If you’ve seen any of the viral videos of people shouting racist stuff on public transport, you know what racial abuse looks like and if you’ve ever heard about someone missing out on a job because of their skin colour, you know how racial discrimination works.
But unless you’re directly affected you may not know that there’s another kind of racism that is more common but just as harmful as these more obvious kinds.
What is casual racism?
“Everyday racism is a subtle form of racism,” says Dr. Jacqueline Nelson, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney. It includes things like, “disapproving glances, avoidance of people of particular racial backgrounds, or body language that excludes those seen as different”. An example is physically moving away from someone from a particular racial background – something that 21 percent of non-Indigenous Australians surveyed by Beyond Blue admitted they would do if an Indigenous Australian sat near them.
Everyday racism can also consist of inappropriate comments and questions relating to a person’s background or skin colour. Suzanne Nguyen, artist and founder of The Two Chairs, an online initiative to encourage creative conversations about race and racism in Australia, points to backhanded compliments like, “You speak such good English” or, “You’re too pretty to be Aboriginal!” as examples.
If you’ve never been on the receiving end of such comments it might be hard to see the harm but the thing about everyday racism is that it happens, well, every day and so these seemingly small things – sometimes called microagressions – pile up over time. “I describe them as repetitive psychological jabs,” says Suzanne.
Being constantly jabbed at like this can leave a person feeling like they don’t belong or are not wanted in the community in which they live. Worse, there’s evidence, according to the Lowitja Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research, that experiencing racism can cause psychological distress and depression, and, over time, the stress of it can harm the “immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems”. So it’s not just emotionally damaging, but physically as well.
How is casual racism harmful?
Meanwhile, Beyond Blue, which studied the mental health consequences of racism, reported that “subtle or ‘casual’ racism is just as harmful as more overt forms”. But unlike more overt forms of racism, the kinds of comments and actions that characterise everyday racism can be invisible to all except those experiencing them, which makes it much harder to tackle.
The first step then is to make the invisible visible by speaking out. Both Suzanne and Jacqueline suggest anyone experiencing racism start by talking to a friend about what’s happening and then to go ahead and tell a teacher or other trusted adult if you feel you need more help dealing with it. (If you’d prefer to speak to someone confidentially, the Kids Helpline is free and always open on 1800 55 1800)
How can I avoid it?
If you’re lucky enough to have never experienced everyday racism it’s important you listen to those who have and resist the impulse to explain away the behaviour as a ‘joke’ or accuse the speaker of being ‘paranoid’ or ‘oversensitive’. Remember, this is an often invisible form of racism and so the only way those not affected can learn about it is by listening to those who are.
Remember too that racism doesn’t need to be intentional to be hurtful. It’s like if you chuck a ball that hits your friend in the face. Knowing that you didn’t mean to hurt her won’t make her nose hurt any less! So if you find that you’ve unthinkingly said or done something racist, try not to be defensive. Take a deep breath, apologise and promise to do better in the future. Then, Jacqueline recommends taking some time to ‘think about your assumptions and beliefs. Ask yourself, “why do I think that about people from that cultural background?”’ You may find you’ve been relying on some incorrect stereotypes or unconsciously acting on beliefs you’ve absorbed while growing up but never really examined.
What can I do?
Finally, remember that we all have a responsibility to end everyday racism, so speaking out when you experience or witness it is always the right thing to do. (Safety first, though - always. If you have any sense that saying something at the time could be dangerous to you or others, wait it out and then report it to a teacher, parent or other person in authority later.)
Everyday racism is nasty stuff but ignoring it won’t make it go away. We need to shine a huge, bright light on it so it can’t be missed and then get busy stomping it out – every single day.
EXPERIENCE: ‘l=Live’ a week in the life of someone experiencing everyday racism with the Everyday Racism app (everydayracism.org.au)
LEARN: The DERP (Defining Everyday Racism Project) aims to work with high-schoolers ‘to learn how they challenge racism when they see it’ and then ‘share their ideas with other young people in the same situation using the power of social media’. Find out more at thetwochairs.com.au
HELP: AllTogetherNow.org.au is striving for ‘an Australia free of racism’. Check out their site for loads of suggestions for getting involved.
SPREAD THE WORD: Point your teacher or principal to racismnoway.com.au for resources to help schools fight racism.