What to do if you're experiencing racism

Australia is home to people from many different cultures. If you’re reading this, you might speak a language other than English at home, might have been born overseas, or have at least one parent who was born overseas. Cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths as a nation; but, sadly, racism and hate still exist. It’s important to understand that racism in Australia today is linked to our history of colonisation and migration.

What is racism?

‘Racism’ is being treated differently or unfairly because of your cultural background, skin colour or ethnicity. There are many forms of racism, which you can read more about here.

What should I do if I experience racism?

1. Remember that it’s not your fault

Your cultural background forms an important part of who you are and is something to be proud of. If a person or group makes you feel inferior or ashamed of your background, remember that there is no scientific evidence that one type of race, skin colour or culture is better than any other. For example, if you’re constantly reading negative news headlines about your ethnicity on social media, ask yourself how reliable the source of the post is and whether the views being expressed are a product of systemic racism.

2. It’s okay to walk away

It’s not your responsibility to fix the situation. The most important thing is to make sure you’re mentally and physically safe. Deciding to walk away from someone who’s racially abusing you on the bus, or blocking an offensive profile on Instagram, rather than engaging in a neverending online debate, can be the most effective action you can take to protect yourself.

Once you’ve removed yourself from the situation, it’s important to spend some time on self-care. Whether it’s switching off from social media and going for a 30-minute walk or kicking a ball in the park with a friend, doing a guided mindfulness meditation or writing down your thoughts in a journal, learning to look after yourself will help clear your head and build your self-confidence.

3. Say something only if you feel safe to do so

As long as you feel safe and comfortable, the decision to speak up is completely up to you. You could tell the person that you disagree with their comment and explain why. You could ask them an open-ended question, such as ‘Why did you say that?’ or ‘Why do you think that’s funny?’, to try and understand their perspective and to offer a new one.

Or you might feel more comfortable messaging the person at a later date to explain that what they did or said hurt your feelings, and why. For example, you could write: ‘What you did made me feel uncomfortable’ or ‘Your comment offended me’. Read more about how to stand up to racist behaviour here.

4. Report what happened

If you feel that the situation is becoming increasingly serious, or if it continues with no end in sight, get an adult or trusted friend to help you make a formal and confidential complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission or report the matter to police. Consider collecting evidence, as this will build a stronger case to bring formal action or a charge against someone. Evidence could be in the form of a video or audio recording on your phone, screenshots of messages, or diary entries relating to incidents.

5. Talk to someone you trust

Chatting to someone you trust will help you process the experience and feel supported. It could be your teacher, someone from your extended family, a community mentor or a good friend.

Check out the ReachOut Online Community, where you’ll find specific group discussions about a range of topics, including discrimination. Alternatively, you could call the Kids Helpline or use their webchat service to speak to a professional counsellor. Visiting or being part of online community forums can also offer a safe way to talk to like-minded people with similar experiences.

6. Learn from people you admire

Connecting with role models who are proud of who they are and celebrate their cultural backgrounds will encourage you to think, feel and do the same. You can find a mentor in your local community by checking out Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network’s mentoring programs in your city. You could also connect with like-minded people within your area of interest. For example, if you’re passionate about the creative and performing arts, Diversity Arts Australia hosts regular online and face-to-face networking and training events. Following diversity advocates like Benjamin Law or Nakkiah Lui on social media is another way you can learn about different perspectives and empower yourself to be part of the anti-racism movement.

7. Celebrate your culture

Experiencing racism can sometimes lead to feeling ashamed of your culture and identity. The truth is that you have nothing to be ashamed of — your culture is an incredible part of what makes you, you. Celebrating and honouring your culture can help ease any feelings of shame, and remind you of all the great things that come from being a part of your cultural community.

Spend a day doing your favourite cultural activities, or take the time to learn something new about your culture and history. This could look like:

It’s an awful feeling to be on the receiving end of racism and it can be tempting to direct feelings of hatred right back at the person being racist. But the most powerful thing you can do is take the action that’s most comfortable for you. Whether it’s messaging the person afterwards, or walking away and talking to someone about what happened, just remember that there are people around you who can help and that you’re not alone.

What can I do now?

  • Read Leeza’s story of how she reconnected with her Filipino culture and developed cultural pride.

  • Learn what to do if you're dealing with a racist teacher at school.

  • Check out our cultural identity topic, for more resources.