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Launch of the Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities Report (2012)

Race Race Discrimination

Launch of the Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities Report

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Helen Szoke

Second biennial Congress Lowitja, Melbourne

14 November 2012


Good afternoon and thank you for being here for the launch of the Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities Report. And I am proud to be launching this Report on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and I pay my respect to elders both past and present.

Racism in Australia

Racism exists in Australia. This is a statement that most, if not all of you in this room believe is obvious. It is definitely indicated in this Report. However, it is not a truth that is readily acceptable by all Australians.

As part of the consultations for the National Anti-Racism Strategy, which was launched in August this year, I heard from many Australians about their experience of racism. How did racism make people feel? This is what some recounted:

It creates a divide. Australia is one country but it doesn’t feel like it.

It makes me feel less connected to Australia and the Australian community to the point where I find it difficult to identify as Australian.

It makes me feel awful. I feel so much revulsion that I sometimes feel physically ill. It is a major contributor to the anxiety I experience in everyday life.

I experience racism on an all too regular basis ... It is a tremendous psychological blow because it is something that I experienced from age 5 to now and I am often left feeling helpless and vulnerable for days afterwards.

It makes me feel like I am a lesser human being.

I’m a dark skinned African; racism is not something I experience once or twice in my life. Do I speak up or take action every day – of course not! I’d be exhausted, I’d be fighting every day ....

These tell of disturbing realities for too many people in Australia.

Many issues relating to the treatment Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were raised in these consultations – for example, the problematic way some sections of the media report issues relating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and the barriers they face in employment.

Participants in public meetings in Mt Gambier and Port Augusta mentioned that Aboriginal peoples experience discrimination daily – when they are in shops, when being banned from hotels or taxis. One participant stated that Aboriginal people are ‘treated like dogs, like the lowest race in Australia’.

I heard about some Aboriginal people feeling ‘defeated’ or ‘inferior’ when they had contact with some government authorities such as public housing providers, health services and police.

One respondent, in an online survey, stated: Just being born Indigenous makes you feel second class.

As devastating and frustrating that this is the experience of many, in Australia, in 2012, I am glad it is being discussed, because to understand racism and racial discrimination in Australia, we have to be able to name the problem. It is an important step in understanding and addressing the problem.

The National Anti-Racism Strategy and the Campaign, ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’

The National Anti-Racism Strategy aims to promote a clear understanding in the Australian community of what racism is, and how it can be prevented and reduced. It aims to encapsulate the experience of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as our culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse communities.

One powerful method by which the Strategy achieves this end is through its Campaign - Racism. It Stops With Me.[1]

The Campaign is about making Australia a racism free zone and articulating what role each of us have in achieving this.

And forgive me, for I’m about to do a shameless plug aimed at getting you all involved in this Campaign, because it provides all of you, as individuals or organisations, to actively address racism. All of you here today can sign up to become a supporter to the Campaign, the details of which are on the Australian Human Rights Commission website.

By promoting the Campaign, you and your organisation can become part of a growing network of organisations who are working to eradicate racism and you can access a range of resources including best practice examples. We can help each other develop strategies to address racism, share our experiences and we can encourage sectors to do the same.

You can also play a role in promoting the Campaign, through your existing networks. The Campaign 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.

The Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities Report

The Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities Report is a valuable contribution to existing research and data about the racism experienced by Victorian Aboriginal peoples.

I spoke about the disturbing realities of that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples recounted at the consultations that informed the National Anti-Racism Strategy. Well, the findings of this Report are also disturbing, more so.

This Report reveals the results of the Experiences of Racism survey, which was undertaken with Aboriginal community members in four Victorian localities as part of the Localities Embracing and Accepting Diversity program, known as the LEAD program.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the LEAD program, in short, it is a pilot program to prevent discrimination and support cultural diversity within local communities and organisations. LEAD is being implemented in the City of Whittlesea and the City of Greater Shepparton, and, comprising a coordinated range of actions within specific localities, LEAD aims to have a wide reach in the community to generate long-lasting cultural change. It does this in partnership with a number of local organisations.

The four localities in this Report included two rural and two metropolitan areas of Victoria. Of the total of 755 Aboriginal Victorians surveyed between December 2010 and October 2011, an overwhelming number experienced racism. And when I say an overwhelming number, that figure is 97% of the participants! Over 70% experienced eight or more incidents. And these results were consistent across the four localities.

The types of racism experienced ranged from racist name-calling, teasing, jokes based on stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples, being ignored, treated suspiciously or rudely, were excluded or avoided, were physically threatened or hurt, or had their property vandalised, all because of their race.

The racism experienced, occurred in many areas of public space including in shops and on public transport, and also in the areas of education, employment and sport.

The Report reveals that those experiencing racism do not necessarily cope well with the incidents. For example, 79% of participants avoided situations where they predicted that racism would take place. Let us think about that. That means that 79% of participants avoid participating in some essential areas of public life, a lot of activities that many of us here take for granted, so that they can avoid experiencing racism. That is a really significant effect!

And other coping strategies such as simply accepting the racism, or putting up with it, were associated with higher levels of psychological distress.

Importantly, the Report also identifies the link between health and racism, building on existing research in this area.[2] The survey included a psychological distress test that indicates participants’ risk of mental illness. Some of the Report’s findings include that:

  • people who experienced the most racism, also recorded the most severe psychological distress scores

  • more than 70% worried at least a few times per month that their family and friends would be victims of racism - demonstrating that the impact of racism spreads beyond the person directly targeted

  • some types of racism appear to be more harmful than others. And this is regardless of how often they occurred. Those who were left out or avoided because of their race, or who had property damaged, were significantly more likely to experience high or very high levels of psychological distress than others.

Interestingly, the Report also identifies that intervening at an institutional or organisational level may reduce exposure to racism, given the variability of racist experiences in different settings – emphasising the power and impact of multi-level, multi-setting and multi-strategy interventions. These are ways the mental health of Aboriginal Victorians can be better protected.

There are many things about Australia that I am proud of – its diversity being an example. But I am ashamed of the treatment that too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience because of their race. And I believe I’m not alone in that strong emotion.

We have, at the state and the federal levels, anti-discrimination laws that make racial discrimination and racial hatred unlawful.

However, what this research and other stories of people’s experiences tell us, is that laws are not enough. Yes, people need to know about their rights and protections, and how racial discrimination can be addressed. But more is needed. Action is needed. I’ve mentioned one way, through the National Anti-Racism Strategy’s ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ Campaign. There are many more ways. In this room, there are a diverse range of people and organisations, through the delegates of Congress Lowitja, government representatives, researchers, community members, students and people from the health sector. That is a lot of expertise and reach.

In the consultation I was involved in earlier this year, that I have mentioned, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Association, in its submission, described racism as ‘a constant background ‘noise’ that exists in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’.[3]

In closing, I commend and congratulate all those involved in this research – the organisations involved, the researchers and survey participants – for bringing that ‘noise’ forward, to all of us. This Report provides us with important data for all of us to examine, reflect on and most importantly, to act on. It is easy to look at the findings of this Report and be appalled and disturbed. But I challenge each of us to go beyond that and ask ourselves, what can we do, to make a difference in this area?

Thank you.


[1] For more information on the National Anti-Racism Campaign see http://itstopswithme.humanrights.gov.au/index.html.
[2] There is a growing body of evidence suggests that discrimination and racism are linked to a range of adverse health conditions among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, such as smoking, substance use, psychological distress and poor self-assessed health status: Dr Yin Paradies, A systematic review of empirical research on self-reported racism and health, International Journal of Epidemiology, August (2006) 35(4): 888-901, p 1. At http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/dyl056v1 (viewed 31 October 2012). Similarly, some research suggests a link between ethnic and racial discrimination and poor mental health and wellbeing: Vic Health 2008 Research Summary 3 Ethnic and race-based discrimination as a determinant of mental health and wellbeing (2009). At http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/Publications/Freedom-from-discrimination/Ethnic-and-race-based-discrimination-as-a-determinant-of-mental-health-and-wellbeing.aspx (viewed 31 October 2012). See also Yin Paradies, Ricci Harris, Ian Anderson, The impact of racism on Indigenous health in Australia and Aotearoa: towards a research agenda, March 2008, Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health: Discussion paper series No. 4. At www.lowitja.org.au/files/crcah_docs/Racism-Report.pdf (viewed 31 October 2012).
[3] National Anti-Racism Strategy (2012), p 5. At http://itstopswithme.humanrights.gov.au/strategy.html (viewed 2 November 2012)