Racism exists in Australia – are we doing enough to address it?

Article by Helen Szoke | Published March 15, 2012

Racism exists in Australia

Racism does exist in Australia. We know this is a fact. Our own complaints at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) tell us that.

It is also identified in research. National data from the Challenging Racism Project was released in 2011 and gave us information about the prevalence of racism and attitudes about racism.

We know from this research that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to experience high levels of racism, across multiple settings: in relation to contact with police and seeking housing their experiences of racism were four times that of non-Aboriginal Australians.

Similarly, in 2008 other research found that 27 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over the age of 15 reported experiencing discrimination in the preceding 12 months; in particular by the general public, in law and justice settings and in employment. Further recent research has found that three out of four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples regularly experienced race discrimination when accessing primary health care, and that racism and cultural barriers led to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples not being diagnosed and treated for disease in its early stages, when treatment is most effective.

More generally, the Challenging Racism research resulted in the following findings:

around 85 per cent of respondents believe that racism is a current issue in Australia;
around 20 per cent of respondents had experienced forms of race-hate talk (verbal abuse, name-calling, racial slurs, offensive gestures etc);
around 11 per cent of respondents identified as having experienced race-based exclusion from their workplaces and/or social activities;
7 per cent of respondents identified as having experienced unfair treatment based on their race;
6 per cent of respondents reported that they had experienced physical attacks based on their race;

Alarmingly, some research indicates a significant increase in racism over recent years: the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2011 report found that in 2010 there was a marked increase in reported racial discrimination, and that this increased reporting was maintained in the 2011 survey. Disturbingly, this research also highlighted the lack of awareness of most Australians about the issues faced by our First Nations peoples.

What is racism?

So the evidence says that racism exists in Australia.

This should not surprise us as racism is to be found in every society on earth in different forms.

The central issues are what racism is and how it impacts in the Australian context. My concern is that while the data suggests that racism does exist, we do not have much of a community dialogue about how racism manifests and the harm that it causes.

Without such understanding, it is difficult to see how we can move forward to eradicate racism.

Racism takes many forms. In general, it is a belief that a particular race or ethnicity is inferior or superior to others. Racial discrimination involves any act where a person is treated unfairly or vilified because of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, religion or belief. Racism impacts directly on the full enjoyment of individual’s human rights, in particular the right to equality.

Racism is experienced across a spectrum. It may occur in a passive way by excluding people socially or by being indifferent to their views and experiences.

Racism may take the form of prejudice and stereotyping of different groups in our community; in name calling, taunting or insults; or in actively and directly excluding or discriminating against people from services or opportunities on the basis of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, religion or belief; for example, in relation to employment opportunities, access to education, or participation in sport.

Ultimately, racism is a denial of human relationship.

It can manifest through commentary or drawings in the media, speeches at public rallies or assemblies and abuse on the internet – including in e-forums, blogs and on social networking sites.

Sometimes racism can be reflected in not telling the history of an event or the experience of a group of people in our country.

In its most serious manifestation, racism is demonstrated in behaviours and activities that embody hate, abuse and violence – particularly experienced by groups who are visibly different as a result of their cultural or religious dress, their skin colour or their physical appearance.

Just as other forms of discrimination may relate to a number of attributes, so will the experience of racism. Racism may compound the experience of discrimination of a woman, who is treated less favourably on the basis of her race and her gender – or an older person, who is discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour and their age.

On occasions, racism can occur more systemically, as when people with overseas skills and work experience are overlooked for employment, or when job applicants without Anglo-Saxon names have difficulty being offered job interviews.

And it often is linked to poverty and social and economic status, as is the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples generally.

A key feature of racism in Australia is denialism.

Such denial may be a genuine response that suggests a lack of understanding that an act may be racist. However, there are also deliberate falsehoods, misinformation or evasion. Suggestions of racism may also be dismissed as an overreaction, where people think that telling a racist joke, for example, should be taken as just a bit of fun. Too often, stories start with “I’m not racist, but…”

Ultimately, racism is a denial of human relationship. Yet for many people it remains almost invisible, unnoticed except when violence is involved. Those who do not experience it often fail to understand how profoundly offensive it is.

Racism is bad for us

There is also significant research that demonstrates the damage that racism causes to individuals and society as a whole. Racism undermines social cohesion within the community. To ensure social inclusion, individuals need the opportunity to “secure a job; access services; connect with family, friends, work, personal interests and local community; deal with personal crisis; and have their voices heard.” Racism towards any individual or community undermines the achievement of each of these goals.

Racism also impacts adversely on the development of Australia as a multicultural society. If we conceive multiculturalism as a set of norms or principles in which the human rights of all are respected, protected and promoted, then the adverse impacts on groups in the community who may be treated less favourably on the basis of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin or religious belief is obvious.

Multiculturalism supports the ideals of a democratic society in which every person is free and equal in dignity and rights. Racism undermines these very foundations.

We have a unique opportunity at the moment to get our settings as a country right – Constitutional reform, legislative reform and a national campaign to address racism.

Current opportunities to strengthen our response to racism

Right now, we are at an interesting juncture.

There are three key initiatives playing out at a national level which address racism – the consolidation of Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination Laws, the development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy and the discussion about whether or not we need Constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our Constitution.

The possibility of Constitutional reform, legislative reform and awareness raising: a powerful trifecta that we need to harness in order to continue to promote and support the cultural diversity and social cohesion of Australia as a country.

Constitutional Reform

It is interesting how little most Australians know about our Constitution. This is in contrast with countries like South Africa, where every person was given a copy of the Constitution when it was adopted in 1996.

In late 2010 the Prime Minister established an Expert Panel to look at possible Constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people formally in the constitution. The report and recommendations arising from the Expert Panel’s extensive consultative process was handed to the Prime Minister on 19 January this year. The question of when a referendum will be held on this important issue is yet to be determined by the Government.

The Panel’s report reminds us that two sections of the Constitution still enable the Commonwealth Government to make laws that discriminate on the basis of race: section 25 and the ‘race power’ in section 51 (xxvi).

Section 25 allows State laws to disqualify people of a particular race from voting at State elections. Such a provision has no place in a modern democracy like Australia.

Section 51 (xxvi) allows the Commonwealth Parliament to make special laws for people of a particular race. There are examples where this has been relied upon in order to introduce laws that negatively discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Expert Panel has recommended that these two provisions be repealed.

The Panel has recommended that a new section 51A be inserted in the Constitution that explicitly respects and acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and promotes the advancement of those peoples.

The Expert Panel has also recommended the insertion of a new section 116A, prohibiting the Commonwealth, and States and Territories, from making laws that discriminate on the basis of race, colour or ethnic or national origin, but permitting laws or measures which aim to overcome disadvantage, ameliorate the effects of past discrimination, or protect the cultures, languages or heritage of any group.

A further new section 127A proposes the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as the ‘original Australian languages’, whilst acknowledging that English is the national language of Australia.

My Commission has supported these recommendations. Obviously, we have a long way to go before we come to a referendum on these issues. But it is incumbent on us all to think about these issues, to know what they really mean, to raise them in our dinner party discussions, in our sporting activities, at our work, to dispel the myths that will inevitably fly around in the media and be promoted by people who do not understand or accept how important it is to ensure racial equality and recognition of our First Nations peoples.

Even the best anti-discrimination law will in itself only be part of an effective and comprehensive strategy to eliminate racial discrimination and promote equality.

Consolidation of Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination Laws

The project to consolidate Australia’s anti-discrimination laws into a single Act was announced by the Australian Government in April 2010 as a key component of Australia’s Human Rights framework.

The Commission has welcomed this project, as we consider that discrimination law can be made easier to understand, comply with, and where necessary to enforce.

The consolidation process offers an opportunity to not only embrace the stronger features of the RDA (including its broad human rights based approach to the areas of public life it covers in section 9 and its general equality before the law provision in section 10), but also address some of its deficiencies. If we were to ask what would improve the current legislative regime, there are two key responses: reviewing who can act and how people or organisations can act to enhance racial equality under the Act and enhancing the current compliance framework.

To take the first issue: all Commonwealth discrimination laws include capacity for complaints by or on behalf of persons aggrieved by discrimination, leading to investigation and dispute resolution functions for the Commission.

The Commission views complaints as an important part of a compliance framework directed to achieving the objectives of the legislation, in addition to providing a means of access to justice.

The Commission considers that the consolidation process offers opportunities to consider measures for improved access to justice for people and organisations seeking to assert rights, and for increased certainty for people and organisations seeking to comply with their responsibilities.

One set of issues about access to justice is presented by the fact that capacity to take action at the Federal Court or Federal Magistrates Court stage is more restricted than at the Commission stage. A complaint to the Commission can be made by any person or organisation on behalf of a person aggrieved by discrimination, and the Commission itself has power to launch its own inquiries into human rights and discrimination issues.

But at the court stage, complaints can only be made by a person or persons aggrieved – not by representative or advocacy organisations in their own right or by the Commission or other bodies seeking to enforce the law.

There are of course issues to consider about how and how far a body which provides an impartial complaint handling service could have an advocacy role, and we look forward to further discussion of those issues.

In terms of compliance provisions, there are a range of mechanisms provided (although not consistently across grounds) in various anti-discrimination Acts for achievement of their objects. The present review of these Acts provides an opportunity for consideration of possible improvements in the compliance framework for Commonwealth discrimination law to ensure that it meets, or better meets, the goals of efficiency and effectiveness in promoting the objectives of the legislation.

I want to emphasise that even the best anti-discrimination law will in itself only be part of an effective and comprehensive strategy to eliminate racial discrimination and promote equality. Parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination undertake a much wider range of obligations than simply enacting legislative prohibitions against racial discrimination.

The development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy

Finally, I want to address a key initiative that I have direct responsibility for: the development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy.

This is very much linked to multiculturalism. The need for a strategy had been clearly articulated by the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council to the Government in April 2010. This advice was taken up in February 2011, when the establishment of a national partnership to develop and implement a National Anti-Racism Strategy for Australia was announced as a key component of Australia’s new multicultural policy, The People of Australia.

The Government’s intention is that the National Anti-Racism Partnership will draw on the existing expertise on anti-racism and multicultural matters across three government departments – the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs – together with the Australian Multicultural Council and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) also participate in the Partnership as non-government representatives.

This membership of the Partnership makes clear that while the National Anti-Racism Strategy was born in the multicultural context, we are looking at its development through a broader focus – encapsulating both the experience of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and our culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse communities.

The Partnership has been tasked with designing, developing and implementing the Strategy, with five key areas of effort:

research and consultation
education resources
public awareness
youth engagement
ongoing evaluation

It is anticipated that the Strategy will be drafted by 30 June 2012 and implemented over three years, 2012-2015.

The aim of the National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy is to promote a clear understanding in the Australian community of what racism is, and how it can be prevented and reduced.

We are looking at three broad objectives – to create awareness of racism and its impact, to build on good practice to prevent it and reduce it and to build capacity for people to address it.

If I return to my earlier description of racism, it amounts to a denial of human relationship. The implication of this is that racism is a matter for all of us – not just those who are targeted or suffer directly from it.

A National Anti-Racism Strategy is about making Australia a racism-free zone and articulating what role each of us have in achieving this. So it requires all of us to play a part – by not perpetrating racist actions ourselves, by not passively standing by while others perpetrate such actions and by committing ourselves to the notion that the ‘fair go’ is for everyone in our society and not restricted according to race, national or ethnic or religious background or some historical precedent.


We have a unique opportunity at the moment to get our settings as a country right – Constitutional reform, legislative reform and a national campaign to address racism. This complements our policy as a multicultural country, and other initiatives in play.

But there is a challenge in this for all of us. We share a common humanity, and we all have a role in respecting the right of all to enjoy it equally, with dignity and with the same opportunities to thrive.

This is an edited version of a speech given at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, on 16 February 2012.

Dr Helen Szoke is the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Race Discrimination Commissioner.


15 thoughts on “Racism exists in Australia – are we doing enough to address it?

  1. Can we just be clear about one thing.

    And this is not unique to Australia by any measure; but the distinction between and usage of the terms: RACE, ETHNICITY and NATIONALITY needs to be more clearly made.

    One can be a bigot, a xenophobe and prejudiced without being racist. Racism and a fundamental intolerance of difference are not mutually inclusive.

    There are only two primary races in Australia: Caucasian and Australoid (Aboriginals/Torres Strait Islanders).

    The 5 million people that comprise our resident migrant population (24%) are also overwhelmingly Caucasian; contrary to popular belief that we’re being swamped by the “Yellow/Brown/Black peril”.

    Being explicitly racist is hating people on the grounds that the genetic mtDNA and Y-chromosome markers they possess, that differentiate them biologically from one’s self, make them inherently inferior to one’s own genetic make-up.

    This is a ridiculous premise when we talk about the oft-reported discrimination that Arab-Australians, Afghan-Australians, Iranian-Australians and Muslim migrants face; as they are racially Caucasian.
    Bigots may perceive elements of their culture, religion or traditions as somehow inferior, but none of that is based in, nor influenced by race.
    Caucasian people span from Scandinavia to Northern Africa longitudinally, and from Spain to Central Asia latitudinally; the extremely superficial distinctions between various ethnic groups along these continuums do not in any way distinguish “races”, but rather environmental influences and genetic drift.

    There is no “Arab race”, “Greek race”, “Italian race”, “Indian race”, “Chinese race”, “Australian race”, etc…

    90% of the time when you accuse a person of racism, what you actually mean is they are discriminating against another ethnic group.

    Your race, your ethnicity and your nationality are all distinct and UNRELATED concepts of self-identity and ethnogenesis.

    You can only technically, from an anthropological stand-point, be of 5 major racial categories:
    Caucasoid/Caucasian, Negroid, Mongoloid, Australoid and Amerindian (Native American peoples of North, Central and South America).

    There are hundreds upon of hundreds of diverse ethnic groups across the world, that can be comprised of one or several races; i.e. Hispanics who can often be of Caucasian European, Black African and Native American ancestry.
    Hispanics are therefore not a race per se, but a cultural and historical continuum of people.

    And then there’s nationality; which is connected with citizenship and birth-right.

    Nationality is the loosest and most ambiguous identifier of ethnic, cultural and racial origin as you can hypothetically be of any nationality, so long as you fulfill a particular country’s citizenship prerequisites.

    If we’re going to talk seriously about racism, you have to start off with getting the damn definitions correct.

    The word “Racism” is a lazy, catch-call Wolf cry against what we perceive to be a fundamental intolerance against immigrant populations who differ in some way in comparison to the resident, ethnic majority.

    Unless the person you accuse of racism is quite literally a goose-stepping, Brownshirt fanatic with a Swastika tattooed on his chest who thinks Holocaust-like measures are the only viable solution for multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies; than you are exaggerating when you call that person a racist.

    They are disgusting, vile, ignorant, uneducated and hate-filled certainly, but the majority of the folks that feature on this website are not explicitly racist.
    Most of them are a simply a product of their parent’s poor child-rearing skills and their innate gullibility towards mass panic.

    I have read much of these articles and the number of textbook racists you could hallmark could be counted on one hand.

    So let’s call a spade a spade.

    • TL;DR version:

      Most Australian “racists”, when push comes to shove, don’t actually give a sh*t regarding someone’s phenotype; they’ll hate anyone and everyone so long as they conform to a set of principles that put human merit, societal bonds and genuine compassion above national and historical vanity.

      I’m sure the 6 Caucasian fellows who run TAB cant attest well to this; if the number of “Oi y dun youse carnts post ya real names on ere, then weel see who’s a racist!!!11!” posts are anything to go by.

    • Actually the Australoid/Caucasoid/Mongoloid etc distinctions you quote are out of date.

      Ethnographers talk in terms of populations these days rather than “races”, but the word “racist” is a portmanteau term which everyone tends to understand.

      Remember the average bigot probably cannot even pronounce the word “xenophobe” and keeps getting it confused with that SA Senator. 😉

      And the perpetrators of racism and bigotry don’t have to be swastika-wearing psychos either. They can be psychos who delude themselves that they are not racist or bigots, and who call themselves other names like “patriots” or “nationalists”.

      And we hold that people make choices about their behaviour. Adults can choose to either be racists or not to be racists.

      You will also find that the intolerant are usually globally intolerant. So someone who hates on the basis of skin colour will also find it easy to hate someone for their gender, their religion, their sexuality.

      • I agree with everyone you say, much like the rest of your site; but nevertheless “Racism” is an erroneous term.

        And lol @ Xenophon/Xenophobe.

        Race still exists under the microscope; geneticists have quietly dropped the appellations of “race” and started using PC-friendly terminology.
        I understand why they’ve done it, but no reputable population geneticist or anthropologist is going to tell with a straight face that Homo Sapiens have remained genetically static since they migrated out of Africa.

        Attempting to deny the geographic variance and origin of DNA haplogroups is in the Flat Earth Society league of ignorance.

        You simply cannot get around the fact, over the thousands of years of existence, Homo Sapiens have acquired enough “Junk DNA” to separate different populations on a biological level.

        Hell they’ve even just discovered the Denisova Hominin in Siberia, a Neanderthal-Homo Sapien hybrid that today has it’s closest living relatives in Melanesians and Aborigines.
        4-6% of their genome represents a mitochondrial DNA sequence that very, very few other peoples have.

        If anything they’ve discovered even within specific racial groups there are further levels of stratification; thanks to Y-Chrome STP testing we can specify to a generational-level of certainty when ancestors branched off.

        Racial classification maybe a fruitless endevour since, in the end, now we know we all stem from a women in Ethiopia who lived 200,000 years ago (“mitochondrial eve”), but since we’ve opened this can of worms, it’s time to be upfront about it and not pretend like we’re all brothers, and we genuinely have no innate differences physically/biologically that could keep us apart.

        We certainly do; the fact of the matter is simply racism is a problem of perception, not conception.

        • Everything you say is right but we should keep in mind that any genetic differences between population groups/races are so small as to be insignificant

        • Sorry I tl;dr ed it for now, will get back to it later..
          But how many of the ‘racists’ featured here you think have ever read a science book? and base their prejudices & bigotry on DNA mitochondrial evidence? How many ? what percentage? of them would even know what DNA is or what it stands for if it wasn’t for google or wikipedia???
          If you’ve noticed most of these discriminating tw*ats are the same ones that believe the earth is only 6000 years old & Jesus’ daddy made everything up in 6 days & went surfing on the 7th. Also the same flock of tw*ts bang on about Muslims bla bla bla doesn’t base it on any DNA evidence; but on another stupid old book, that is different to their stupid old book.

          Yes, I agree that ‘Racism’ is an erroneous term to describe most people we’re talking about.

          And yes genetic mutations over time that contribute to certain different characteristics, mostly physical & superficial do make us different. For example a certain make up of lower limbs makes one successful at sprinting (100m/200m) etc.
          Same can be said about swimming & various other sports. Hence kiwis are good at Rugby that requires larger built but not so good at Table Tennis where it is a disadvantage.

          But there is no evidence at this moment to suggest that these genetic mutations or “Junk DNA” as you put it makes any difference in our brains, which is the primary organ that is responsible for who we are. And my “Junk DNA” is not better than your “Junk DNA”, they may be better suited to a different environmental condition, but our bodies are capable to adapt beyond that for survival on a short term.

          So acknowledging genetic difference is actually necessary in areas like medicine, without a doubt.
          But to say that ‘racism’ in Australia is based on one’s lack of alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme is just silly.

          [ I actually don’t like the word, because according to the dictionary definition only a white/black/Asian supremacist will qualify. And ignorance is easy to fix with information. But stupidity is much harder to fix. Hence I like the term ‘bigot’, ‘fucking idiot’, ‘moron’ etc to describe most people featured on this blog.]

      • People are getting “hot under the collar” about the term “racism” instead of looking at the pain they are causing to so many people. I can rarely turn on the TV without being hit with another dose of Aussie racism. This is painful to me but I can see that it is even more painful to the people who are dishing out the racist comments because they clearly feel themselves to be inferior though I don’t know of anyone of my nationality who has ever deliberately tried to make them feel so, in fact we bend over backwards to say nice things because we are aware of their sensitivities. Having said all that though, I am getting heartily sick of it all.

  2. europeans were cross breeding with neanderthols, what about mungo man, who came from who? you must remember, science can only be proven wrong, you cant prove its right, not much is known about Australia and what is known comes from out dated theorys, always slanted to the outcome they were looking for, charles darwin got it really wrong about Aboriginals, they havent died out, whats happened to his theory? alot of unproven statements being thrown around, once it was 10,000 years, then 20,000 and now they say 60,000, why make unproven statements before the facts are known, I dont class that as science, I class it as guessing, why bother with research if we can just use theorys,

    • “science can only be proven wrong, you cant prove its right”.

      This could be the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.

      What are you trying to get at Sam? Why do you resent science making an attempt to explain the world in which we live?

    • I’m sure scientists are shaking in their boots about what you class or don’t class as science, Sam. You do seem to be one of the great minds of human existence.

  3. What you are doing here is illegal in Australia; it’s called “criminal defamation”. I hope you know some good lawyers 🙂

    • Oh look here’s one of our featured bogots coming to whinge.

      Steve Smith – a pseudonym of course

      Yeah we have some good lawyers but we get them for free and unlike you we won’t need them.


      IP Address:
      Region: Melbourne (AU)

      Gee I hate Melbourne Nazis

  4. I sometimes wish I was a Muslim because there are people who will stand up for Muslims but there is no-one who will stand up for my nationality. (Except for on one memorable occasion when a subscriber to “The Age” said he was beginning to feel guilty about bashing us all the time and “The Age’s” response was to publish a whole page of racist “jokes” about us. That was when I stopped buying The Age. I would have stopped anyway because this stance of theirs was already clear to me). Seems the Nazis are for ever with us. I would have thought that the disgrace of the Germans would send out a message to all other racists but it seems not. If we are going to have anti-racist legislation it needs to apply to everyone and it needs to be enforced. Should keep the lawyers in work for a long time!

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