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Racism is a sensitive and challenging issue but one which needs to be addressed by all of us working within the health system if we are to ensure all people can have equal access to health care.  In this thoughtful analysis of casual and everyday racism, collaborators Daniel Reeders and Suzanne Nguyen discuss how experiences of everyday racism correlate with health over time in Aboriginal Australian and culturally diverse people in Victoria. They discuss strategies to address the health impact of discrimination and empower young people around their experiences of everyday racism. They write:

A recent piece by Dr Jacqueline Nelson and Dr Jessica Walton in The Conversation is headlined “Explainer: what is casual racism?”  We’ve been working together for about a year on an initiative led by Suzanne that is tentatively titled “Defining Everyday Racism Project” or DERP for short.  (See postscript for our bios.)

Our collaboration began on Twitter, where Suzanne was tweeting about her creative and online initiative The Two Chairs, which has toured around Australia inviting people to sit in the chairs and reflect on their understandings of race in Australia. While sitting on these chairs, one of the very first things we discussed was the difference between casual racism and everyday racism.

Casual racism is a cultural phenomenon that often manifests in jokes among culturally diverse friends.  Examples include Asian people joking about having chinky eyes, or calling Indian and Sri Lankan friends ‘curries’.  In a paradoxical way it signals a commitment to multiculturalism and anti-racism: it claims “I’m so cool with racial difference I can make this joke without being racist.”

Obviously, casual racism becomes problematic when White people try to get in on the joke, or begin sentences with “I’m not a racist, but…”  In the American popular cultural discourse on race, casual racism has also been called ‘hipster racism’, and White middle class college kids and creative professionals have been criticised for acts of cultural appropriation – wearing Native American beads, feathered head-dress, etc.  In this scenario it could be argued the implied power claim is quite different: it says “caring so deeply about race is daggy.”

In our definition, casual racism is quite different from everyday racism.

Everyday racism consists of experiences of commonplace interactions with people, services or systems that leave a non-White person feeling they have been racially judged or categorised in a covert or deniable way.

Our starting point for the discussion leading up to this definition was Derald Wing Sue’s work on Asian-Americans’ experience of racial microaggressions, which he defined as: brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults that potentially have harmful or unpleasant psychological impact on the target person or group (Sue et al, 2007).

Suzanne describes them as repetitive psychological ‘jabs’ that have an oppressive energy. The word experiences really matters.  It signals whose perspective matters most when talking about everyday racism – the people who experience it.

Everyday racism represents an evolutionary form of racism, one that has manifested under pressure from changing social norms that have made racism something most people want to deny practicing.

In an overtly racist act, the target is linked to a negative value judgment or stereotype; it is openly derogatory and demeaning.  As psychological research into stereotype threat (Steele and Aronson 1995) suggests, it doesn’t take many such experiences to start anticipating that others will judge you in the same way.  When subtle features of a situation suggest that racial categorisation is happening, people who experience racism suffer a performance hit on completing challenging tasks.  Steele and Aronson were looking at intellectual tasks but we could substitute that with talking to a relative stranger at a cocktail party and it’s still true.

Everyday racism builds on stereotype threat.  The act is practiced openly but the racism is covert – it has a cover story, an alibi, plausible deniability.  To use a metaphor popular during the Howard years, everyday racism is ‘dog-whistling’.  When someone is challenged on an act of everyday racism, they are able to say ‘you’re imagining it, you’re being oversensitive’.

In the work Daniel has done around challenging sexual racism in the gay community, his respondents said it was the constant self-questioning – ‘did that just happen… was it really racism?’ – that can do the most damage to their self-confidence and sense of wellbeing.

If you message ten people on a dating site and not one of them replies, your experience of everyday racism might lead you to wonder ‘am I just really ugly or is it because I’m Asian?’

In this modern form of racism it isn’t even necessarily to convey a derogatory racial association: merely signalling that racial categorisation is being applied is enough.  But many Australians, including people of colour, assume that it’s not ‘really’ racism unless a derogatory association is intentionally conveyed.

To help people understand and recognise everyday racism, Suzanne came up with the idea of illustrating seven common experiences of everyday racism based on her practice as a story collector and artist, and located them within the themes developed in Derald Wing Sue’s work.

For example, as an Asian person born in Australia, Suzanne is frequently asked ‘Where are you from?’  When you answer ‘Australia’, she says, the next question is often ‘No, where are you really from?’ Or you meet someone new and they don’t bother to learn to pronounce your name correctly.  In his work, Sue calls this the ‘Alien in Own Land’ type of microaggression.

As a culturally diverse person, if you object to this interaction, you might experience a second type, ‘Denial of racial reality’, being told ‘I’m not a racist, you’re being oversensitive’.

This is the second reason why it’s so important to focus on experience as the key to understanding everyday racism, rather than questions of intent.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s work on the anatomy of prejudices suggests there are many different kinds of racial prejudice and each one serves a different psychological purpose.

It’s the nature of unconscious motivations that we don’t admit them to ourselves — duh! — that’s why they’re called ‘unconscious’!  So there’s no point trying to use conscious intent determine whether some act or statement was racist.

Our message in this project to people who experience everyday racism is that you’re the experts–trust your judgment.

Common sense dictates that the experts in how White people behave towards non-White people in Australia are non-White people in Australia.  It might not be possible to determine if a single incident ‘was really racist’, but the overall pattern might be much clearer.

It’s the pattern that does the damage, too.  Research by Prof Yin Paradies and collaborators at Deakin University and VicHealth looked at how experiences of everyday racism correlate with health over time in Aboriginal Australian and culturally diverse people in Victoria.

The results make grim reading.  The more recent experiences of everyday racism people report, the more psychological distress they report, and this has well-established correlations with negative health outcomes like depression and anxiety, smoking, obesity, and lower screening..

Daniel’s work is grounded in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (WHO 1986), which emphasises the importance of engaging with communities to increase their control over the social determinants of their health.

Research shows community has a key role in work against racism – as a setting and support network enabling people to take action when they experience everyday racism.  For example, a study looked at how Asian gay men’s experiences of sexual racism correlated with their risks for HIV infection (Wilson & Yoshikawa, 2004).

The study found differences in health outcomes according to how people respond to experiences of discrimination.  Men who internalised the experience took more risks than men who ‘socialised’ the experience by challenging it or talking about it with friends and family.

This research points to the diversity among non-White people in terms of how they conceptualise and respond to racism in the societies they live in.  One of the big surprises for both Suzanne and Daniel was how much resistance Suzanne encounters from some Asian Australian friends on her Facebook, telling her off for making a big deal out of nothing.

So it is worth exploring that idea of ‘oversensitivity’ a bit further.  It may be unintentionally truthful.  Stereotype threat is a form of sensitivity — to the consequences of being racially categorised.

The concept of ‘cultural safety’ in Aboriginal health is really important from this perspective: in it refers to interactions with health professionals, services, and the health system that don’t make Aboriginal people feel like their identity is under threat (Taylor & Guerin, 2013; Sweet, Dudgeon, McCallum & Ricketson, 2014).

Saying ‘you’re being oversensitive’ is failing to recognise how the impact of being repeatedly asked the same insensitive questions might add up over time, and how people of colour and White people have different things at stake when race is made an issue in everyday life.

The challenge for White people as citizens in a multicultural society is to learn how to be culturally safe in friendships, relationships and everyday encounters with non-White people.

There have been many recent campaigns and initiatives about racism.  Many of them ‘other’ racism as something practiced by bad people — the exception rather than the norm.  One campaign literally others White racism against Aboriginal people by personifying it an unkempt, shifty-looking person from a culturally diverse background.  What an own goal!

We also talked about the change model of the campaigns — their apparent hypothesis about how they can achieve desired social change.  Many of the campaigns, and the article by Dr Nelson and Dr Watson, invite audience members who experience everyday racism to call a hotline to report it to an anti-discrimination tribunal or human rights commission.

However, the legislation authorising these bodies to act doesn’t actually cover everyday racism in interpersonal encounters.  Unless it crosses into the territory covered by s18C  — an offence against public order — discrimination in private life is not illegal.  It is perfectly legal, for example, to create a profile on Grindr, a dating and hookup app for gay men, saying ‘Bloody Grindr only lets me block 5 Asians per day’ — as someone recently did.

The campaign message — a call to action to ‘report it’ — conveys the impression they can do something about it, and the implicit message is ‘we’re the experts and you need our help’.

The project Suzanne is developing aims to give culturally diverse young people a plain language definition of everyday racism along with humorous animated messages, enabling them to name everyday racist microaggressions when they occur and, if they choose, to respond right there and then.  Alternatively, they can use the images elsewhere to discuss the experience with other people who face similar ones — socialising rather than internalising the response.

Her latest project, DERP, plans to use visual messages, like Vine or a GIF, so they can be dropped into a Facebook comment thread or a Twitter discussion as it’s happening, along with a link to an infographic defining everyday racism and explaining what’s problematic about common forms of microaggression that have emerged in Suzanne’s story collection.

The change model is to return the locus of control and agency to the person who experiences everyday racism, and to give them resources that can open up a discussion around what’s at stake for them in an overall pattern of experiences of everyday racism, rather than concentrating on that fruitless question ‘was that particular interaction really racist?’

Suzanne became interested in social media because of its wide reach among young people.  At one level social media occupies the same role once played by the telephone in the social lives of teenagers — just watch any 80s teen movie if you need a reminder.  However, it has differences that lend themselves both to practicing everyday racism and to challenging it.

These differences include the slightly greater asynchronicity of messaging — longer pauses for reflection between ‘turns’ in a conversation — and the much greater intertextuality of social media, with skilled users able to weave conversational conventions together with emoji, images such as reaction memes or (in heavier discussions) infographics, embedded and linked videos, links, and meta signals such as hashtags, reposts, and ‘Likes’.  It is also much easier to quickly recruit an audience or further participants in a discussion.

There is nothing inherently utopian about this expanded functionality — all of it can just as easily be used to practice everyday racism as it can be to challenge it.  That’s why Suzanne and her network are so keen to create creative, humorous resources that enable the latter; there is no shortage of people on Facebook groups and Tumblr engaged in the opposite.

We are interested in engaging with young people because their habits and rituals of interaction haven’t yet crystallised into routine forms: social media can be a site of innovation and creativity with greater potential to take up and re-work new ideas about anti-racism.

The proliferation of meanings and cultural practices both for and against everyday racism, online and offline, points to the need for researchers to pay closer attention to the nuances of the cultural content and interactional styles of the audiences they seek to engage with.

For example, when Dr Nelson and Dr Watson blur the lines between casual racism and everyday racism, they risk painting all young people with the same brush — as ignorant, unsophisticated, politically apathetic, unaware of the subtleties of race.

Rather than dismissing casual racism as thoughtless, we hope our case study shows that its orientation towards racism is fundamentally different from everyday racism: casual racism is overt and humorous or ironic; everyday racism is covert, unconscious and defensive.

Recognising the difference will help researchers and campaign planners do better at recruiting young people to the cause of planned social change around everyday racism.

Postscript — bios and methodology

Suzanne Nguyen is a story collector and artist, she founded The Two Chairs as a way of using creative conversation to openly discuss race and racism. Currently, she is compelled to explore the intersection of community and digital media to create positive social change and diversity.  Visit Suzanne’s website here or view the Youtube overview of The Two Chairs.

Daniel’s bio — The thinking I contributed to this article comes from my work in health promotion and my personal activism, not from the academic research projects I work on.  I ground my work and activism around racism in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (WHO 1986), which says the emphasis of health promotion is not providing information to enable individuals to make healthy choices – it’s working with communities to increase their control over the determinants of their health.

As writers like Ron Labonté and John McKnight have pointed out, though, many projects in public health and community development actually have the opposite effect – they signal ‘we’re the experts and you need our help’. The projects enforce a distinction between ‘helping professionals’ and ‘clients with needs’.

Similarly, many research projects construct cultures and communities as the objects of expert knowledge, rather than sites for creating knowledge about how society can be changed.  This article aims to triangulate different sources of knowledge — my experience and Suzanne’s via our ongoing dialogue, research findings into racism, and Suzanne’s practice wisdom as an artist and activist and mine as a health promotion worker and writer.


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