“Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.”
In 2016, Will Smith made this statement on a US talk show. After the death of African-American George Floyd in the United States last week, the clip, and the sentiment behind it, has been circulating widely.
George’s death sparked global protests over racism and police brutality — and Will’s words have resonated with many Aboriginal Australians across the country.
University of Western Australia professor, psychologist and proud Bardi woman, Pat Dudgeon, agrees.
“There are very few Aboriginal people who wouldn’t have suffered racism,” she says.
It’s often discussed as a social issue, but a growing body of evidence suggests it’s detrimental to the mental health of Aboriginal people.
Most Australians tested for unconscious bias hold a negative view of Indigenous Australians which can lead to widespread racism, new analysis from The Australian National University (ANU) shows.
People’s bias is regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, occupation, religion, education level, geography or political leanings, according to the findings.
The ANU researchers say 75 per cent of Australians tested using the Implicit Association Test by a joint initiative of universities including Harvard, Yale and the University of Sydney hold a negative implicit or unconscious bias against Indigenous Australians.
Their findings are published in the Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues.
The researchers analysed the “implicit bias” of over 11,000 Australian participants over a 10-year period, and how this can lead to racist attitudes or behaviour.
“The results are shocking, but not surprising,” said Australian report author
Mr Siddharth Shirodkar, a PhD researcher based in the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences.
“These results show there may be an implicit negative bias against Indigenous Australians across the board, which is likely the cause of the racism that many First Australians experience.
“It is the first data of its kind for Australia and this evidence shows implicit or unconscious bias toward our first Australians is not imagined.
“This study presents stark evidence of the solid invisible barrier that Indigenous people face in society.
“But the data is actually not about Indigenous Australians, it’s about the rest of us.”
The results show it is likely that many people who hold these views have no awareness of their prejudice.
“As it is often unconscious, implicit bias can seep seamlessly into the everyday decisions at all levels of society,” said Mr Shirodkar.
“If you implicitly see Indigenous people in a negative light then that is going to affect all of your interactions and dealings with Indigenous people. We can only imagine the impact of that collective negativity on outcomes for Indigenous Australians.”
The test measured how quickly participants paired positive and negative words with historical images of Indigenous and Caucasian Australians.
Regardless of their occupations or levels of education, on average people displayed a negative bias against Indigenous faces. The same was found for people from all religions, as well as people who do not identify as being part of any religion.
Almost all ethnicities on average displayed bias against Indigenous Australians but people who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander were statistically unbiased toward either group.
“It suggests Indigenous Australians are likely to be in the best position to make unbiased decisions about other Indigenous people,” said Mr Shirodkar.
Australian male participants showed a higher negative bias than females and people with all levels of education were guilty of bias.
Western Australian and Queensland participants recorded the highest average scores for bias. Participants from the Northern Territory and the ACT recorded the lowest average levels of bias in the country.
As the test is online and free for anyone to undertake, researchers say it is more likely to draw in people who want to prove their lack of bias.
“The results may therefore under-report the extent of implicit bias in Australia,” Mr Shirodkar said.
Anyone can take the Australian Implicit Association test from the follow link
Part 2 How does racism impact on mental wellbeing?
What form can racism take?
Yin Paradies is a professor and chair in race relations at Melbourne’s Deakin University.
He defines racism as the unfair and avoidable disparities in power, resources, capacities, or opportunities centred on ethnic, racial, religious or cultural differences.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) says that “racism is more than just words, beliefs and actions. It includes all the barriers that prevent people from enjoying dignity and equality because of their race”.
“It’s a form of exclusion and it impacts on people in that way and the stress of it affects mental health directly,” Professor Paradies says.
“If you can’t get a job, or if you can’t get work, or you’re not getting as much out of your education because of discrimination … [these] really have an impact on your health and wellbeing.”
The disadvantage accrues across all spheres of life over time.
The psychological impact
Professor Paradies’ work looks closely at the impact of racism on health.
His findings show that if you experience racial discrimination you’re:
- More likely to experience emotional and behavioural difficulties and suicidal thoughts;
- Less likely to participate in healthy activities like social sports and even sleep;
- More likely to increase the use of drugs and alcohol, either directly to cope with stress, or indirectly because of reduced ‘self-regulation’ — “Kind of like when making poor food choices when you’re stressed or tired,” Professor Paradies says.
Long-term impacts of trauma
“If they had iPhones in 1788, there’d be riots here too,” says Rulla Kelly-Mansell, a proud Tulampunga Pakana man and a mental health advocate.
For Rulla, the events unfolding in the US have brought to the surface some of the issues Aboriginal people face on a daily basis.
He says a lot of the problems Aboriginal people face day to day aren’t things you can see.
Aboriginal people are still dealing with the trauma of past generations and the side effects of those traumas.
This can include poor health, high rates of mental illness and family breakdowns. He says this puts many Aboriginal people at a disadvantage.
“As a young man that manifested in anger.”
Research suggests those who experience trauma are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours, develop lifestyle diseases and enter and remain in the criminal justice system.
Suicide rates for Indigenous Australians aged 15-34 are more than double the general population, despite being less than 3.3 per cent of the population.
The most recent figures show almost one in three Indigenous adults report high levels of psychological distress.
Marlene Longbottom, a Yuin woman and an Aboriginal postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Wollongong, expresses what this time might mean for Indigenous Australians, moving forward with mental health.
“The current time is an opportunity for us to say, ‘Seeking help is a good thing’,” Dr Longbottom says.
“We need to destigmatise [and say] going to a counsellor or getting support is OK, and the healthy thing to do.
“It’s important that our communities know there are people who will listen.”
Where can Indigenous Australians turn to for support?
- National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO): Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and Aboriginal Medical Services in each state and territory;
- Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (OATSIH): Comprehensive list of Aboriginal health services in each state and territory;
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet: Information about Indigenous health, including detailed overviews of specific health topics;
- Counselling Online: Free online counselling service where you can communicate with a professional counsellor about your own alcohol and drug use, or if you are concerned about a family member, relative or friend.
Click here to see Beyond Blue’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Health Services by state.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- QLife on 1800 184 527