There is no denying it: there has been a considerable and ongoing debate about racism in Australia, especially racism that targets and impacts Indigenous peoples, families, and communities. Ideally, such debates would contribute to our knowledge about racism and highlight just how deep racism is embedded in Australia’s social fabric. The importance of free debate is used as the argument for why we need to remove Section 18C from the Racial Discrimination Act, but instead we are encountering increasing efforts to deflect, minimise, deny, and erase our knowledge of racism itself.
These ‘rear-guard’ efforts centre on some familiar themes such as how Indigenous peoples are ‘crying wolf’ or ‘playing the race card’ about the racism we face. Are we just being too sensitive? Has political correctness gone mad? Do we choose to be hurt by racism? Dialogues like this do little to help Australia face its historically entrenched and ever-evolving racism, be it by individuals, intrinsically tied to institutions, or even a driving force for Australia’s overarching cultural and government identity.
Recent debates on racism in Australia too often centre on personal opinions of non-Indigenous people, selective citations of public figures, anecdotes and glorified self-reflections, and isolated events that often contribute to the ‘I’m not racist but’ mantra. Whilst personal stories are important, particularly for those telling them, when they dominate a conversation and ignore the lived experiences of most First Peoples, history simply repeats itself, leaving racism the winner... again. So how can we step out of this vicious cycle of intellectual redundancy, especially when the media, politicians, and even the general public love to lap it up?
One possibility is to look to the evidence!
While meaningful international research on racism emerged in the early 20th Century – associated with the US Civil Rights movement – Australian research about racism targeting First Peoples and other minority groups has typically lagged behind. One of the earlier studies on racism targeting Aboriginal peoples was in 1969, which looked at the attitudes of 257 urban and rural non-Indigenous NSW residents. Whilst only 3.37% said they would be ‘uncomfortable’ if an Aboriginal person sat next to them, more expressed an unwillingness to be friendly to an Aboriginal person (20.23%), thought that “white culture is more advanced” (28.79%), and believed that Aboriginal people were best suited to manual labour (39.91%). Some may argue that this research is too old and doesn’t reflect Australia today, but this is not quite correct.
In 1972, a survey of 1066 non-Indigenous people from NSW and VIC found that 20% thought Aboriginal Australians should stay on reserves and missions; 51% would not like a family member to marry an Aboriginal Australian; and 26% thought that if Aboriginal people moved into their community, its hygiene would decrease.
In 1984, for 289 SA non-Indigenous high schoolers, over 50% endorsed every negative stereotype of Aboriginal Australians that was listed. 84.2% thought Aboriginal people drink too much. 82.2% said Aboriginal people are often in trouble with the police. 77.3% thought Aboriginal people were too aggressive. 74.1% thought they wasted money.
In 1994, 257 non-Indigenous Australians in Perth responded to the extent that 20% would feel uncomfortable if an Aboriginal person sat next to them. 45.7% thought Aboriginal people were dirty. 52.4% would not like a family member to marry an Aboriginal person. 28.2% would not like an Aboriginal person as their boss.
Between 2000 and 2010, as part of the Challenging Racism Project, thousands of respondents reported that they would be concerned if a family member married an Aboriginal person. In the 2001 NSW/QLD survey, 28.2% of people asked said they would. In the 2006 Victorian study, roughly 25% agreed. In the 2007 SA survey, 31.6% admitted they would be concerned.
In 2014, in the Beyond Blue survey of 1000 non-Indigenous people throughout Australia, 21% would move away if an Indigenous person sat nearby; 37% think Indigenous Australians are lazy; and 20% feel okay with racist labels for Indigenous Australians.
This is only a snapshot of the Australian research, but one consistent theme stands out: at least 20% of Australia admits to holding blatantly racist attitudes against Indigenous peoples. This minimum figure is consistent, from 1969 to now. Some may celebrate this research as suggesting that upwards of 80% of Australia ‘is not racist’, and thus racism isn’t a part of Australian society. There are numerous problems with this conclusion.
If you are Aboriginal, at least every fifth person you interact with will openly admit to holding racist attitudes against you.
Firstly, extensive research suggests people are often not aware of, or won’t admit to, their racist attitudes. A 2014 study found that although 24% to 32.5% of participants reported negative attitudes about Aboriginal Australians, this figure jumped when using an established technique that bypassed participants’ awareness of their racism being measured. Based on how quickly they associated negative or positive words with Aboriginal people, 47% held these unconscious negative associations. Secondly, if a racist population of at least 20% is not part of Australia’s social fabric, then neither are 25.3% Roman Catholics Australians, nor 22.3% of Australians who follow no religion at all.
More worryingly, there’s also something very important missing from all these estimates about racist attitudes: us.
Consider this. If you are Aboriginal, at least every fifth person you interact with will openly admit to holding racist attitudes against you.
Racism is not some harmless statistic. For many Indigenous people, racism is a daily lived experience. A 2015 Darwin-based study surveyed 474 Aboriginal Australians, and more than 70% said in the previous 6 months they were disrespected or treated unfairly because they were Aboriginal. 46% of Aboriginal Australians surveyed by the 2016 Australian Reconciliation Barometer study experienced racist verbal or physical abuse in the last 6 months.
We’ve seen these findings repeated since the 1990s – racism is a frequent lived experience for most Indigenous Australians. And this is only looking at interpersonal racism. In this article, we haven’t even brushed the surface of institutional racism, or how racism is imbedded within our political and media discourses.
Sometimes, when we speak out about racism, people suggest we get over it. Some ask: ‘So what?’ This is what. The empirical evidence is unanimous. Racism is real and present for Indigenous people, and it harms our health, social, emotional, and even educational wellbeing.
Racism’s impact on Indigenous children and youth must not be ignored.
In a 2005 report of over 2500 Aboriginal youth in WA, experiencing racism doubled the risk of alcohol and substance use, emotional and behavioural problems, and suicidal thoughts. A 2011 paper revealed that experiencing racism more than doubled the risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide in Aboriginal young adults. In two studies, published in 2010 and 2014, independent of varying socio-economic factors, NSW Aboriginal high schoolers who experienced racism were much more likely to feel hopeless at school and want to leave. In addition, if they experienced racism they were more likely to have lower test scores, end of year grades, and believe that they couldn’t achieve at school.
Racism’s impact on Indigenous children and youth must not be ignored.
Throwing some intellectual or ideological cloak over racism, despite the evidence for it, reinforces the injustices that have targeted Indigenous peoples since invasion began. Pretending racism doesn’t exist; shifting the blame for racism to its victims; ignoring the catastrophic damage that racism does to us and our communities – all this can only wound us more and stoke the flames of racial tension.
All Australians must face up to the reality of racism, and we must continually rally against those who refuse to do so. For turning a blind eye to racism is one way to embody racism itself.
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice.
Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).
Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.