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Shame on Facebook, but let’s not forget that racism is a wider public health problem

As of this moment, more than 10,000 people have signed this petition calling on Facebook to take down the racist attack on Indigenous Australians that is in the news. And more than 16,000 people have signed this one.

I wonder how many people from the health sector signed the petitions?

In the article below, Dr Tim Senior, a GP who works in Aboriginal health, argues that the health sector needs to step up to the plate in tackling racism. It is a public health issue well beyond the pages of Facebook.

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Why Facebook should Unlike racism and the health sector needs to step up to the plate on racism

Dr Tim Senior writes:

Yesterday, news broke of a Facebook page called Aboriginal Memes, containing offensive stereotyping of Aboriginal people. Apparently, Facebook took the page down briefly, before reposting it with an addition to the title: “Controversial humour.”

I have had a look at the site, and I didn’t find any humour. I have written and performed comedy in a previous life, and my sense of humour hasn’t deserted me.

There was none there – just offensive racial vilification that made me feel sick. Humour doesn’t throw stones down from powerful to powerless – it throws rocks back up!

As of this morning, it looks like the original pages may have been taken down, but that the site appears to be back up, under a slightly different  name (which I’ve reported to Facebook).

Clearly, this is racist material. People who know better than I, say this breaks the law, not to mention Facebook’s own community standards.

However, there will be many who say, that while they disagree profoundly with what is said, they believe that this is an issue of free speech.

If, for just a moment, we allow that as an argument, it does not follow that free speech means that your ideas aren’t challenged. If you are really going to make the free speech argument about offensive material such as this, then you also have to allow free speech to those vigorously opposed.

But what if the law were changed, so this wasn’t illegal, as Tony Abbott has suggested he might do. What if Facebook changed their community standards to allow for any sort of speech (except the depiction of breast feeding of course!)

Would there be any reason, then, to ask for the site to be removed? Is there any particular role of health professionals and health policy advocates? I believe there is.

It is already well established in tobacco control, seatbelt wearing and drink driving that the freedom to do something can be restricted by the excess risks this puts on people’s health.

Significantly, with all of these, the decision of one individual affects the health of others, through passive smoking (especially in children), and through traffic accidents to others.

The case is also being made convincingly in the availability of junk food (or “edible food like substances” as Michael Pollan correctly calls them). There is the start of a case being made for the health issues involved in man-made climate disruption, and in the health effects of inequality.

Which brings us to racism. There is a clear effect of the experience of racism on health. Some examples, quoted by Dr Angela Durey, who has researched the health effects of racism:

  • Those who experience racist verbal abuse are 50% more likely to report their health being fair or poor than those who haven’t experienced it.
  • Those who believed that most employers were racist were 40% more likely to report their health was fair or poor.
  • A US systematic review reported an inverse correlation of racial discrimination with physical and mental health
  • Experiences of Maori people in New Zealand with verbal or physical abuse or unfair treatment in health, employment or housing resulted in a wide range of worse physical and mental health – including higher smoking rates.

On an individual level, I know people who hate going to hospital because of their experiences, who won’t go to the police if they have trouble because of their experience of racism from police officers. Many people will have their own stories.

When we talk about Aboriginal health, we often talk as if the problem is “Being Aboriginal” but in reality, “Being Aboriginal” is a marker for having experienced racism, discrimination and colonisation.

Experiencing racism is a cause of so many of the health problems we keep describing, including lifestyle risks factors.

It seems clear that the experience of racism is a cause of ill health, and so working to eradicate racism is something we should do as a public health measure.

It’s also not enough to say that people can avoid experiencing racism by not visiting the website. This assumes that those contributing to the website and those visiting “just for a laugh” do not exist outside Facebook, that at work,or with friends, none of these attitudes come into play.

It assumes that an Aboriginal person can read that someone contributing to this website works for Consumer Affairs Victoria, Centrelink, an insurance company, a catering company, and believe that they will be treated fairly when they get there.

Those contributing to this group and reading it are reinforced in their beliefs that it is OK to talk like this, that it’s all just a bit of a laugh. But in the same way that drink driving harms other people, racism harms other people. It’s not OK, and that needs to be made clear.

What is the way forward? A first step has been taken – Facebook seems to have taken some action. But we need to remain vigilant, as others will pop up.

We should compare providing these pages to making someone work in a smoke filled room or lending the drunk driver your car keys.

Tweet your displeasure, post your disagreement to Facebook. We could all leave Facebook if the site if they persist in being slow to remove unhealthy racist material and quick to remove healthy breast feeding material.

We should follow with interest the investigations by ACMA and the Human Rights Commission.

We can challenge racism wherever you see it – All Together Now campaign well on this, and you can support them here.

And finally, as Durey says, we need to turn the lens on ourselves – “white privilege is an invisible package of unearned assets” that we seldom examine, or as John Scalzi imaginatively puts it “The lowest difficulty setting there is.

This is not about white guilt or self flagellation. This is recognising that we are stood at the top of a cliff, not at the end of a level playing field.

How are we constructing our health services? What is the experience of Aboriginal people using them?

The answers won’t usually be as dramatic as those Facebook pages, but they may be just as damaging.

To do this, however, we need to listen more closely to the Aboriginal voices out there. For they are telling us about their experiences if we care to listen.

Declaration: Tim Senior has represented the RACGP at the Close the Gap Steering Committee and works for the Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation.Though the organisations I work for would not disagree with these statements, they may not express it in these terms. These are personal opinions and not the official position of any organisations I work for.

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Previous Croakey articles by Tim Senior

• Why do I work in Aboriginal health?

Is the media juggernaut sidelining good policy in Indigenous affairs? 

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  • 1
    Jennifer Doggett
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Hear, hear. If we are serious about improving Aboriginal health we need to do much more to combat racism everywhere. How about a campaign to replace every racist image on Facebook with a picture of a woman breastfeeding?

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