Most of us don’t think of ourselves as racist. In fact, most of us like to see ourselves as kind, fair and welcoming. You know, people who treat others the way we’d like to be treated. We have friends who come from different cultures and backgrounds or have Indigenous heritage, and we’d never say or do anything to hurt them. But if that’s the case, then why does racism continue to exist?
Chandra, a recent Swinburne graduate, feels “racism has no place in today's world.”
“Given that I am Indian, some people have assumed that I study computers or engineering. Others feel the need to enunciate their requests in English when verbally communicating with me, or explain what needs to be done because they assume that I don’t know what they’re referring to."
A racist system
Racism exists because our society is structured in a way that encourages racism to flourish by privileging white people over people of colour. This works in many ways, some so sneaky and insidious that they’ve become ingrained over time. This is what’s known as systemic racism.
An example is how the media often respects the anonymity of white people who have done something wrong, but is likely to name and shame people of colour. This double standard helps fuel racial stereotypes, which put people of colour at a greater risk of reputational and physical violence than white people.
In the justice system, which should be built on fairness, non-white people are often treated more harshly too. Many live in fear that they’ll be accused of wrongdoing, even when they’re just doing their thing. If you’d like to go deeper into this, you can look into the staggering number of Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia and the lack of justice their families often receive.
Centuries of systemic racism and oppression have impacted the health and wellbeing of people of colour. For Indigenous Australians, this includes a shorter life expectancy, a higher infant mortality rate, poorer health, and lower rates of education and employment. There are just so many examples of the multi-layered ways racism is built into society, it’s impossible to cover them all here. With systemic racism, the more you look, the more you’ll find.
This is heavy stuff, but remember, a system has to be learned by everyone in order to work. This means we can actually begin changing the system by unlearning it. Think of it like an ugly, but very comfortable knitted jumper, and together we can start pulling a thread.
A lot of the world’s systemic racism comes from the learned idea that "West is Best": that Western European societies are "the right way", and societies that don’t follow Western ideas of wealth, family, work, education and progress are "uncivilised" or backwards. These ideas are so entrenched in society thanks to a thing called colonialism. When the British established colonies around the world, they stole land from the Indigenous people who already lived there. Then, through years of cultural genocide, white people imposed their European value systems onto Indigenous people.
One step you can take towards unlearning the "West is Best" idea is to get to know which Aboriginal people are the traditional owners of the land on which you live, work and study. Swinburne’s campuses are built on the land of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation.
Knowing that Australia was colonised by Europeans, spend some time thinking about how practices we might think of as "the right way" might actually just be one way of doing things. Simply acknowledging this to ourselves helps us build empathy with people of different races and religions, as well as awareness of Eurocentric beliefs.
The Unlearning Curve
Sometimes it can be overwhelming to question the things we’ve been taught by society, and it’s normal to feel daunted the more aware you become.
Realising your privilege can be uncomfortable. You might feel guilt for the opportunities you’ve had, or defensive because you’ve had struggles in life. The important thing to remember is that being privileged doesn’t mean your life has been a piece of cake, it means that the colour of your skin or your cultural background hasn’t made it any more difficult.
A good place to start thinking about privilege is by considering some of the stereotypes about different cultures and backgrounds you might have heard, but which don’t affect you. Many other people have to contend with these stereotypes when they walk into a room, and find themselves having to disprove them. If you find that people mainly take you at face value – that’s privilege!
From here, think about how these stereotypes came about, and how they might actually be false and harmful to people. When you find yourself making an assumption about someone, play detective and examine if racist stereotypes have informed that assumption.
How to be anti-racist
So you’ve got the ground work to begin unlearning the system, and now you want to put it into action. That’s great – because it’s not enough to be just "not racist" when we live in a racist system. We need to be actively anti-racist.
Anti-racism is the next step from realising the problems with systemic racism and making the conscious choice to actively speak out against it. Among our peers, at uni, TAFE and work.
Call out racism wherever you see it. It doesn’t matter how small it seems. Any racism is not okay. You might feel uncomfortable and want to let it slide – maybe it’s a mate you look up to or someone you don’t know well enough to call out – but it’s always important and you might even make them change their thinking. Are they just repeating something they’ve been taught and have never been questioned about?
Do your research so you’re armed with the knowledge and statistics to support your argument. Read about the issues affecting Indigenous people in Australia, the Black Lives Matter movement, and experiences of those immigrating or seeking asylum. Non-white people have spent their lives dealing with baseless racist claims and ignorance, so it's up to allies to take up the fight.
But what can I do?
Think about your privilege! What do you benefit from in society due to the colour of your skin, culture or racial background?
Talk to your white friends and family about racism. Work on how you can help each other to actively be anti-racist.
Keep unlearning! Start an anti-racist book club where you can all unlearn together. There are so many incredible books and online resources to get you going. Think of any assumptions you may have had about people and societies. Actively try and disprove them to yourself.
Pay the rent – if you can. We all live on unceded (or stolen) Indigenous land. Paying the rent means paying a portion of your income to an organisation controlled by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. It’s a small way to make reparations for the ongoing effects of colonisation.
Get involved. There’s plenty of ways to be an ally to people of colour. Signing petitions is an easy but important way to support issues impacting Indigenous and non-white communities, and it’s free! You can also follow activists and groups on social media to stay updated and educate yourself. Go to rallies and protests – not only are you physically showing up, but you’re putting your body on the line so people of colour don’t have to.
Here are some great social media accounts to follow:
Provides governance for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters at Swinburne, including student services, teaching and learning, research, staff, culture and engagement. Find out more.
Independent advocacy service
Provides policy advice, support and guidance in academic issues, and advocates for best outcomes in complaints, grievances, appeals and misconduct hearings as part of Swinburne's independent advocacy service. Find out more.
Provides advice, support, intervention and risk management for students who experience or witness concerning behaviours on or off campus, including gender-based violence. Find out more.
Wellbeing at Swinburne
Offers students medical appointments as well as counselling services that can help if you’re struggling with a personal, emotional or mental health difficulty. Find out more.
Swinburne Out-of-hours Crisis Line
Available to help students on weekdays before 9am and after 5pm, and on weekends and public holidays. Call 1300 854 144 or text 0488 884 145.
Provides 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. Find out more.
Provides a confidential, free and secure space to chat to qualified youth mental health professionals. Find out more.
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
Offers a free service for dispute resolution and information around issues of equal opportunity, racial and religious vilification, and the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. Find out more.
Australian Human Rights Commission
Investigates and resolves complaints of discrimination, harassment and bullying based on a person’s sex, disability, race, age and sexuality. Find out more.