In the last few weeks, I’ve been told of several incidents of racism in Canberra, experienced or witnessed by friends and family members in environments where they should feel safe and included.
One incident happened during a sporting match where a man was called an incredibly racist slur by an opposing team member. In another, my sister was subjected to racism by a complete stranger who entered her workplace (which is open to the public), approached her and made multiple racist comments about her Indian heritage – unprompted and entirely at random.
I have also recently experienced racism from a stranger in a public setting (in a cafe, and again, after being approached without any prompt from me).
It’s made me question whether we’re doing enough to actively prevent racism in our community.
Is it time for a community awareness campaign to call out and address racism, and reinforce our shared principles of inclusion and diversity? Do we need to be proactive in promoting multiculturalism in an ongoing sense, not just once a year during Harmony Week?
Australia does pretty well when it comes to behavioural change campaigns – I can still remember the lessons I learned through government-led campaigns as a kid about not drink driving, not littering, anti-binge drinking, and denouncing violence against women, as some examples.
But it’s been a while since I’ve seen an active and public campaign around multiculturalism and calling out racist attitudes.
I feel like we showcase diversity effectively in terms of media representation these days, but sometimes promoting the positives of cultural inclusion doesn’t go far enough when it comes to deterring the negative behaviours of some.
And unfortunately, when racist incidents do occur in public, the majority of the people who witness them are so shocked and baffled by the behaviour they don’t feel capable of reacting. I know that when I’ve had a racist incident while with friends, often they’re so thrown by the experience they can’t react in time (and neither do I – half the time I don’t even manage to respond before the person has left).
Perhaps having more ongoing and regular communication across our public channels that reinforces bystander behaviour and calls out racist attitudes would help people feel more equipped to deal with these issues when they do occur.
Canberra is generally a very inclusive community. When my family moved here from country NSW in the late 90s, there was an immediate and marked difference in how we experienced inclusion at work, school and in the community.
I was used to being ostracised and bullied at school as one of the only non-white kids there. In Canberra, I was suddenly just one of many culturally diverse kids at school and my heritage was celebrated through school activities that actively promoted multiculturalism and valued the rich wealth of experience students could bring to the classroom.
But having such an overwhelming majority of people exhibit welcoming, inclusive and ethical attitudes to race can be a double-edged sword because it means that there is less impulsion to address the minority who are still anti-social and racist in their attitudes. It can feel like such a small group of people it’s not worth spending time on, but that doesn’t change the fact that for people of colour who experience racism, it feels absolutely terrible and has an ongoing impact on our mental health and wellbeing.
The fact is that racist attitudes flourish in times of unrest or uncertainty, and we’ve certainly had a lot of that recently. Anecdotally, it does feel like there have been more experiences with openly racist people recently among my own networks.
We will never be able to completely prevent racist incidents from happening, but is it time for a renewed public awareness campaign that targets those behaviours?