear, have no place in twenty-first-century society. But what if the people joining in the chorus of outrage were actually racist themselves, but in more difficult to detect ways?

The blatant forms of prejudice have been called 'old-fashioned' racism, and can include verbal and physical abuse, as well as overt stereotyping. It's the sort of thing that many of us could never imagine ourselves doing.

'Modern racism' however is a different thing altogether. It is subtle, oblique and indirect in its manifestation, yet its impact on the people on the receiving end can be just as devastating, and sometimes more so. Modern racism includes, for example: 

  • Not acknowledging someone's contribution. 
  • Constantly criticising and never praising. 
  • Not providing timely and constructive feedback.
  • Not giving someone eye contact. 

As this list shows, it is as much about the things that are not done as much as the things that are.

I refer to these types of behaviour as micro-incivilities.  Micro-incivilities are the kind of daily commonplace behaviours or aspects of an environment which signal, wittingly or unwittingly to members of BAME groups that they do not belong and are not welcome.

The problem with micro-incivilities is twofold. First the impact on the recipient.  They will be aware that something is not quite right in the meeting or interaction, but can't quite put their finger on why exactly. The stress created is made worse by having to decide how to react:  does the person accept what happened or challenge it? There are consequences to both, challenge could be effective but only if it is safe to do so. It could potentially damage relationships and leave the individual feeling isolated. Accepting it can, however, have longer-term consequences, particularly if people feel guilty and possibly even cowardly.

Speaking at a university recently about modern racism, several BAME academics came up to me and said I had described how they felt. Discussing racism, in particular in the forms of modern racism, can be a stressful experience for many BAME staff. Too often experiences are dismissed as a mere misunderstanding (the person could not possibly have meant it) or as a piece of mischief-making by a minority (or 'playing the race card').

It has become something of a cliché that we need to have a conversation about race, that somehow even talking about the issue is problematic. For me, the issue is not that we don't talk about it, but the unwillingness to listen to and learn from the experiences of our BAME colleagues.

Binna Kandola was a keynote speaker at Advance HE’s annual BME Leadership in Higher Education Summit 2019. The summit focussed around aspects that impact on BME attainment in higher education including: recruitment, transition, retention and attainment of BME students, recruitment, retention and promotion of BME staff, BME representation in leadership roles, BME pay gaps and the impact of white privilege.


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