Although I’ll be talking about racism specifically in the Australian context, racism certainly exists in other countries too. During my stay in South Korea for example, some of my gorgeous students were so concerned about my curly hair, that they pooled their money and arranged for it to be straightened. It is also no accident that sales of whitening cream are among the most popular cosmetic products in Asian countries, along with procedures to Westernise eyelids.
Similarly, India has its caste system which involves discrimination on the basis of race, skin colour or other hereditary attributes. Then there is the USA. Although desegregation began in the 1950s, recent behaviour by police and others, particularly with respect to Black Lives Matter protests, shows that it too still has a long way to go before we are all one, both within and between nations.
What is racism?
The Australian Human Rights Commission defines racism as follows:
“Racism is the process by which systems and policies, actions and attitudes create inequitable opportunities and outcomes for people based on race. Racism is more than just prejudice in thought or action. It occurs when this prejudice – whether individual or institutional – is accompanied by the power1 to discriminate against, oppress or limit the rights of others.”
"Racism includes all the laws, policies, ideologies and barriers that prevent people from experiencing justice, dignity, and equity because of their racial identity. It can come in the form of harassment, abuse or humiliation, violence or intimidating behaviour. However, racism also exists in systems and institutions that operate in ways that lead to inequity and injustice."
Although racism found its ugliest expression during World War II in Nazi Germany, large and small examples occur every day. Various forms of ethnic cleansing such as those against the Rohingya in Myanmar or against the Hazara in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran or the attack on a mosque in Christchurch, definitely fall into the extreme category, as do the disproportionate incarceration rates and deaths in custody of our First Nations people. Being passed over for a job or simply being teased about the way you look, speak or dress, mostly likely falls into the latter.
Here are some more examples of what racism looks and feels like:
In Australia, overt or subtle racism exists in almost every setting that you can imagine – at work, in sport, in schools, in the media, in shops, in trying to obtain accommodation and on public transport. Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have experienced it since colonial times, other groups such as migrants and refugees also come in for their share.
This is not only unfortunate but curious since more than a quarter of Australians were born overseas and almost
half the Australian population (49% at the 2021 Census) has at least one parent
who was born overseas. As jobs and housing
have become more difficult to find as result of rapid change – more
globalisation, more migration and more congestion, racist behaviour has increased in recent years.
Some blame the rise in racism on the global rise of white nationalist groups or the fact that divisions have been exploited for political ends. The pandemic has also led to more racism being directed towards people of Asian origin. Some groups also bring their prejudices and ethnic tensions with them from their former homeland. I'm thinking here for example of animosity between Serbs and Croats during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia which sometimes led to outbreaks of violence between rivals at sporting events here and who can forget the omission of young Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate (Vash) from the newspaper images of that Davos conference three years ago.
Unconscious and Casual Racism
I do want to stress that not everything that looks or sounds like racism is borne of malicious intent. If you look, sound, behave or dress differently anywhere in the world, you are likely to be asked “Where are you from?” possibly as a clumsy conversation starter or out of genuine curiosity, though it wears a bit thin when it happens day in and day out and you are constantly reminded that you don’t belong. It wears even thinner when you are always the only one singled out for Customs Inspection or Gunshot Residue Testing at the airport, just because you look a bit different to most of the other passengers. Over time all such slights become demeaning, demoralising, dehumanising and hurtful. See more on Casual Racism here or here
As Adama Dieng of the UN warns, the Holocaust did not begin with gas chambers, it began with hate speech.
The Difference between Free Speech and Hate Speech
While Freedom of Speech and Expression are important Human Rights subscribed to by a majority of countries they do not trump the right of people to enjoy freedom from harassment, vilification and discrimination. Read more here.
How to Stop Hate Speech
The educational website Racism, No way, offers many useful tips for stopping hate speech when it occurs. While education is the way forward in bringing about social change, it takes a long time to take effect. This why legislation is needed despite some limitations on absolute free speech.
The non -profit Diversity Council of Australia which is trying make workplaces more inclusive, differentiates between interpersonal racism which is about an individual’s beliefs, attitudes and actions which result in discrimination, exclusion and disadvantage, and systemic racism which is more to do with an organisation’s policies, practices and procedures which are to the detriment of marginalised people on the basis of their race. The higher incarceration rates and deaths in custody of indigenous populations most likely reflect institutional racism as would racial profiling which tends to target non -white people more, would be cases in point.
Systemic racism is more difficult to detect. Racist attitudes, policies and practices are so ingrained that they are simply seen as normal and remain largely invisible. However they become evident in things like media and advertising mostly featuring white people, or company boards consisting primarily of older white males, or even children's books which might show predominantly white children, so that a little girl living with few other role models, might never see herself reflected in the available fare and could never imagine herself as a model, a pilot or in a position of power. It also reinforces old stereotypes. Listen to actors talking about racism on the set of "Neighbours" for example, or another woman talking about her experience in the legal profession on the same site.
It is no doubt due to research programs such as that by the
Diversity Council that change in public policy and practice are
slowly occurring. It also collaborates directly with major businesses to
bring about workplace reform, but change is slow and needs more active intervention. Here's what to do if someone is treating you badly, based on how you look, or where you come from.
If you experience racism…..
- If you are in immediate
danger or feel threatened, walk away if you can. Call police on 000. You can also report to them
after an incident on 131 444. If police themselves are the problem, as
sometimes occurs - or when people are afraid of the police due to past experience either here or elsewhere, then record and report to the Human Rights Commission (see
- Seek support from family or friends or within your community or talk to someone you can trust such as a teacher
Some groups have specialist
support services. First Nations people have a special register for recording such
incidents as have Muslims. Since Covid there has also been the need for one for Asian Australians. These help authorities and others to track trends - either up or down and to determine whether more needs to be done about specific threats.
4. Formal complaints can be made to the Australian Human Rights Commission particularly if the incident involves discrimination at work, in education, in finding accommodation or takes place in a public place such as in a park, on public transport or at a sporting event. You can also phone the Commission for advice on 1300 656 419 or 02 9284 9888 or use their online form.
If you witness Racism....
Don’t put yourself in danger, but don't be a passive bystander either. If you see someone being taunted or belittled, support them as best you can. Just going up and standing beside them may be enough to deter offenders. Record the incident with your smart phone if you can and report it at any of the above locations.
Other ways to helpThere's power in diversity and unity, so how do we get there?
- To learn more about Aboriginal Culture, check out the Creative Spirits website which has a long list of resources including films by and about Aboriginal people
- As citizens we should be supporting Indigenous people in their struggle to gain recognition in Australia's Constitution as the original inhabitants of this country. We should also support their right to self determination through a Voice to Parliament when that referendum comes up in the near future
- The Refugee Council of Australia represents some 200 organisations which advocate for refugees and asylum seekers. It is currently working to end to arbitrary and off -shore detention and also has excellent resources including films to help us to better understand those who must leave their homes and seek refuge in other countries.
- Join or donate to groups working towards a fairer more tolerant society. Amnesty for example, aims to have "… every community leader, institution, corporation and organisation ... adopt a zero tolerance approach to racism supported by stronger systems of accountability.” You can help by donating to legal challenges, by supporting their petitions such as those regarding black deaths in custody or the adoption of the full Human Rights Act (even though in the UK PM Sunak is calling for it to be scrapped). Find out more here.
Education is a necessary and effective but slow process. For this reason, we also need legislation and stronger deterrents, monitoring and enforcement. Although state and federal governments in Australia are trying to combat racism in various ways, there is little consistency between jurisdictions, Hate Speech is not yet a crime at the Federal level and usually cases can only be initiated by organisations such as the Human Rights Commission. The next post will cover more about actions governments can take, particularly with respect to Online Racism.