Understanding racism

What is racism?  |  The importance of culture, language and identityThe extent of racism in Australian schools  |  References  |  Glossary

What is racism?

"Irrespective of its sources, racism is racism. Ignorance is no excuse. Insecurity is not justification...racism in all its forms should be uncompromisingly condemned."

Michael Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, quoted in Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Fourth Report, 1996

Racism is destructive. It disempowers people by devaluing their identity. It destroys community cohesion and creates divisions in society. It is the opposite of the democratic principle of equality and the right of all people to be treated fairly.

An understanding of the nature of racism is essential in order to recognise and counter it successfully. Racism is a global phenomenon which is influenced by a range of historical, social, political and economic factors. It takes different forms in different contexts and as a result has been defined in many different ways. In Australia, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1998) defines it as:

"Racism is an ideology that gives expression to myths about other racial and ethnic groups, that devalues and renders inferior those groups, that reflects and is perpetuated by deeply rooted historical, social, cultural and power inequalities in society."

Racism is the result of a complex interplay of individual attitudes, social values and institutional practices. It is expressed in the actions of individuals and institutions and is promoted in the ideology of popular culture. It changes its form in response to social change.

Racism has its roots in the belief that some people are superior because they belong to a particular race, ethnic or national group. The concept of race is a social construct, not a scientific one. (For a discussion of the meaning of the word 'race', refer to the glossary).

Racist attitudes and beliefs are misconceptions about people based on perceived racial lines and are often founded on the fear of difference, including differences in customs, values, religion, physical appearance and ways of living and viewing the world. This includes negative attitudes towards the use of different languages, 'foreign' accents or the use of non-standard variations of a dominant community language. [1]

Racist attitudes may be manifested in a number of ways including common expressions of racial prejudice towards and stereotyped assumptions about other cultures as well as more extreme forms of prejudice such as xenophobia. These beliefs are reinforced by prevailing social attitudes towards people who are seen as different and are often a reflection of the values which underpin social relations and institutional practices.

These attitudes and beliefs find expression in racist behaviours, both in the actions of individuals and in the policies and entrenched practices of institutions. Where these behaviours involve unequal power relationships between individuals or groups from different cultural backgrounds, racist actions on the part of members of the dominant culture have the effect of marginalising those from minority groups.

Examples of racist behaviour include ridicule, racist abuse, property damage, racial harassment, racist propaganda, racial vilification and physical assault. It also includes practices that exploit or exclude members of particular groups from aspects of society. Extreme examples of racist behaviour include ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Racist behaviour may be direct (overt) or indirect (covert) in nature. Direct racial discrimination is the unfair or unequal treatment of a person or a group on racial grounds. An example would be an employer who won't hire someone on the basis of their cultural or linguistic background. This type of discrimination is typically deliberate. Indirect racial discrimination is seemingly equitable on the surface, but in practice disadvantages people from particular groups. For example, a rule that says that all students must not wear anything on their heads could result in discrimination against students whose religion requires the wearing of headwear. Indirect racial discrimination can occur even when there is no intention to discriminate.

Institutional racism (or systemic racism) describes forms of racism which are structured into political and social institutions. It occurs when organisations, institutions or governments discriminate, either deliberately or indirectly, against certain groups of people to limit their rights.

This form of racism reflects the cultural assumptions of the dominant group, so that the practices of that group are seen as the norm to which other cultural practices should conform. It regularly and systematically advantages some ethnic and cultural groups and disadvantages and marginalises others.

Institutional racism is often the most difficult to recognise and counter, particularly when it is perpetrated by institutions and governments who do not view themselves as racist. When present in a range of social contexts, this form of racism reinforces the disadvantage already experienced by some members of the community. For example, racism experienced by students at school may result in early school dropout and lower educational outcomes. Together with discrimination in employment, this may lead to fewer employment opportunities and higher levels of unemployment for these students when they leave school. In turn, lower income levels combined with discrimination in the provision of goods and services restrict access to housing, health care and life opportunities generally. In this way, institutional racism may be particularly damaging for minority groups and further restrict their access to services and participation in society.

[1] Racism on the grounds of language may be referred to as 'linguicism'. See for example:
-T. Skutnabb-Kangas, 'Principles for Making All Children High Level Multilinguals through Education'. Juncture Points in Languages Education, Multicultural Education Co-ordinating Committee, pp.43-59, Adelaide, 1994.
- J. Smolicz, 'Countering Racism: On a voyage of discovery towards human rights', conference paper presented at the Tolerance or Respect? Countering Racism Seminar, South Australian Department of Education, Training and Employment, Adelaide, 1999.

Racism in Australia

In Australia, racism is inextricably linked to the history of colonisation and migration.

The original inhabitants, Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people, were dispossessed of their land and were discriminated against by the first British and European settlers. For some Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, the process of colonisation has been perceived as invasion. Racial discrimination has continued to influence the lives of Indigenous Australians in the two centuries following white settlement.

The migration of peoples from all parts of the world led to the increased cultural and linguistic diversity of the Australian population. Prejudice and discrimination have been directed towards many groups who arrived in Australia, in particular towards groups from language backgrounds other than English, despite the fact that many government migration schemes invited people to settle in Australia.

Until recent years, racist policies and practices were also embedded within Australian laws and institutions. The most telling examples of these were the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and the denial of full citizenship rights to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people. Similarly, the White Australia policy aimed to restrict immigration by people from non-European backgrounds. Historically, rises in unemployment have often led to calls for immigration restrictions and in some cases led to the scapegoating of people who were seen to be different to members of the dominant culture. While legislation now exists to protect the rights of all citizens, there is a continuing legacy today from the effects of these racist practices.

More information about the history and causes of racism in Australia.

As Australian society has become more diverse with continuing immigration, expressions of racism in Australian popular culture have changed over time. Racist language and attitudes that were common at the end of the nineteenth century are no longer acceptable one hundred years later. However, racism continues to find expression in new ways, reinforced through the popular media.

Contemporary expressions of racism which have emerged in recent years relate to notions of nationhood which are seen as incompatible with diversity. These racist beliefs may be expressed in various stereotyped views of who the 'real' Australians are. This form of racism is based on an ideology of national culture in which minority cultures are regarded as alien and a threat to social cohesion. It consists of pervasive cultural assumptions where the customs and beliefs of the dominant group in society are presented as the norm. As a result, the status and behaviour of minority groups, particularly those who are more visibly different, are defined and judged with respect to the dominant group of largely British and Celtic backgrounds.

These attitudes are widely discussed in the media where they are presented as reasonable and commonsense and reflected through media images that do not accurately portray Australia's cultural diversity. In this way, racist ideologies are expressed and reinforced through a process of group interaction and thereby absorbed into popular culture.

Racist beliefs are also at the core of the resentment expressed by some people at measures taken by governments to address the disadvantages of particular groups of people. Affirmative measures and positive discrimination are frequently seen as the preferential treatment of one group at the expense of another rather than the means of redressing the disadvantage inherent in society. Examples include opposition to Aboriginal land rights, calls for the removal of special benefits for particular groups and resentment towards the provision of English language support to migrants. These beliefs are compounded by the notion that treating all people in the same way equates to equity and social justice when in fact not everyone begins life with the same opportunities.

This resentment often finds expression in the belief that 'reverse racism' is occurring. The notion of reverse racism is that people from the dominant culture are being discriminated against or not receiving the same benefits as people from minority groups. It needs to be understood that there is no such thing as reverse racism. At an individual level, all ethnic or cultural groups are capable of both discriminating against other groups and of being discriminated against, although minority groups are more likely to suffer from institutional racism.

Racism affects everyone. It damages communities by limiting the contributions of its members and disrupts peaceful co-existence and co-operation between groups. It damages individuals by destroying self-confidence and preventing them from achieving their potential. It is particularly damaging for children as it hampers social development and limits educational opportunities. The consequences of racism - social injustice, a less productive economy and a divided community - are clearly detrimental, not only for its victims but to society as a whole.

"Racism is a destructive and persistent evil that brings only harm. Sadly it is often a misinformed response to economic hardship. Rather than solving economic problems, however, racism fuels the fire of suffering by intimidating its victims and corrupting its perpetrators. Racial prejudice is a corrosive influence attacking the most fundamental values of Australian society - our commitment to justice, egalitarianism and a 'fair go' for all."

Hon. Justice Marcus Einfeld 1997
Racism and the law

Australian laws make it illegal for people to engage in racist activity or to encourage, incite or permit racist acts to occur and are aimed at protecting individuals who make complaints about racism.

It is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race, colour, nationality, descent, ethnic or ethno-religious background. Discrimination against a person on the grounds that the person has a relative or associate who is of a particular race is also unlawful under Australian legislation.

Commonwealth and State laws relating to racial discrimination generally cover discrimination in employment, the provision of goods and services, education and accommodation although there is variation between different acts. Sanctions exist against both direct and indirect racial discrimination. There are a number of criminal laws that apply to physically violent racist behaviour.

The Racial Discrimination Act (1975) and its 1995 amendment the Racial Hatred Act are the Commonwealth laws relating to racial discrimination. In addition, all Australian states and territories have anti-discrimination laws that cover racial discrimination. Australia is also a party to a number of international conventions and declarations which impose obligations in regard to racism and racial discrimination when ratified in Australian law. The Commonwealth Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act (1986) gives effect to several international conventions and declarations such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981).

Some people mistakenly believe that the public expression of racist attitudes is a legal and acceptable form of free speech. In Australia, as internationally, the right to freedom of speech carries with it certain responsibilities and restrictions which protect the rights of others against open hostility and discrimination. Australian law expressly prohibits incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence on the basis of race.

Australian legislation relating to racial discrimination covers many aspects of racist behaviour but not all forms of racism. While legislation makes racism unlawful in several contexts, legislation cannot address the underlying social issues. Education together with effective legislation provide the best hope for developing a society free from racism.

More information on anti-racism legislation.