For those of us who have experienced racism first hand, the awful murder of George Floyd and the worldwide anti-racism protests it sparked brought up a lot of traumatic memories, myself included.
In the six years since moving to Australia from the UK to work as a psychiatrist, I have had amazing experiences, met wonderful people and made close friends but my time here has been tainted by an awful lot of racism.
On one occasion, while having lunch with colleagues at the hospital where I worked the conversation turned to London. One of the healthcare professionals remarked that she used to live in Brixton and was 'scared for her life' the first time she visited the supermarket as 'it was full of black people'. I was shocked at the time, but this was the first of many similar encounters.
A former landlord once told me I should shave my beard otherwise people would assume I was a terrorist.
A former landlord once told me I should shave my beard otherwise people would assume I was a terrorist. While walking past two men in Noosa, one of them put his hands together in the ‘namaste’ position and said 'please don't hurt me'. And when I told a guy I met at a festival I was from England, he replied ‘bullshit, you’re a black c*nt’.
Following recent global events I felt motivated to speak out about this. I thought starting the conversation might affect change. The examples above are just a few anecdotes from the nauseating list I shared on Twitter along with the hashtag #RacisminAustralia, inviting others to do the same. To my surprise, a Twitter frenzy ensued and the hashtag started trending in Australia.
Some were shocked and apologised. I told them no apology was needed and encouraged them to call out racism when they witnessed it instead. Others thanked me for speaking out. Many shared their own experiences which were difficult but important to hear. Someone even confronted a university about the way they had been treated there. They replied, promising to investigate the matter which was heartening.
To my surprise, a Twitter frenzy ensued and the hashtag started trending in Australia.
Unfortunately the majority of respondents were less sympathetic. Some were overtly racist which helped to prove my point, but many attacked me in more subtle ways. I started wondering why anyone would baulk at someone else’s traumatic experiences of racism. The obvious response would be to offer empathy and denounce racism. What could they possibly stand to gain from denying it happened or dismissing its impact?
With my psychiatrist hat on, I decided to analyse the responses to my thread and found some interesting patterns. There were the racism deniers, declaring “it did not happen” or the more generalised “racism does not take place here”. People who have not experienced racism and are unlikely to denying its existence is akin to them burying their head in the sand.
Then there were the ad hominems, such as “you are doing this for attention” designed to deflect from the argument and discredit the person speaking out. A few accused me of "race-baiting” or stirring up hate, because change will naturally feel troublesome for those wanting to maintain the status quo. And victim-blamers told me to “stop complaining and get over it” or said “you must have done something to deserve it”, demonstrating a failure of basic empathy.
Some minimised the racist abuse with comments like “that’s not racism” or “it’s just a joke” - forms of gaslighting which disregard the impact of racism on mental health. And others attempted to normalise it with the illogical “it happens everywhere” - racism is indeed widespread, but why not try and tackle it everywhere?
Many took personal offence to the suggestion that racism exists in Australia. At no point did I say Australia or Australians are racist, but they chose to misinterpret it and responded with “how dare you say we are racist”, “you must be racist yourself to say that” or retaliations such as “what about your country?”
Some minimised the racist abuse with comments like “that’s not racism” or “it’s just a joke” - forms of gaslighting which disregard the impact of racism on mental health.
The driving belief here is most likely one of idealisation, that Australia is perfect, so they refuse to accept that racism can exist. Race and nationality are integral to identity so a perceived attack on Australia can be taken as a personal insult. This ties in with the concept of racism as ‘group narcissism’ and might explain the defensive responses, since narcissism comes with a fragile ego that cannot tolerate criticism.
Calling a country or its nationals racist is an unhelpful, ill-defined generalisation but we can agree on the definition of racism existing and have plenty of data to support it, in Australia and elsewhere. Anyone denying this is refuting facts. We should be able to accept that there are lots of good things about Australia and problems that need addressing, otherwise we cannot progress.
The most common attack of all seemed to be “if you don’t like it here, leave”. A form of thinly-veiled racism often deployed when a person of colour challenges the status quo. When confronted they reply “well if you’re not happy here, why not leave?”, but of course they would never advise a white person raising concerns about an aspect of life in Australia to leave. One person leaving would not solve the problem either, others would still have to endure it. Suggesting they have less right to be here or raise concerns is a way of de-legitimising people of colour.
The striking thing about these responses for me was how similar they are to the psychological tools used by perpetrators of other types of abuse and their enablers. You could even analogise that in ‘western’ countries like Australia, people of colour are in an abusive relationship with society. We depend on the establishment like others to meet our needs but are expected to accept racial abuse, discrimination and disadvantage as part of the deal. This abusive relationship started centuries ago with invasions, slavery, colonialism and continues to this day with structural, institutional & individual racism.
Racism affects mental health for people of colour via inter-generational trauma, experiences of physical and verbal racial abuse, the expectation of discrimination and an internalised belief in our inferiority. All Australians should be invested in eradicating it. These attacks on Twitter undoubtedly affected my mental health too. On reflection, analysing them was probably a defence mechanism to shield myself from their impact (known as ‘intellectualisation’ in psychiatric terms).
As with all abuse, stopping racism will take those on the receiving end refusing to tolerate it and for the abuser to accept it is happening and change behaviour. Talking about racism, acknowledging it exists and speaking out when we witness it are the first steps towards that goal.