How strengthening racial literacy can improve workplace inclusion

Last updated on 8 February 2024

Language and an increased focus on racial literacy can benefit workplace inclusion. [Source: Shutterstock]

Language is a powerful tool within the workplace and inclusive language in particular has the potential to help employees feel more respected, connected and supported. Adopting new and inclusive language can be impacted by resistance to change, though, while existing terminology can often miss the mark for its desired intent.

In some instances, this is because of poor racial literacy in professional and everyday settings. Lisa Annese, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Diversity Council Australia (DCA), told hello leaders that Australia as a whole does not have strong racial literacy skills and many people struggle to see how language can be used to acknowledge and address racism and racial discrimination in the workplace. 

“Whilst culture and language are important things when people experience stereotyping and discrimination it is often due to race-based factors, nothing to do with their culture or their language. It’s usually the visual markers of race and racial difference,” Ms Annese said.

“Because we only talk about culture and language in Australia we lack a language to discuss race. You can’t become anti-racist if you can’t define race or you don’t know how to intelligently discuss it.”


  • Recently, Diversity Council Australia (DCA) published an article covering the use of inclusive language at work
  • It focused on the use of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) – a common term in the aged care and Government sectors – against culturally and racially marginalised (CARM)
  • CALD is viewed as a broader term than CARM as it focuses on cultural and linguistic explanations of differences
  • CARM, meanwhile, refers to people who cannot be racialised as white and it encompasses issues of racial discrimination related to race, religion or cultural background

There are instances when culture and language are important, such as for service providers working in multicultural and multilingual communities where linguistic diversity is critical to your operations. 

When strengthening workplace inclusion or building connections between employees, however, race-based terminology is an important tool to eliminate race-based discrimination or racism. 

“We know from our research that First Nations people experience very high levels of racism, casual racism, at work every day. Over 60% of First Nations people have reported that. We also know that culturally and racially marginalised people in workplaces experience race-based stereotyping and racism at work regularly,” Ms Annese added.

Lisa Annese, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Diversity Council Australia. [Source: Supplied]

“The reason it’s appropriate to build racial literacy and to start using race-based terminology is so we can address these areas of marginalisation. You can’t address something if you don’t have the right language and if you can’t name it.”

DCA suggests terms such as racialised, racially privileged and racially marginalised are better for addressing race-based issues than culturally diverse or CALD are. 

Leaders embracing change

Conversations surrounding race require strong leadership to guide them, particularly where change and transformation are concerned. Leadership buy-in is also essential.

As an example, do you have to think about your race? Do you recognise instances of casual racism at work? If you say no to both, you are more likely to experience racial privilege than racial marginalisation. 

Employees experiencing discrimination or marginalisation are more likely to lose morale or leave the workplace, so, recognising the importance of inclusion is critical for ongoing success.

“It’s helpful for leaders to understand that if you create more inclusive workplaces where people who are racially marginalised feel as though they’re treated with dignity, respect and they’re racially safe there are business benefits,” Ms Annese said.

“It also means if you focus on creating that kind of workplace you will attract great people into your organisation. There’s a war for talent and employers are struggling to find talented people.”

Change does take time and Ms Annese reinforced the fact that no one can run before they walk. So, it’s essential to embrace change and the processes that lead to it. 

Embedding racial literacy within your learning opportunities is just one way to foster an inclusive work environment as staff will develop strong language skills and break down what was seemingly a complex challenge. 

“Sometimes people are put off by the complexity so I would say to make sure you’re always connected to people who are experts and who can support the journey,” Ms Annese added.

This includes building language capabilities among leaders and staff, which can occur through training and research from resources such as DCA’s Words at Work. Additionally, strengthening existing workplace diversity policies with an increased focus on language and race can have a profound impact, with every opportunity to increase cultural and racial awareness a meaningful one.

Diversity Council Australia
culturally and linguistically diverse
culturally and racially marginalised
lisa annese
racial literacy
inclusive language