How to support people from different cultural backgrounds

Whether you look at it from a social, creative or economic point of view, embracing cultural diversity can improve our lives in many ways. However, having a different culture and language can be challenging. This might range from being misunderstood by others or feeling unrepresented, to experiencing straight-up racial abuse.

This can help if:

  • someone you know is experiencing racism

  • you want practical tips on how you can stand up to racism or support someone experiencing racism

  • you want to know your options on helping someone cope with racism.


While you might not experience these challenges personally, there are many different ways you can support the people in your life who may face discrimination or racism. Showing support for others in this way means you are being an ally, which is an important part of being a good friend, but it can also have a broader ripple effect in creating a fairer society for all.

Stand up against discrimination

The first thing that might spring to mind when you think about being an ally to people from different cultural backgrounds, otherwise known as culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) people, is the big, bold move of standing up to someone who is being racist. This is great if you feel confident, know what to do and say, and feel safe doing so. But these situations can be intimidating and it’s normal not to know how to react.

Some of the key things to do in this situation are:

  • Remain calm – this will help you to talk to the person who is being discriminatory in a way that’s productive, rather than turning it into a shouting match.

  • Ask them why they have a particular point of view.

  • Offer them an alternative perspective on the issue.

  • Show empathy for the person experiencing racism. This might help the person who is being racist to see that the person they are targeting is no different from anyone else.

  • If necessary, consider making notes on, or recording, the incident and reporting it to the police.

graphic of two people standing up to racist comments on the train

Speak up against casual racism

The most common form of racism that your CALD peers might experience isn’t in the form of obvious abuse. Known as ‘casual racism’, this is race-based assumptions and ‘jokes’ that happen in day-to-day life. For example, comments like ‘Where are you actually from?’, ‘But all Asians do this…’ or ‘Your English is so good!’ make assumptions about a person based on their race.

Someone experiencing these comments might just laugh them off, even if they feel uncomfortable. This might be because they don’t want to create conflict or don’t feel safe in speaking up. You can support them and create a safe environment for them to be able to speak up against casual racism.

illustration showing ally and CALD young person standing up against casual racism

Remember that context is really important in situations like these. Two people asking each other about their cultural background and family history can be a way to connect, even if that first question of ‘Where are you from?’ might seem racist. If everyone involved seems comfortable and engaged, it’s a positive experience for all.

Open up the conversation

You might prefer to offer your support in a less confrontational setting by having a one-on-one chat with your friend if you’ve witnessed them being targeted or know they’ve been targeted in the past. Let them know that you’re on their side and that you think the racism they’ve experienced is wrong. Racism can make someone feel humiliated, threatened and alone, so knowing that you’re on their side can help your friend feel supported.

Ask how you can help

Often, the best way to know how you can help a friend is to ask them. Listen to what they have to say without making any judgements. You could ask them how they feel about their own experiences or things they’ve seen in the media, what their thoughts and opinions are, and what you can do to support them.

Having these types of conversations provides people from different cultural backgrounds with the space to express themselves, and can give you a clearer idea of what you can do to support them and how to follow through.

graphic of person supporting and talking with her friend

More knowledge = being more empowered

Broadening your cultural awareness can help you to feel more empowered as an ally. You could do this by going to cultural food festivals, writing to an international penpal, or reading/watching/listening to other people’s stories. There are lots of foreign films and documentaries on SBS On Demand and Netflix; or, if you’re a bookworm, you could start with this list of 14 books for exploring new cultures.

Knowing more about the history of your own country is also an important part of this learning experience. Having a better understanding of Australia’s colonial past and previous government policies will help you to recognise how and why discrimination still happens today.

graphic of people attending cultural events

Be an advocate

You can do this individually by talking about the issue with your friends and encouraging them to follow suit, and by sharing informative articles on social media or creating your own social posts on the topic. You can also advocate as part of a collective by joining a community group or university club. These groups often organise educational programs and events that give you the opportunity to be more involved and advocate locally.

graphic of advocating signing petition attending rally texting dad

Share the mic with other voices

Supporting CALD people also involves letting their voices shine through when having discussions in-person and online. An example situation could be when you see something racially controversial in the media. Your first reaction might be to talk about it to your friends or write about it online, but if the controversy involves a culture that isn’t yours, you could overpower the message of the people at the centre of the situation. What you could do instead is share an article, post or video by someone of that race or culture, so that their views can be heard by more people.

graphic share button surrounded by different voices on tv and in media

Don’t forget to take care of yourself

One thing to keep in mind in all of this is to be proud of your role as an ally. The actions you can take in your everyday life to support people of different backgrounds not only make a difference to the happiness and wellbeing of your friends, but also contribute to a greater, positive effect in the world.

However, being a passionate supporter can take its toll. Standing up for someone, helping out a friend who’s going through a hard time, and hearing stories of racism and discrimination can be stressful and overwhelming. Remember that in order to help others feel good, you also need to feel good yourself, so take time to enjoy some self-care, whether that’s meditation, playing a video game or hanging out with friends – whatever works for you. If you need to, you can always reach out for support.

Ultimately, being an ally can start out as being a supportive friend; but standing up to racism, listening to and amplifying the voices of CALD people, learning more about history and culture, and advocating publicly are all steps towards a more equal society.

graphic of people playing guitar, doing yoga, playing with dog, gaming

What can I do now?

  • Learn how to become more culturally aware.