Learn about racism | Racism. It Stops With Me

Learn about racism

What is racism?

Racism takes many forms and can happen in many places. It means treating someone poorly because of their skin colour, ethnicity or where they come from.

This could be harassment, abuse or humiliation – but it may not always involve violent or intimidating behaviour. Name-calling and hurtful jokes can be a form of racism, and so can excluding people from groups or activities.

Racism can take place in many situations. It can happen in a public space, like on the sports field or at work. It could also be online, or something you see in the media.

Racism can be revealed through people’s attitudes, as well as their words or actions. It can also be reflected in systems and institutions. But sometimes it may not be visible at all. Not all racism is obvious. For example, someone may look through a list of job applicants and decide not to interview those with certain surnames.

Racism includes all the barriers that prevent people from enjoying dignity and equality because of their race.

Check out these fact sheets to learn more about racism:
Fact sheet for younger students
Fact sheet for older students

Where does racism happen?

Racism can happen just about anywhere.

It is most frequently experienced in public places such as a person’s neighbourhood, at the shops, or in the workplace. It is also commonly experienced on public transport, at sporting events or in schools[1].

Expressions of racism can also be found in media. This happens when, for example, racial groups are represented in an unfair or negative light in news reports commentary, or in entertainment programs. Many people regard the lack of cultural diversity in media organisations and on television, radio and in film as another form of racism.

In recent years, racism has become a particular problem online. This includes offensive comments on social media, and inflammatory memes or hateful videos shared online. Cyber-racism has contributed to the growth of racist attitudes[2], and people spreading racist messages often do so on the internet with the benefit of anonymity.

[1] Kathleen Blair et al, Challenging Racism Project 2015-16 National Survey Report (2017) p10.
[2]Online Hate Prevention Institute. Hate and Violent Extremism from an Online Subculture (2019) pii.

Who experiences racism?

Many people experience racist behaviour.

Surveys by the Challenging Racism Project and Scanlon Foundation show that approximately 20 per cent of Australians experience racism, and about 5 per cent have been physically attacked because of their race[1].

Some groups experience racism more than others.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians report higher levels of racism. So do migrants and refugees. Those who have recently arrived in Australia, or who come from non-English speaking backgrounds, report particularly high levels of racism[2].

Media reports and commentary that use negative stereotypes about refugees and migrants can fuel prejudice against these groups in the wider community. These attitudes can make it difficult for new arrivals to find housing and jobs, and to feel connected to their communities[3].

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and those from culturally diverse backgrounds, may also have to deal with systemic forms of discrimination. For many Indigenous people, systemic racism is bound up in historical disadvantage and mistreatment. Practices like removing Indigenous children from their families have caused huge amounts of hurt and pain for individuals, families and communities. This shows up in many different ways, such as poor health, high rates of mental illness and family breakdown.

[1] Andrew Markus, Mapping Social Cohesion: The Scanlon Foundation surveys 2018 (2018) p67
[2] Kathleen Blair et al, Challenging Racism Project 2015-16 National Survey Report (2017) p13.
[3] Australian Human Rights Commission, https://humanrights.gov.au/who-experiences-racism

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is an attitude towards a person, or a group of people, which we may not even aware of.

It can be a favourable attitude, where we form positive impressions based on someone’s skin colour, surname or where they come from. Or it can be unfavourable, with negative impressions.

Unconscious bias is sometimes called a hidden bias because it’s hard to detect, even in ourselves, but most people do hold some bias of one kind or another.

Researchers at Harvard University developed a method to help detect unconscious bias. It’s called the Implicit Association Test, and it’s available for anyone to take online.

Unconscious bias can lead to unfair outcomes for some people if it’s not addressed, particularly when it appears in organisations like schools, sports teams or workplaces.

It can mean some people get preferential treatment compared to others. That’s why it’s important for organisations to have strategies in place that can address unconscious bias.  

Everyday Racism

Everyday racism reinforces negative stereotypes or prejudices about people based on their race, colour or ethnicity.

It’s often expressed through off-hand jokes or comments. For example, if someone makes a joke that pokes fun at a particular race, or makes an assumption about a person – for instance, that they must like a certain type of food because of their race.

Everyday racism does not always target a specific person. It’s often not even intended to cause any offence or harm. But the lack of intent doesn’t excuse it, because racism is about the impact it has on the people affected.

Everyday racism can have serious impacts on people, including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. It can even have physical impacts, like high blood pressure. It can fuel further prejudice and discrimination, and it can lead others to form unfavourable impressions of those who make offensive jokes or comments.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t make jokes – having a sense of humour is important! But we are all accountable for the things we say or do, and this means we must exercise judgment, show empathy, and think first about the impact our words may have.

Systemic Racism

Systemic racism is when the policies and practices of institutions result in unfair treatment of some groups compared to others. Like everyday racism, systemic racism does not necessarily target a particular person.

With systemic racism, systems of education, government and the media celebrate and reward some cultures over others. It appears in two main ways:

  • Institutional racism:
    This is when racism is established as a normal behaviour within an organisation or society. It often results in discrimination by people who are doing jobs that others have given to them. For example, police are sometimes criticised for racial profiling, and police agencies now make efforts to eliminate institutional racism. 
  • Structural racism:
    This refers to inequalities found in societies that tend to exclude some groups of people. For example, when certain groups are under-represented in fields like the media, the legal profession, or politics, it can lead to inequalities in other areas too.

When applying for a job, names can influence employment opportunities. A 2011 report on a university field experiment found that job candidates were more likely to get an interview when they anglicised their names.

Systemic racism also shows itself in who is disproportionately impacted by our justice system. In Australia, Indigenous people make up 2% of the total population, but 28% of the adult prison population. This is largely a result of racial inequalities that include socio-economic disadvantage and police practices, among other factors.[1]


 [1] AL Booth, A Leigh, E Varganova (2012) Does ethnic discrimination vary across minority groups? Evidence from a field experiment, Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, http://andrewleigh.org//pdf/AuditDiscrimination.pdf


Privilege is defined as a special right, advantage, or protection, which is only available to some people, or groups of people.

In the context of race relations, Peggy McIntosh’s ground breaking 1988 essay ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ identified privilege as an invisible force that needs to be acknowledged.

It recognised that having privilege does not mean you have had an easy life. Nor does it mean you haven’t had to work hard for your achievements: it just means your skin colour or ethnic background was not one of the barriers you had to overcome.

Specific examples of how privilege plays out in our society include:

  • Turning on the television and seeing people of your race widely represented.
  • Moving through life without being racially profiled or unfairly stereotyped.
  • Walking into a store and finding that the main displays of shampoo and band aids cater to your hair type and skin tone.
  • Not needing to prove you are part of the organisational culture of your workplace.

There are many forms of privilege including race, sex, ability, and socioeconomic status. Acknowledging privilege is about recognising that the systems and institutions of our society are designed from the perspectives of those from certain groups, and not others.

Why are people racist?

People aren’t born with racist ideas or opinions. Racism is learned.

Racist attitudes are sometimes related to fear and anxiety. Some people worry that other groups pose a threat, whether to community safety or national identity.

Racism can also relate to people feeling like they need to belong or identify with their own group. People sometimes express racism as a way of differentiating or excluding others. 

Ignorance can also play a part in feeding people’s attitudes about race. Often, as people learn more about other racial or cultural groups, their ideas begin to change.

Racism isn’t always malicious. Sometimes the harm of racism can be done innocently, because a person does not realise the impact their words or actions may have.

There are still a small minority of people who believe that some races are superior to others. Most people in Australia today accept the diversity of our society, but some believe racial groups should not mix. A belief in racial superiority or purity can lead to racial hatred.

What does the law say?

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes racial discrimination and racial hatred unlawful in public places.

It protects everyone in Australia from discrimination based on race and guarantees that everyone enjoys equality before the law, regardless of their racial background. Areas where racial discrimination is specifically unlawful include:

  • access to places and facilities;
  • land, housing and accommodation;
  • the provision of goods and services;
  • joining a trade union;
  • employment; and
  • advertisements.

The Racial Discrimination Act also makes it unlawful to do an act that is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person or group because of their race. Examples of racial hatred include:

  • racially offensive material on the internet;
  • racially offensive comments or images in a newspaper;
  • racially offensive comments in a public place; and
  • racially offensive speeches at a public rally.

The Racial Discrimination Act does, however, protect freedom of expression that relates to public discussion, artistic work, fair comment and reporting – provided it is done reasonably and in good faith.

See further information about the Racial Discrimination Act.