Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane. Photo: Kate Geraghty
That joke in the lunch room about a colleague's racial background is an insidious form of racism that will cause damage.
Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane is calling on Australians to take a stand against so-called casual racism.
Before a visit to Canberra on Tuesday, he said racist jokes in the workplace or on public transport should not be dismissed lightly.
''You don't need to be bashed up or subjected to a vicious haranguing for an act of racism to occur,'' he said.
''As a category [casual racism] is something that doesn't exist scientifically but it's shorthand for capturing the kind of racism that many people experience in their workplace, on public transport, in their neighbourhoods, which causes a real civic harm.
''It's more subtle than the violent forms of racism that we associate with prejudice and discrimination, but it is very harmful and it can help perpetuate stereotypes that people have about others.
''The real problem with all this is
that it can make another person feel like a second-class citizen and it can also empower people to humiliate others on the basis of their race.''
Dr Soutphommasane said the best-known recent example of casual racism was footballer Adam Goodes being called an ape by a spectator and Collingwood president Eddie McGuire's remark suggesting the Swans star could be used to promote the King Kong musical.
''Sometimes this sort of prejudice isn't accompanied by bad intention or by malice but the impact is nonetheless there,'' he said.
''When it comes to racism it's not only about intentions, the impact is what it's all about and we need to beware of the impact of our words and actions.
''We should not tolerate it as acceptable behaviour.
''When we are indifferent or when we trivialise prejudice, it can quickly escalate into something much nastier.
''Racist violence does not happen in a vacuum, it feeds off prejudice and stereotypes.''
Dr Soutphommasane said there was increasing awareness of casual racism as a issue.
''It's a variety of racism that sometimes gets overlooked as harmful behaviour,'' he said.
Dr Soutphommasane said the Scanlon Foundation report on social cohesion, which was released on Monday, showed a rise in the number of people who had experienced racial discrimination in the past 12 months.
''This is still an ongoing challenge for Australian society - we pride ourselves on the ethos of a fair go but we need to make sure we live up to that ethos in our everyday lives,'' he said.
''I don't think prejudice will ever be banished or eradicated, but we have to do our part to ensure that we can live up to our potential as a society.
''This is the real problem with racial prejudice and discrimination - it's not about hurt feelings.
''It prevents individuals from fulfilling their potential and it holds our society back.''