Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Jokes, off-handed comments, excluding co-workers from chats around the water cooler and other forms of casual racism must be challenged.
Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane issued the plea when he delivered the annual Peace and Understanding Lecture at the University of Queensland.
“It is troubling that in some discussions or debates, the problem of racism is dismissed as a social issue that is exaggerated," he said in his first speech in Queensland since taking on the role.
“There are times when some will dismiss racism as a marginal social concern.
“It is helpful to take a look at the facts. The facts tell us this: racism does exist in Australian society."
Dr Soutphommasane cited the Challenging Racism Project that concluded about 20 per cent of Australians experienced forms of “race hate talk" such as racial slurs or verbal abuse.
About 11 per cent of Australians report they have been excluded from workplaces or social activities based on their racial background.
And more than one in 20 Australians say they have been physically attacked because of their race.
“But facts and figures don't tell the full story. For those who experience racial hatred and vilification it's not a numbers game," Dr Soutphommasane said.
He said prejudice and discrimination were barriers to fair treatment and equal opportunity, hampered an individual's freedom to participate in the community, could impair social cohesion, and affect the target's physical health and life expectancy.
“We also have economic reasons for believing that racism matters. When racism occurs, it can get in the way of participation and productivity. Our economy can suffer," he said.
“But we shouldn't forget the very human cost of racism."
Dr Soutphommasane said it was vitally important that Australians were not sheepish about calling out racism.
“Any vigilance on racism must extend into our everyday lives, not least our public spaces. During the past 12 months, we have seen many episodes of ugly racism on buses and trains, and on the sporting fields," he said.
The Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner issued a specific challenge, urging the audience to confront so-called “casual racism" which is at “the level of everyday life, in our families, our schools, our universities, our neighbourhoods, our clubs, our workplaces".
“Today, racism doesn't need to be violent or malicious to count as racism. In its contemporary form, racism is often more subtle than this. It is often something that people often dismiss or don't notice," he said.
“It may be a joke, an off-handed comment, or even who gets included in chats in the work kitchen or water cooler. And it concerns not so much a belief in the superiority of races – an idea that only an extreme fringe would these days endorse – but prejudice born of stereotypes rehearsed about someone's skin colour or ancestral background."
Dr Soutphommasane said there were still consequences if the acts of racism were unintentional or underpinned by ignorance.
“That is what is most important in any conversation that we now have about racism: it is as much about impact as it is about intention," he said.
“In those situations of casual racism, however, I want to ask: Is there something that we can do to start a conversation with a family member, a friend, a neighbour, a teammate, or a colleague? Can we quietly pull someone aside at the right moment and ask exactly what they mean when they said something?
“Doing things of these kinds isn't about lecturing others about their failings: it's about getting others to see things from a different perspective. How would they like it if they were subjected to the same belittling treatment? Or how would they like it if someone were to say similar things about their son or daughter or husband or wife?"