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Multiculturalism, mental health and the psychology of racism

Race Discrimination

Speech given to the Western Australian Multicultural Mental Health Forum, Perth

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Our multiculturalism involves a basic idea. That we recognise and celebrate our diversity in cultures. That everyone can be comfortable in their own skin, and in their heritage and cultural identity.

But what happens if people aren’t comfortable? What happens if people may feel not pride but shame? And how do we deal with the diversity of experience in mental health?

One of the things about living in a multicultural society is that there can be differences in how people experience a common phenomenon. This is certainly true of mental health. Members of multicultural communities may bring with them histories from their homeland. This can involve histories of conflict, violence, turmoil, trauma.

And there are then the challenges for those who come to Australia as migrants, in search of a new start in life. There are countless migrant successes, as we all know. But not every story of migration may involve a success. Some involve failures and, if not failures, then some serious challenges of adjustment.

Many of us have heard stories about migrants who were doctors, lawyers, engineers and scientists in their home country – but who now work as taxi drivers or in jobs well below the station of what they would have been accustomed to at home. Perhaps the most infamous example has been that of Nguyen Cao Ky, a chief of the South Vietnamese Air Force who became prime minister of South Vietnam from 1965-67 in a military junta. After fleeing from Saigon in 1975, Ky made a new life in the United States, where he ran a liquor store with his wife in Orange County, California. One day gladhanding crowds alongside Lyndon Johnson, the next day handing over a bottle of Jack Daniel’s to a customer.

Some may well come to terms with life in a new country, whatever it involves. But others may be unable to accept their lot in their new society. Sometimes the resentment, failure or shame can bubble away; sometimes it can even erupt.

This is one aspect of our multicultural society that we don’t always understand well enough. When we think of multiculturalism, we are more likely to think about a richness of cuisines and lifestyles – of different cultural groups and communities contributing to the vigour and energy of an Australian nation. We don’t always realise that under the surface of our success in multiculturalism, there are many stories of struggle – including struggles with mental health.

So this conference is a timely opportunity to reflect on multicultural mental health. Your theme of ‘building bridges, opening doors’ captures some of the work that we must do: building better relationships with and among? multicultural communities, developing clearer understanding of multicultural experiences. Today, I’d like to reflect on one aspect of these concerns: the connections between racism, psychology and mental health.

Harm and the meaning of racism

The most obvious place to start is the health effects of racism. Racism hurts those who are its targets or victims. The hurt goes well beyond mere feelings. We know from a vast body of research that racism can have serious health effects. The stress of being on the receiving end of racism, such as racial abuse, can trigger physiological symptoms such as fear in the gut, rapid pulse rate, difficulty in breathing. Repeated exposure to it can undoubtedly contribute to conditions such as hypertension, nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder, even psychosis and suicide.

The harm of racism can also be more insidious. By this, I mean it can harm not only people’s health through medical stress or conditions, but also harm people’s very sense of self. In some ways, it is a deeper harm – going to the very core of who someone is.

Let me explain what I mean by this. In a modern society, our sense of our worth and dignity as a person, isn’t formed in a vacuum. Rather, it is shaped by its recognition by those around us. Where society mirrors back to someone a demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves, this can inflict profound damage – reinforcing in people’s mind a sense that they don’t belong, or are second-class.

Again, the psychological harms caused by racism are well documented. As described by one study of race during the 1940s, a rebuff due to one’s colour puts the victim ‘in very much the situation of the very ugly person or one suffering from a loathsome disease’. Those on the receiving end of abuse can feel more than just anger or indignation; there is also humiliation, self-reproach, even self-loathing. Victims of racism, no matter how much they resist it, can themselves begin to absorb messages of hate and inferiority.

Yet what exactly do we mean by racism?

This is one question we don’t always ask, let alone answer. All too often in conversations about racism, people speak at cross-purposes. What one person means by racism isn’t necessarily shared by another. In particular, many set the bar of racism rather high. If we are talking about racism, we are talking about the kind of extremism you see from white supremacists or nationalists.

This is what I call a dictionary definition view of racism. In the minds of many people, racism is only racism when it involves a belief in the superiority of one race over others. Something is only really racist if it involves an expression or outburst of some kind. Nasty racial vilification, physical racial violence, the Ku Klux Klan: this is what racism looks like. Anything short of that severity isn’t ‘truly’ or ‘really’ racism.

This helps explain one curious feature of Australian public debate. Within media coverage of race issues, people often ask the question, ‘Is Australia a racist country?’ Whenever there is a major public controversy or incident, people pose the question. For some, any suggestion that racism exists in Australia is taken as a grave insult – in part because racism is defined in such a way, as to involve a bar set by the activity of white supremacists and white nationalists.

However, what if we weren’t to define racism in this way? What if we were to recognise that racism may include conduct and attitudes that were less extreme?

In her recently published book, the British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge puts things in the following way:

If all racism was as easy to spot and denounce as white extremism is, the task of the anti-racist would be simple ... But racism thrives in places where those in charge do not align themselves with white extremist politics. The problem must run deeper.

We tell ourselves that good people can’t be racist. We seem to think that true racism only exists in the hearts of evil people. We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power. When a large proportion of the population votes for politicians and political efforts that explicitly use racism as a campaigning tool, we tell ourselves that such huge sections of the electorate simply cannot be racist, as that would render them heartless monsters. But this isn’t about good and bad people.

Not reducing racism to a matter of good and bad people – racists bad, non-racists good – would mean a few things.

It would, first of all, mean that people weren’t caught up in focusing only on intentions. Too often, people can either excuse or justify an act or a state of affairs, by explaining away that there was no malice involved. People can forget that racism is as much about impact as it is about intent. Just because someone didn’t have evil in their heart doesn’t mean that another person wasn’t harmed by a racist act or a racist belief.

Second, it would mean that we would then be able to see that, in addition to extremist racism, there can be structural racism. This is a more banal form of racism. One that can appear with the face of respectability. One that needn’t involve physical violence or threatening abuse. One that can be perpetrated with a smiling face rather than with a nasty snarl.

As Eddo-Lodge explains, structural racism ‘is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organisation, and acting accordingly’. What is structural is often what goes unnoticed: ‘the silently raised eyebrows, the implicit biases, snap judgments made on assumptions of competency’. Structural racism needn’t involve people signing up to racist beliefs. Prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness or indifference can be enough to add up to disadvantage those who may be different from the majority.

I have focused on structural racism, as I believe it is one aspect of racism people don’t always recognise. If we are talking about the psychological harms that accrue from the experience of racism, it doesn’t require an incident of overt racist abuse or violence for harm to be done.

And it doesn’t always require a significant traumatic act. Sometimes the harm is done slowly, over time. It can be the product of cumulative acts, or the cumulative weight of attitudes. It can come from the anxiety of being excluded, or from the powerlessness of not being able to change the status quo. Those who have experienced racism will tell you it is as much about power as it is about morality.

The psychological causes of racism

There is another neglected aspect in discussions of race and mental health. For obvious reasons, we tend to focus on coming to grips with the experiences of certain communities – or only on the effects of racism on certain communities. Yet we must also seek to understand the full psychological contours of racism. As much as we need to understand the impact of racism on those on the receiving end, we need to understand the causes of racism.

So far, I’ve said that racism can be structural – that it is implicated in power. This is to view the question of race at the level of society; it is to take a big picture view. Now I want to look at racism more closely at the individual level, and flesh out its psychological character.

Namely, what is it that causes someone to act in ways that involve racial discrimination? What is it that causes someone to hold racial prejudices?

I’m often asked these questions, and often sense that people desire to get to the root of the cause. It’s natural that we seek a clear answer. To many people’s disappointment, there is in fact no simple or single answer. Because it depends. Racism can sometimes be the product of hate and fear. But it can also be the product of ignorance and arrogance. It can be sometimes malicious, yet it can be sometimes innocent.

How we explain some forms of racism can also be revealing – in particular of how questions of mental health shape our discussions of racism. Consider, for example, incidents of racial abuse that are captured on camera. This has become something of a genre of racism in our society today. There are countless examples of people vilifying or threatening others on public transport or in public places. Most recently, there was one woman who unleashed an extended anti-Asian tirade on a Sydney train, whose mental health quickly became the subject of speculation and commentary.

Or consider the recent incident in north London, where a man, driven by his hatred of Muslims, drove a van into people outside a mosque while they were praying. The immediate media coverage in Britain was quick to highlight that the perpetrator was believed to be suffering from mental illness.

It is curious how quickly some incidents involving racism or bigotry can be framed in terms of mental health. Where there is nasty behaviour or when there are violent threats, the focus of commentary about the incident can turn to whether the perpetrator of racism or bigotry is suffering from mental illness. This isn’t to deny for a moment that some perpetrators of racism suffer from mental health issues. Where this is the case, it may be appropriate that attention is paid to the full context of the situation.

But there can also be times when the focus of attention can shift, in a troubling way, from the victim of racist abuse or bigoted violence to the perpetrator of the abuse or violence. Sympathy can become distributed from the victim to the perpetrator. What we often forget is how this leaves the victim of racism. There is often a fine line between recognising that mental illness may have been a factor in an incident, and excusing an act of racism or bigotry because of mental health issues.

Let me turn now to the questions I posed about the causes of racism.

In extreme cases, racism can be connected to an individual exhibiting a form of psychological pathology. Social research going back to the 1920s has identified prejudice as a form of psychopathology. Within the literature of medical research more specifically, it has been recognised for many decades that some racist individuals may suffer ‘from a psychopathological defect of developmental processes involving narcissism’.

Psychiatrists have even noted similarities between some racist individuals and criminal sociopaths. According to Dr Carl C. Bell, an American psychiatrist writing in the (American) Journal of the National Medical Association, there were clear similarities in the way racist individuals dehumanised others in their own mind and in the way they were possessed by self-righteousness.

The racists treated by this writer all had similar histories, as in fact their major motivation for seeking treatment revolved around frustration tolerance and impulse control … I have never seen a racist who did not have serious difficulties with respect for the supposed inferior’s territoriality. This lack of respect does not always imply violence but it does imply a violation of basic human rights, which implies a level of grandiosity, lack of self-boundaries, and dehumanisation which is theoretically and clinically characteristic of the narcissistic personality disorder.

Of course, such extreme pathological forms of racism are not representative of the causes of racism. Pathological disorder is not the only cause of racism. Racist attitudes and beliefs – for instance, racial biases and prejudices – can exist even when people have normal cognitive and psychological processes. Most manifestations of racism exist within the domain of the normal.

There can in fact be a paradox in contemporary racism. Racism can be practised or expressed even by those who profess to reject racism. It is the case that many people support principles of racial equality and genuinely believe themselves not to be racially prejudiced, but yet possess conflicting feelings and beliefs about other racial groups. This is rooted not in psychopathology, but in basic psychological processes.

This is because we all rely on social categorisations. We all act on implicit prejudices and stereotypes. It is just that we’re not always or fully aware of having implicit prejudices. We’re not always or fully aware of how we can be biased in our decision-making. Or perhaps we’re not always willing to admit that we can be biased – to admit that we have biases that stem from ignorance or absorbing some negative stereotypes about others.

Social psychologists have tested some of this in recent years. They have found that a significant number of people endorse egalitarian values consistent with racial equality, but harbour implicit racial biases. For example, American psychologists have found that most white Americans explicitly reject negative stereotypes of blacks. However, they found that white Americans implicitly adhere to stereotypes of whites as intelligent, successful and educated, and of blacks as aggressive, impulsive and lazy.

Which brings me to one sobering challenge in countering racism today. In some respects, combating extreme forms of racism is an easy task: you know who the culprits are; there is widespread agreement that what you’re combating is racist in nature. In the case of more subtle forms of racism, the job isn’t so easy.

It’s harder, much harder, because racism doesn’t reveal itself so openly. People know that it’s no longer acceptable to engage in racial discrimination when it would be obvious to themselves and to others. However, in those ambiguous scenarios where one’s actions can be justified or rationalised by a reason other than race, you have the conditions for subtle and covert racism to flourish. Under these conditions, people can engage in behaviour that harms others, but in ways that allow them to maintain a self-image of being colour-blind or non-racist.


I have only touched upon the mental health of those who experience racism. To be sure, any conversation about multicultural mental health implicates some attention to the experience of racial discrimination. While not every migrant or every member of a multicultural community experiences racism, very many do.

According to the Scanlon Foundation’s social cohesion survey, it is estimated that about 20 per cent of people have experienced racial or religious discrimination during the past twelve months. But that figure is higher for those from non-English speaking backgrounds. In his most recent survey study on the incidence of racism, Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University (the author of the Scanlon Foundation reports) found that there were especially high rates experienced by those from African backgrounds.

There are also many places where discrimination occurs. The most common places are the neighbourhood, shopping centres and in the workplace. While some experiences of discrimination may involve verbal abuse or other forms of exclusion, it may also involve material consequences. This is the case, for instance, in employment. Studies involving de-identified resumes have shown that those from non-Anglo backgrounds may find it more difficult to secure employment compared to those from Anglo backgrounds.

How people respond to racism varies. Some confront racism and seek to hold it to account. But that is perhaps true only in the minority of cases. More often than not, people try their best to brush racism aside, or try to pick their fights carefully. It may be more trouble than it’s worth to fight each and every time you encounter racism. And for those who are migrants trying to make their way in Australia, there mightn’t be enough time or energy left to fight racism when you’re busy fighting to establish yourself and your family in a new country. This is to say nothing of those with difficult histories in their native lands who are busy trying to fight other demons.

Here, I want to reflect on the idea of resilience. It has become fashionable of late to speak of resilience. I hear it used frequently with respect to social cohesion – where people speak of building more resilience communities and cities – and I know it is used as well in discussions of mental health.

Among those who have reflected on racism and mental health, resilience also features. Some observe how those who experience racism can often exhibit a deep resilience. The experience of racism can turn people inwards. If they experience discrimination in the outside world, and if they cannot escape injustice in the outside world, then a person can always find freedom and justice in their interior life. This inward turn can be an empowering thing. People can develop empathy, integrity, wisdom and humour from what might otherwise be disempowering experiences.

There is a clear danger in celebrating the idea of resilience. For it only requires a short leap to have the idea of resilience used to demand that those on the receiving end of racism deal with the problem of racism themselves. That they just accept that racism will always exist and suck it up. That they shouldn’t get worked up about it, or even call it out, because they’d be better off using it to motivate themselves to find freedom and justice inside their souls.

If this is what resilience implies, we should reject it. It would be a perverse result for us to conclude that people’s wellbeing, when they experience unjust treatment or vilification, is best served by them turning the other cheek. A good, decent and just society does not give licence to those who take pleasure in inflicting humiliation on to others. It does not condone or endorse sadistic pleasure.

And yet there is every sign that our society is becoming more sadistic, or at least has more opportunities to unleash its sadistic excess. Racism today can be readily expressed through social media, and with the benefit of anonymity. Online trolls on Twitter revel in hurling racist abuse at targets. Facebook has become a cesspool of bigotry and racism. Social media has become a breeding ground of hate. The example of some political leaders – most notably, Donald Trump – has only served to embolden extremists to claim the electronic public sphere as their free propaganda arm.

Just this week, we have seen a good example of where this culture of sadistic ‘debate’ can lead. Following the news that media personality Yassmin Abdel-Magied was moving to London, Yahoo 7 even began running a poll online about whether people supported her moving or whether she should stay and face her critics. It was unedifying stuff, serving only to invite further nastiness against Abdel-Magied, a young, outspoken and opinionated Muslim woman. People may have disagreed with Abdel-Magied but some of the vitriol directed at her had a clear racial tinge.

These developments have reflected, in part, attempts to re-open ideological culture wars. On matters of race, we hear constantly about so-called political correctness running riot, or of cultural Marxism taking over public institutions. Some commentators complain about society being mollycoddled or of minorities having protections against hurt feelings. They complain about there not being enough freedom of speech to racially insult or offend others. And they complain when people are called out on racism. They complain about people encouraging a ‘victim mentality’ or for ‘playing the victim’. Often you get the impression it is a graver offence to speak out against racism than it is to perpetrate racism.

If we are to prescribe resilience, then, perhaps we are looking at the wrong place. Maybe it’s society that needs to become more resilient – more resilient against attempts to sweep racism under the carpet, and against attempts to silence those that dare speak out on behalf of those who experience it.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner