For most Australians, hailing a cab is a fairly simple and ordinary task. But for First Nations people who find themselves repeatedly ignored or turned away, it is a stark reminder that race in Australia has yet to be transcended.
“Sometimes you just want a ride home in a cab without having your identity challenged or scrutinised,” said academic Chelsea Bond.
A Munanjahli researcher and Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, Dr Bond explains that cab drivers often refuse to take her home because she lives in an Indigenous neighbourhood.
“That’s a real encounter that we [Indigenous Australians] still never gain and one that infuriates me as someone who has met all the requirements of being a good citizen.”
Experiences like this are not uncommon as new research showed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still face widespread racism from other Australians.
Commissioned by beyondblue, the survey found that one in five Australians (21%) would move away if an Indigenous person sat nearby, while the same percentage would keep an eye on an Indigenous person if they were shopping.
The findings also suggest there is a strong link between ‘subtle’ racism and poorer mental health among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
“Australians are connoisseurs of racism, we like to describe it and name it, but oftentimes we name it in order to dilute its potency, not because we appreciate how it operates in different kinds of ways,” Dr Bond said.
“The emergence of this idea of ‘subtle’ racism or ‘casual’ racism is almost to kind of minimise its effect, to say that it’s not significant… but that stuff is really powerful because it features in everyday imaginings of us and it’s played out in ways that people don’t even question.”
A most harmful prejudice
Eight years after the launch of the Close the Gap campaign, Indigenous Australians remain twice as likely to die from suicide as non-Indigenous Australians, and are almost three times more likely to experience psychological distress.
“Racism, like any form of discrimination, leads to distress, which in turn can lead to depression and anxiety,” said social worker Maree Rose.
“The feeling of rejection, the feeling of not being wanted, the feeling of being second-class citizens, all those negative attitudes have an impact.”
Ms Rose worked at the Department of Corrective Services for 19 years, where she would often look after Indigenous inmates. “There are a lot of myths about Indigenous people – that they are lazy, that they are no good – but until you start working with them and you hear their story, it’s quite different.”
“See, a lot of ‘white’ Australians have a lot of opinions about Indigenous people but they’ve never even spoken to one Indigenous person,” she said.
“There’s something wrong when people feel like they have to oppress someone that is different to them – that’s the mental illness, not our experience of that encounter.” Chelsea Bond
The survey of more than 1,000 non-Indigenous Australians shows nearly half (42%) believe Indigenous Australians are given unfair advantages by government, more than a third (37%) believe they are lazy and almost one third (31%) believe they should behave more like ‘other Australians’.
Dr Bond said it is hard to escape these racial ‘imaginings’ through which non-Indigenous Australians have come to know First Nations people. Even as a well-established academic, her presence in a lecture theatre can be confronting for some students.
“They struggle with the fact that I’m both Aboriginal and an academic – that kind of does their head in because they’re not expecting to see an Aboriginal person in front of the lecture theatre, they expect to see them in other contexts.”
Empowering Indigenous Australians
The mother of five children, Dr Bond said she often thinks about how she can give her kids a healthy sense of self in a world in which their identity is seen as ‘problematic’.
“Racial socialization is the task that ‘black’ parents have in raising healthy ‘black’ children in a world that demonizes their ‘blackness’,” she said.
“I think about how I can prepare my children to encounter that without making them feel like their identity makes them a victim or dis-empowers them.”
“Education is everything and I think building relationships is the key because it teaches us tolerance and it teaches us understanding.” Maree Rose
Dr Bond said she sometimes has to shield her children from media that ‘re-victimises’ Indigenous people. Among them, she cites a Generation One campaign from 2010.
“Although it’s a great ad because it’s highlighting the inequalities that Indigenous people experience, it’s telling my children something about themselves that is actually harmful… people understand our race through that and it’s harmful for my children to grow up thinking that there’s something about their ancestry that inhibits their ability to access opportunities.”
She adds that although the underlying intentions of beyondblue‘s latest anti-discrimination campaign are altruistic, they portray Indigenous Australians as ‘passive’ victims.
“There’s something wrong when people feel like they have to oppress someone just because they are different to them – that’s the mental illness, not our experience of that encounter,” she said.
Ms Rose, who is now a counsellor at Carmel College, said she encourages Indigenous students to dispel the ‘myths’ about their heritage. “I try to empower them, to say you’ve got every right to be out there championing your causes as well as mine.”
But she said it is even more important for non-Indigenous Australians to interact with First Nations people and to become better informed in order to break the ‘cycle of oppression’.
“Education is everything and I think building relationships is the key because it teaches us tolerance and it teaches us understanding.”
She believes Indigenous Australians should be given opportunities to have their stories heard by non-Indigenous Australians. Dr Bond echoes this view.
“I think Indigenous people need to be contributing to the knowledge that is produced about us and speaking back – resisting – but also speaking up about our realities.”
She said the resilience and agency of Indigenous Australians is often lost in the public discourse that they are ‘soft’ and ‘cannot cope’.
“We’ve been raised to ‘suck it up’ all our lives, we’ve been armoured up to deal with racism… so the ‘race card’ is not actually a card we pull out like a get-out-of jail-free card, it often comes out when we’ve just had enough…”
“We’ve just had enough jumping through hoops, performing or smiling and turning the other cheek, or pulling our socks up and working ten times harder. So, sometimes, we call it and we say we’ve had enough of this because it’s wrong.”