Understanding racism and how to spot it

The first step in stopping racism is understanding what it actually is. But that's not always easy. If you're not sure what racism is and what it looks like, that's okay. We've put together this handy guide to help you.

What is racism?

Have you ever wondered why a black person can say the n-word, or why Asian people can make jokes about their own race, but as soon as a white person joins in, it’s seen as racist?

Well, the reason why some things are considered racist and others aren’t comes down to three important ideas: history, institutions and power.

Why is history important in understanding racism?

History gives us an explanation for why some races face discrimination and disadvantages. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to deal with a number of barriers that other Australians don’t face. They are less likely to be selected for jobs, which leads to a lower standard of living and less access to health care, leading to a shorter average life expectancy and higher suicide rates. The reasons for these disadvantages go all the way back to Australia’s colonial past, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were widely seen as inferior.

‘But the First Fleet was so long ago,’ you might say. ‘Can’t Aboriginal Australians just get over it?’ The short answer is ‘no’. The long answer is that you can’t just ‘get over’ a racist history. Not to mention that Australia’s colonial history of hundreds of years is quite a short time, when compared to the thousands of years of Indigenous history and culture that existed before this.

Why are institutions important in understanding racism?

Institutions play an active role in perpetuating racism. Schools, the court system, the media, and organisations often uphold racist policies that have a significant impact on a person's ability to live comfortably and safely in our society.

Institutions and history work together to give certain groups of people more of a say in how their country is built. The history of British colonisation in Australia means that our laws, schools and other bodies were shaped by the dominant colonising group of Anglo-Australians, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were excluded from this process.

This meant that racist government policies such as the White Australia policy and The Stolen Generations happened without much resistance from the dominant, white group.

The high rates of Aboriginal deaths in police custody and of imprisonment of Aboriginal young people are just two modern examples of how institutionalised racism can shape racist policies that have long-lasting effects.

Power and racism

We’ve taken a look at how history and institutions add to racial disadvantages. But the most important way these two things work together is by creating an imbalance of power based on race.

This is why a black person can use the n-word, or why Asian people can make jokes about their own race. There is no imbalance of power in that exchange. But when someone who is of a race that has historically been in positions of power uses certain language or makes stereotypical jokes about another race that lacks the same historical and institutional power, this is called ‘racism’.

Remember that it’s not just language that can be racist. Racist stereotypes can have a big impact on other aspects of a person’s life. Certain races and cultures are the targets of stereotypes that paint them as lazy, dirty or untrustworthy. This can have a pretty big impact on things like their job or housing opportunities.

It’s also important to remember that racism can occur among minority groups. Everyone, including minority groups, who lives on Australian land also benefits from the systemic racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

What does racism look like?

The first step in tackling racism is recognising what the different types of racism look like, and identifying appropriate ways to handle them.

Casual or indirect racism

Subtle or ‘casual’ racism can also appear in the form of a ‘microaggression’. This is an intentional or unintentional offensive message that targets a person based entirely on their being a member of a minority group. Any form of racism is unacceptable, even a comment or an action that is subtle or occurs in a casual environment. It’s just not on.

Examples of casual racism include:

  • intentionally choosing not to sit next to a person because you feel uncomfortable about the colour of their skin

  • telling a person of a different race who was born and raised in Australia that they speak ‘good English’

  • making fun of someone’s background, even if it's disguised as a joke.

Direct racism

This type of racism is conscious and intentional – for example, someone writing a negative Instagram post about a particular ethnic group.

Systemic racism

This type of racism occurs when organisations in our society such as the government, media companies, police, hospitals and schools discriminate against certain groups of people. This stems from institutions and power throughout history, as we’ve discussed above. For example, the Black Lives Matter global movement is a direct response to police brutality against black people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Why is racism a problem?

For anyone, experiencing abuse or comments that make you feel uncomfortable can have an impact on your wellbeing. It can impact your mood and if it happens often enough, this can negatively affect your self-esteem and confidence. Racism can also often make you feel unsafe or put you in physical danger.

Racism can make people of different ethnic groups feel unwelcome and isolated, and may even affect their opportunities to study, work and socialise. This can later affect their quality of life, access to health care and life expectancy.

What can you do about racism?

So, you’ve had a read about what racism is and what it can look like in day-to-day life – what can you do now? What’s important is that there’s always something you can do, whether it’s learning more or exploring how you can support people from different cultural backgrounds. If you’ve still got some questions, you can find some more resources to help you further understand racism here.

Want to chat with a peer worker who can listen to you and support you? You can ask questions and chat about your thoughts in a non-judgmental space. Book a free, text-based session with ReachOut PeerChat.

What can I do now?

  • Get started with some tips on standing up to racism.

  • Have a go at using the Everyday Racism app. You can go through a simulation as someone else and see what everyday racism looks like. This could be a confronting experience, so make sure you’re in a good headspace before giving it a go.

  • If you want to know how to support First Nations people after hearing about racism in Australia, read our article on how to be an ally to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.


The big issues