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La Trobe Law Ball 2022 Keynote Address

Race Discrimination

Thank you, Shaun and Isabel, for the introduction and thank you for having me here tonight. I shall begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered today, the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation, and I pay my respect to their Elders past and present and to their emerging leaders. I acknowledge their connection to land, waters, and community. May I also extend that respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present tonight. This land always was and always will be Aboriginal Land.

I am very grateful to all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge holders who have generously provided input to the work I have conducted over the years, and I acknowledge the long history and leadership of First Nations Peoples in anti-racism efforts. 

I also extend my acknowledgement to all the committee members and members of the La Trobe Law Students’ Association, members of the La Trobe University fraternity, representatives of the Victorian Federation of Community Legal Centres, and distinguished guests and students with us tonight. 

Thank you for this opportunity to share with you my experience in anti-racism work both as a former practising lawyer and in my current capacity as the Race Discrimination Commissioner. I am very excited to see so many future leaders in the audience today. It is always heartening to connect with organisations, like the La Trobe Law Students’ Association, that are interested in learning about existing work that advances social justice and encouraging their members to contribute their professional knowledge and skills towards creating positive social change in law, policy, and beyond. 

You have suggested that a theme about social justice might be a relevant and interesting topic of discussion for tonight’s proceedings. Social Justice has been defined to mean justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. 

Discussion about social justice could not be more relevant and intimate when it includes a conversation about the challenging issue of racism and its impact on social justice, fairness, legal justice, equality, and equity in our society. 

As an alumnus of La Trobe University and a former member of the La Trobe Asia Advisory Board myself, I am grateful for and constantly inspired by our vibrant university community, one that is committed to responding effectively to community needs and building community resilience at a time of ‘great local and national challenge’ through advocacy, teaching, and research. [1]

Combatting racism—a longstanding problem in Australia and globally—is certainly one of our biggest challenges and requires the urgent attention and action of our entire society and university community. 

Tonight, I will be discussing the two major initiatives that the Australian Human Rights Commission is currently undertaking to tackle racism—the recent Racism. It Stops With Me campaign and the National Anti-Racism Framework—as well as how you, as law students, can contribute to positive social change as a future legal practitioner, through policy work or other occupations that capitalise on your legal training, and in your everyday lives.

Racism is the misconceived right we give ourselves to cause harm to and hurt others based on perceived differences that arise from misconstrued, irrational, and immoral beliefs or reasoning, or when we give in to our fears and insecurities.

Racism remains a serious, persistent, and prevalent problem in Australia. Research studies, such as the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion reports and recent Lowy Institute reports, have attested to the persistence of racism on both structural and individual levels, as well as its rise in recent times. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated xenophobia, racial discrimination, and race hate in Australia, especially targeting Asian Australians. The pandemic has also highlighted other institutional barriers experienced by negatively racialised communities, such as the lack of culturally appropriate information and services and inequitable access to and provision of health and other services.

Racism not only harms individuals but also our collective wellbeing. It also undermines our values as a free, just, and fair society. It is important that we understand racism is more than just harmful words or individual actions—for a long time, racism has been used to sustain or justify unfair and inequitable policies and laws, and shape institutions and social norms that affect all of us today. Racism is harmful and destructive to our collective wellbeing as a community, that is why we must all come together to take collective action against racism and commit to active anti-racism efforts. 

Racism. It Stops With Me campaign

To reinforce our commitment to highlighting and tackling racism in communities, workplaces, schools, and beyond, the Commission relaunched its Racism. It Stops With Me campaign in July 2022. You might have already seen the Community Service Announcement on national television, social media, or through our community partners and supporters. The campaign, informed by extensive consultations with community members and best practices, comes with an updated website that provides information to support further learning, including resources discussing how racism manifests in everyday life and ways to take action against it. There is also a new Workplace Cultural Diversity Tool, which is a free, online, and confidential self-assessment tool that supports Australian businesses to improve their cultural diversity and inclusion.

The campaign aims to encourage Australians, and particularly those without lived experience of racism, to commit to unlearning misconceptions and stereotypes, educating ourselves on the ways racism exist and persists today, and taking action to eradicate it. It does this by asking a series of questions designed to prompt reflection on the role of racism in shaping society, covering areas such as representation in media, employment, and leadership across industries, cultural safety at school and in public, interaction with law enforcement, and racism’s impact on mental and physical health. 

The campaign also seeks to raise our awareness that racism operates not just at the inter-personal level but also on a systemic and institutional level.

It is important that we do not shy away from these hard or uncomfortable questions, because willingness to listen and reflect is the first step to unlearning bias and misinformation. And ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection are foundational to developing the racial literacy and actions we need to embed a culture of anti-racism. 

Racism remains, in our present society, largely an invisible, unknown, ignored, and avoided phenomenon, because it is often regarded as too difficult to deal with, too divisive, and many of us just want to move on, get along, keep the peace, and ‘don’t rock the boat’ in order to get ahead—as an Asian senior banking executive recently said to me, ‘I play the game’ within our social and corporate structures and cultures in order to get ahead. 

But that would mean we deny the existence of racism and its real and destructive impact on our collective society. And if ‘playing the game’ means having to leave yourself and who you are at home when you go to work or when you are out in the community, that is not right, fair, or just. And it is not the society that we say we are or wish to build.

As a society, I believe we have the resolve and means to make Australia a truly just, fair, and equitable place for all. First Nations communities, and negatively racialised and disadvantaged communities, have been leading anti-racism action in Australia for many years. It is time for us all to follow their leadership and commit to learning, be accountable, and work within our spheres of influence to eliminate racism. There is a role for everyone to play in building a better and safer Australia, and the campaign resource hub serves as a good starting point for such exploration.

National Anti-Racism Framework project

The anti-racism campaign is part of a larger national project to develop a central reference point for anti-racism action by government, NGOs, business, communities, and other sectors. In March 2021, the Commission released a proposal for a National Anti-Racism Framework in response to enduring community calls for national action and heightened experiences of racial discrimination and inequality during the pandemic. The Framework, as an outline of a coordinated shared vision to tackle racism, is set to deliver guidance on eight key outcome areas: data collection on racism, legal protection frameworks, government commitment to eradicate racism, community understanding, community partnerships, representation, service provision to address racial inequity, and complementarity with other measures strengthening multiculturalism, social inclusion, and Indigenous reconciliation. 

Informed by a community-led approach, the Commission consulted with peak and community organisations, experts, service providers, human right agencies, and government at all levels on the scope and vision for a Framework from March 2021 to April 2022. In total, 100 consultations were undertaken with over 300 organisations. We were fortunate enough to partner with some of those organisations and agencies on 10 community consultations across the nation, as well as receive feedback from many organisations who hosted their own consultations on the Framework within their organisations and with their networks and communities. Our call for public submissions in October 2021 also saw an unprecedented number of responses, with submissions from individuals making up more than a third of the 171 total submissions received. I am grateful for the many community organisations, who generously aided us in getting the call out far and wide and in making the process as accessible as it could be with the resources we had at the time. 

There is still much work yet to be done to ensure comprehensive community-level input, which is critical to this Framework, as there are many for whom this process could not be made accessible during the initial scoping phase and whose input is nothing less than essential. But in this priority-setting level of the initial scoping phase, six major themes have emerged consistently across sectors and communities, which provide a solid grounding for the project’s continued work.

The first theme is the importance of centring First Nations sovereignty and truth-telling. The leading piece of feedback we received from all participants, including First Nations and non-Indigenous organisations and individuals, was that First Nations sovereignty must be central to the Framework and inform all strategies across national outcome areas. Many shared their strong view that a National Anti-Racism Framework must acknowledge the historical violence of European colonisation and the ongoing impacts of settler colonisation on First Nations peoples. Recognition of First Nations sovereignty and truth-telling were seen as necessary foundations for anti-racism in the Australian context.

The second theme is the need for a robust definition of racism that highlights its systemic nature. Participants told the Commission that the definition must be one that reflects a nuanced and intersectional understanding of racism, one that is community-centric, and again, one that acknowledges First Nations peoples’ sovereignty and the history and ongoing impacts of settler colonisation. The systemic nature of racism must therefore be acknowledged and addressed.

The need for effective data collection on racism is the third theme. Consultation participants and those who made submissions shared their view that there was a need for comprehensive, national data on the prevalence and impacts of racism. Data was highlighted as an important means of raising awareness about the extent of racism experienced by communities and individuals. Data was also seen as an important means of securing the appropriate resources and funding to address racism. Establishing mechanisms to collect data was a main priority, as well as ensuring ethical approaches and processes around data collection that would protect communities from unethical data collection, management, and reporting that often result in deficit understandings of First Nations and negatively racialised communities.

The fourth theme is prioritising education and raising public awareness in anti-racism efforts. Improving understanding about race and racism in Australia was identified as an opportunity to connect people through common understanding and build momentum for change, including through anti-racism initiatives and actions. To ensure broad-based racial literacy, participants advocated for anti-racism curricula within education institutions, which includes truth-telling about Australia’s colonial and migration history, as well as anti-racism training and education for students, teachers, and staff.

The fifth theme is fostering cultural safety in the workplace and in the provision of services. While diversity and representation are critical components of this, cultural safety also requires centring First Nations communities, taking a strengths-based approach to workplace and clientele diversity and representation, and embedding anti-racism at the institutional level through staff training, staff accountability, safe complaints mechanisms, and crucially, centring wellbeing across these processes. Embedding cultural safety as a workplace health and safety imperative was consistently identified as a necessary step.

The sixth and final theme is the need for enhanced visibility and responses at the intersection of different forms of discrimination. Participants shared concerns that those who experienced racial discrimination and who were also part of LGBTQIA+ communities, or were refugees, had precarious visa or citizenship status, came from certain religious backgrounds, had experienced caste discrimination, were people with disability, women, or young people, amongst others, needed significantly improved protection in terms of policy, programs, and the law.

In addition to these six cross-cutting themes, many participants also raised concerns in three policy areas. 

The first is the importance of legal protections that are enforceable and reflective of Australia’s commitments under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Many participants advocated for the need for a rights-based framework to adequately protect these rights. Similarly, many communities also advocated for the urgent need to prioritise enhanced access to rights, the safety and accessibility of reporting mechanisms, and improved understanding and measures in relation to hate crime.

Secondly, participants are concerned with oversight and accountability within the justice system, particularly in relation to the systemic discrimination experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This concern is echoed by many organisations, service providers, government departments and agencies, and community members. Participants advocated for the provision of safe complaints mechanisms, community-led support and services for those caught in the criminal justice system, as well as culturally safe and unhindered legal assistance.

Finally, participants emphasised the need for media regulation and standards. The Commission heard about the importance of representation in fostering inclusion, and conversely, the harmful impacts of racial profiling and stereotyping on public perceptions of communities and community members’ self-perception. Participants therefore strongly advocated for improved regulation and community standards in relation to the media, including digital media and in relation to online hate.

I am very thankful for the critical support, contributions, and visions generously shared by consultation and submission participants in this initial scoping phase. With the Commission successfully securing government commitment for the National Anti-Racism Framework project’s future, we now have the means to continue this work under the guidance of the human rights principles of representation and participation and will make the development process of the Framework accessible to all in a community-led, co-design approach. Recognising that First Nations peoples and negatively racialised communities have long led the way in addressing racism and are therefore best placed to advise on the necessary approaches and strategic outcomes of this work, we anticipate the new resourcing commitment will enable comprehensive, community-led consultations on this Framework that prioritise cultural safety and accessibility, and ultimately a Framework that reflects shared understandings and community-centric strategies and outcomes.

In light of these national conversations on tackling racism, I want to talk about possible avenues law students and future leaders in the field like you can take in countering racism, including as future legal practitioners, through broader policy or community work, and by embedding anti-racism practices in your daily life. 

Practising law and social change

As a legal practitioner, one of the most direct ways to practise anti-racism is to engage in pro bono racial justice work. This work goes beyond racial discrimination cases, as racial justice intersects with other areas of law, like criminal law, employment law, housing rights, First Nations cultural rights, environmental justice, healthcare access, and immigration law. As the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance notes, lawyers and law firms, with their professional knowledge and access to the judicial system, ‘are uniquely positioned to analyze and advocate to change laws and policies that encourage, perpetuate or allow racial injustice.’ [2] There is huge potential for change when more lawyers ground their work, pro bono or not, in anti-racism, when they actively serve underrepresented communities and individuals, and collaborate with other legal or community services providers in dismantling systemic racism in law and beyond.

In a Washington Council of Lawyers webinar, legal practitioners shared some best practices for grounding one’s pro bono and legal work in anti-racism. Noting that doing pro bono work on racial justice issues or with clients who are negatively racialised alone is not necessarily anti-racist, legal practitioners highlighted the importance of first understanding what anti-racism means and working with the aim of dismantling systemic racism in the law. To engage in anti-racist pro bono or legal work, one has to make ‘a conscious choice to incorporate antiracist advocacy in the work,’ exercise ‘cultural humility’ by elevating the voices of First Nations peoples and people who are negatively racialised, take responsibility in educating oneself and committing to continuous learning, create a safe and non-judgmental space in service provision to build cultural humility and safety, and encourage collaboration with other pro bono service providers and community organisations ‘to create deeper and more lasting change.’ [3]

Aside from embedding anti-racism in pro bono work, another way to address systemic racism within and through the legal profession is to diversify representation and transform workplace culture. There is a clear need for action on diversity in leadership within Australian workplaces, especially in law. While the latest 2021 Census identified that 48 percent of the population have a parent born overseas and over 22 percent used a language other than English at home, [4] the Commission’s 2016 Leading for Change report estimated that of those who occupy the most senior posts in Australia, only 4.7 percent have a non-European background and 0.4 percent have an Indigenous background. [5] The leadership figures in the legal profession are even more concerning. A survey conducted by Omnipoll following the Commission’s 2016 Leading for Change report found that, while Asian Australians account for 9.6 percent of the Australian population, only 3.1 percent of law firm partners are Asian Australian, while only 1.6 percent of barristers and only 0.8 percent of the judiciary are of Asian descent. These statistics reflect the gross underrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and multicultural groups as legal practitioners, and the impacts of such underrepresentation on both the individual, such as on mental health, and communities-at-large, like in access to justice barriers, cannot be downplayed. [6]

As a future legal practitioner, something that you can do to increase diverse representation and retention in the legal profession is to create a culturally safe workplace culture. Every legal professional is a critical ally in ensuring an anti-racist workplace culture, some best practice anti-racism initiatives that you can advocate for or enhance within your current and future workplaces and organisations include providing diversity, equity, and inclusion training for staff to address unconscious bias, establishing mentoring programs and leadership pathways for diverse staff, offering flexible support measures for the wellbeing of diverse staff, calling for stronger accountability and evaluation of diversity and inclusion within the organisation, and creating safe and non-judgmental space for conversations and learning about racism and anti-racism strategies.

Policy work and social change

Embedding anti-racism in your legal work or workplace culture inevitably means re-examining existing policies, legal frameworks, and institutions that have allowed systemic racism to persist. As Professor J. Kēhaulani Kauanui notes, racism ‘is a structure, not an event,’ the fight against racism is one against systems and institutions that, by design, have historically perpetuated and reinforced racism. Anti-racism therefore requires cross-sector and cross-issue policy efforts to tackle different but connected manifestations of racism.

I moved from more than 24 years of private legal practice to multicultural engagement and policy development at universities and public institutions like the Victorian Multicultural Commission and the Australian Human Rights Commission myself, and I know firsthand how helpful a legal background is to anti-racism policy development, and how policy exposure has expanded my understanding of the law. It is important that policy analysis is simultaneously informed by relevant domestic or international legal frameworks and historical contexts of how communities become negatively racialised and marginalised systemically, in order to fully tackle the impacts of systemic racism. For instance, grassroots advocacy for community-based alternatives to incarceration in response to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prisons is a reimagination of justice and the role of law informed by the historical context of Australia’s ongoing settler colonialisation, which is only possible when we think outside the traditional boundaries of criminal law.

Policy work also allows for a holistic, cross-issue approach to combatting racism more effectively. For instance, the development of a national anti-racism framework has been informed by Commission projects such as the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project elevating the voices of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander women and girls, the Free and Equal project consolidating human rights protection in Australia, and ongoing work on religious discrimination and human rights and technology. It is only through cross-issue lenses, including the lens of First Nations sovereignty and intersectionality, that racism as a structural and systemic problem can be tackled comprehensively.  

Practising anti-racism in the everyday

While racism is a systemic problem penetrating all aspects of society that needs to be tackled collectively, I cannot emphasise enough the crucial role the individual plays in transforming the national conversation around race and racism through everyday interactions. Within our own spheres of influence—be it at university, in a workplace, at a football club, or at a social gathering—we can foster an inclusive culture that normalises educating oneself and unlearning bias as ongoing processes, while engaging in conversations that healthily call out and explore solutions to interpersonal racism and the structural inequity that exist in many of our institutions and organisations. 

The Racism. It Stops With Me campaign provides a conversation guide on navigating what may seem like an intimidating or uncomfortable conversation on racism. Developed based on ‘consideration of Australian and international research on anti-racism strategies,’ current Commission education and training resources, and human rights education principles of collaboration, participation, and empowerment, the conversation guide helps set the scene for ‘open and honest discussion about experiences and potential anti-racism strategies.’ [7] To encourage a productive and engaged conversation, it would be helpful to frame the conversation in a positive, non-judgmental, and constructive way, make clear the purpose and goals of the conversation at the beginning, and turn the focus away from being correct all the time to learning and strategising ways to challenge racism. People in these conversations are more open to and engaged in learning when they are given the opportunity to discuss their views and experiences relating to racism in a safe and non-judgmental environment; learn from each other’s experiences, bearing in mind that racism is often experienced in vastly different ways by different people; reflect on individual behaviours and how people can intentionally or unintentionally cause racial harm to others; identify practices and systems that could be developed or improved to better challenge and mitigate racism; and collate suggestions for subsequent plans to tackle racism.

These suggestions from the Racism. It Stops With Me conversation guide are only a fraction of the abundant resources available in the campaign resource hub and produced by a longstanding network of anti-racist First Nations and multicultural community organisations. I encourage you to explore and engage with the insightful work by our wonderful campaign partners, advisors, and supporters on the website as we continue our collective efforts in eradicating racism of all forms.

Racism, it stops with us—each and every one of us has a part to play in shaping a society that is culturally diverse, open, accepting, inclusive, equitable, fair, and just for all Australians. We must draw the line against racial and religious bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, and hatred. We do so not because it is convenient or socially or politically expedient, but because it is the right thing to do and because it is the answer to equality, harmony, and peace in our society. We will draw the line and we will do so with ourselves, our families, our friends, and our workmates and colleagues; in our associations and clubs; with our community, organisations, workplaces; in the media, government, and public institutions; and with our leaders, elected officials, and parliamentarians. We will hold ourselves and each other accountable for what we do and do not do in confronting racism and race hate. 

I look forward to continuing these conversations with you throughout this evening and beyond. 

Best wishes to you in your studies and in your future careers. But whatever you choose to do, remember that by taking a stand against racism we can build a fair, just, equal, and safe society for all—as Ijeoma Oluo, the author of So You Want to Talk About Racism, puts it, ‘The beauty of anti-racism is that you do not have to pretend to be free from racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you see it, including in yourself. And that is the only way forward.’ 

Thank you.

[1] La Trobe University Strategic Plan. <>.

[2] Law Firm Antiracist Alliance. <>.

[3] Washington Council of Lawyers. <>.

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2021 census.

[5] Australian Human Rights Commission. Leading for Change Report (2016).

[6] The Law Society of NSW. Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession: The Business Case Report (2018). <>.

[7]  Australian Human Rights Commission. Let’s Talk Race: A Guide on How to Conduct A Conversation About Racism. <>.

Chin Tan

Chin Tan, Race Discrimination Commissioner

Race Discrimination