In conversation with Jessica Walton
[Transcript available in tab below]
Everyday racism is alive and well in Australia. But do we know what it is, how it manifests and how it affects people in our community. Jessica Walton talks about everyday racism.
Jessica Walton is a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. She has a disciplinary background in socio-cultural anthropology and is currently working in an interdisciplinary team on projects that focus on everyday conceptualisations and experiences of racism, anti-racism initiatives and approaches that foster positive intercultural relations. She is also conducting a new research project on children's experiences of inter-ethnic relations and 'multiculturalism' in South Korea.
Recommended citation – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Host). (2015, June 11). Everday racism: In conversation with Jessica Walton [Episode 77]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/everyday-racism/.
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Transcription Podsocs 77: Everyday racism. In conversation with Jessica Walton
Thank you to James Attard for this transcription
[musical intro to 00.10]
Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Tricia: This morning on Podsocs I'm pleased to welcome Jessica Walton. Welcome to Podsocs Jess.
Jess: Hi Tricia. Thank you for having me on.
Tricia: Today we've got a really interesting topic and it's about everyday racism. What is everyday racism?
Jess: Everyday racism is a term that was originally developed by Philomena Essed. She’s a sociologist in the Netherlands and she used the term to describe the everyday injustices or microaggressions that people experience on an everyday basis that can be subtle or convert and not, you know, your usual kind of racial slur but something a bit less obvious, but nevertheless have a really significant impact on people's sense of belonging and mental and physical well-being as well.
Tricia: Jess can you give me an example?
Jess: Yep, so I might be unconscious discrimination in a store. So, it's say a black woman enters a store in Melbourne and the store person just doesn't think that they will have enough money to purchase what they offer at the store and will just ignore her rather than offer to assist in whatever she's looking for and then a white woman comes in the store and immediately the store attendant is very unhelpful and attentive to that person's speech. Whereas yeah, so that can be something that the store clerk might not be conscious that they're doing but based on prevalent stereotypes and ideas about black people being inferior or somehow, you know, less affluent or, you know, not living in sort of high income areas can contribute to this idea that person isn’t serious about buying something. So, whereas the white customer in the white sales assistant won't necessarily realize what's just happened. The black women will most likely feel that based on previous experiences that she's had in other stores and come immediately connect that to everyday racism.
Tricia: So, it's basically an unconscious bias that we have or prejudice that we may not necessarily be aware of but when it's acted on people who actually experience that as the recipient are very aware of it and notice it immediately, is that right?
Jess: Yeah. Yeah. That's right. It's been really, it is about that unconscious intent and so a lot of people think that people who are racist immediately conjures up images of the KKK or someone with who looks a bit rough or has tattoos all over them. Something like that kind of idea of somebody being less intelligent or ignorant or bigoted in that really blatant way. But in fact, because we're so inundated with racist stereotypes about people every day, in the media, news, just through peers, growing up listening to parents talk about people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds begins to take that as normal. And so, you can often act on unconscious bias without realizing that that's what we're doing. So, it's not about being a bad person.
Tricia: And I suppose that's really important because people can get quite defensive when challenged on some of these issues and can't conceptualize that perhaps they are being racist without intent.
Jess: Exactly and often people from minority backgrounds will get accused of being a little sensitive and that relates to another problem where people think that racism is just an individual problem, it's about individual psychology. When actually, it's a systemic problem based on unequal social structures. And so, people sort of say, oh, well, you're being insensitive, sorry, being oversensitive or that person's being bigoted and racist, it immediately assigns that to the individual person and absolved people who consider themselves not to be racist as oh well I’m not like that person. So, how can I possibly be racist or have racist thoughts?
Tricia: And certainly at the moment in this country there is so many problems I think about how we perceive people who aren't white Australians that that sort of legitimizes our prejudicial sure thoughts I suppose about groups of people.
Jess: Yes, especially when it comes, when these kinds of messages come from people positions of power, especially the current government and the way they've handled asylum-seeker issues. And it just gives people that authority and legitimacy to also act on those views. So, not just speaking out about how they feel which you know people have a right to do but also the issue of you don't have a right to harm people based on their racial or ethnic background. Something that you know is a very personal thing with people. And yeah there’s plenty of research that shows that the health impacts.
Tricia: And we're certainly seeing it on trains. I mean people are youtubing all the time witnessing scenes of people who feel it's okay to racially vilify other people. And I wonder Jess the same way that how everyday racism can be internalized to the point where we don't realize it. I imagine the messages that we give out can be internalized by people who were subjected to it and would cause harm.
Jess: Yes, the first point you've made there's a sense of false consensus that everybody has the same views as that person. Whereas, so that's why they might act out in a very public way abusing somebody, racially abusing someone. Whereas, there's been a nationwide study conducted by the University of Western Sydney, Kevin Dunn's group, who found that 85 percent of Australia's recognize that racism is a problem. And so, there's this idea that racism is something that's okay but actually a lot of people do not condone that. So, it might just be that person's social group and that becomes their lore and so then they act on that public spaces. Internalizing everyday racism because it's harder to identify people who might second guess themselves and think oh well is this actually happening or is it just in my mind, am I being oversensitive or overemotional. And so, in that sense it can cause further harm by denying that it's actually happening and then not knowing how to address that. And if other people, so there's that issue of the bystander effect, if other people remain silent it further perpetuates the idea that what's happening is okay and everybody else surrounding is okay with it and in effect denies what happened to that person.
Tricia: And I think there's a tension in Australia specifically because we have the national image, I suppose, that Australia is very egalitarian and we're not racists despite our history of White Australia policy, our treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Yet we still hold on to this and I think that's a challenge when we think about the structural factors of everyday racism. And so, I suppose what you're saying is that we need to address it on all levels.
Jess: Yes, that's right. And if you look back at the history of racism, and how these racial classifications weren’t originally developed. It's been centuries of all just reinforcing this idea of a racial hierarchy and even though they look back on those research studies that were conducted in the 17 countries with you know, they have this idea of people originating from different species it seems ludicrous. But racism shifts and changes over time depending on the different social cultural political context in so it can be really nefarious and adapt so it becomes more subtle, less easy to identify and I think because of the centuries of this being reinforced through not just in government but through commercial products, television shows, representation in the media, in positions of power, it's an ongoing legacy that we need to work at over time. That yeah, as you say at these different levels.
Tricia: Jess I’ve seen so many examples of it from being at a counter coming in behind an Aboriginal man, for example, yet the sales assistant look to me first to be served. But everyday racism can also appear positive can’t it? Like for example, all Asians are smart, all Aboriginal kids are good at football, there’s so many different ways that this can manifest itself isn’t there?
Jess: And that’s exactly it, ideal positive stereotypes they still have a negative impact on people and people will think, especially with those positive stereotypes. Oh yeah, well I'm complimenting you and that should be, you know, it's I'm not being racist, I'm just being nice telling you what you're good at. But actually, it still pigeonholes people into categories and reduces their whole complexity of a person to one attribute. So yeah, like all Aboriginal people are good at, you know, footy. That stereotype excludes them from having that full complex understanding of who somebody is and that they’re also intelligent, and they can be good lawyers or amazing geneticists or, you know, whatever well social scientist. And if you get that kind of, as an Aboriginal person, you get that constant through positive reinforcement like, oh you're really good at sports with the implicit bias that you're not good at anything else that could have serious impacts on people's sense of what they can aspire to and yeah that sort of thing.
Tricia: Jess in social work, critical reflection is a really important aspect of our training and that involves deep exploration of things like our own prejudices and biases. And I suppose this is one area particularly if one is from a dominant white position in the population that it's really important not to see racist issues like the Klu Klux Klan as you said but to actually think about our day-to-day interactions with other people and what little biases are lurking behind our thoughts if you like. That takes quite a strong self-evaluation, I think.
Jess: Sure, for everyone it’s not just white people who could be racist. It's everybody can be racist in their own ways if they’re not being about reflective about their own racial identity and how that fits within this racialized social system that we all live in and how we can counter those hierarchies and power as well.
Tricia: Actually, Jess that's a really good point because all people have prejudices, biases, and racist attitudes that are hidden. So, it is important to actually apply that across the board. So, that's a good point.
Jess: And like I told my partner, who's a white Australian, is that idea of normative privilege, you know, when I leave the house as a minority I have to be prepared for the fact that I might experience racism that day. And if I was constantly being hyper vigilant about that, it can have deleterious effects on me and it has because I have experienced racism without expecting it, you know, some just going about my everyday life. Whereas my partner can leave the door, leave the house, go to work, come back and not have to worry about that at all. You know, he's part of the norm and so no one's going to take notice of him in that sense.
Tricia: And it concerns me when it comes to children, and children at school, and growing up in an environment where the is a subtle prejudice and because children can internalize those things and have a bad effect on them.
Jess: Yeah, absolutely and another common issue that we found in my research is that people think that children were, you know, this idea of childhood being innocent, and therefore children are also innocent and don't think about these things and can't be racist. Actually, you know, children are you know sponges and from the age of three there's research to show that they do notice difference. They might not attribute particular qualities to those differences, but they do notice racial differences from the age of three. Then around age five, six they begin to add social value to those differences depending on how that's constructed in their little social world. So, definitely racism happens between children and amongst children and we found that in our research team searching schools and talking to kids about whether they experienced racism at school, but also asking questions like what makes me feel happy at school and what makes them feel sad at school, not even using the word racism and they immediately give examples of racism where they've been called names or picked on. Yeah, basically those sorts of things happen from young age.
Tricia: I think you know we hear children repeat what we say often and we get a surprise because we didn't realize we said it. So that sponge effect they're almost mirrors to our own biases in a way and pick them up very early in how they deal with other people.
Jess: Absolutely, so early intervention is really important and so if a kid says that they might not know that that's a terrible thing to say. Yeah, but it's silencing and ignoring it is not going to help, you know, correct that idea about people.
Tricia: Jess what other things have come out of the research?
Jess: It's this idea that it links to a broader systemic issue. So, I think if we're going to counter racism in everyday life need to first think of it as a broader issue and that way we can begin to change social norms. Which can happen at different levels again, because racism happens at different levels. So, one approach that our research group is used and is currently researching is bystander anti-racism. So, having the knowledge and critical self-reflection and kind of perspective taking to recognize when racism is happening, and then to know when and how to act. Which might not involve directly confronting the perpetrator, because of course you have to think about your personal safety. Rather than just sort of going up to the perp and saying you're racist, which we found does not work, usually increases defensiveness. But you can do other things like we've seen people videoing the incident and reporting it to police, or uploading it on social media, or even talking to the person next to you and saying are you seeing the same thing? What do you think about this? So that begins to disrupt this idea that this is acceptable, socially acceptable, and normal and yeah, we can begin to slowly, I think, at interpersonal level begin to change ideas about what we will accept in society and then that can from the ground up can begin to shift. Yeah shift, shift that systemic racism and begin to address it that way. And, of course, we need leadership from
Tricia: From above.
Jess: Yeah from above.
Tricia:So, some of our politicians need an education program and I think all institutions have a role in looking at the issue in in their own institution not only with employees, but with the people that they deal with and from you know, health institutions, education institutions, sporting institutions. So, at that institutional level actually taking some leadership to a) make it an open conversation and b) looking at strategies to address it. I also wonder has this issue been picked up much by the media Jess?
Jess: Yeah, I think we're seeing a lot more now because of that very public, those very public incidents on public transport. But again, unfortunately it gets pegged as that racist person, you know.
Tricia: Yeah as an individual thing solely.
Tricia: So, we end up demonizing those people rather than taking an educative approach to the issue.
Jess: Yeah. There are organizations who are doing a lot of good work in this space, like the All Together Now organization in Sydney. They do a lot, most of their work is on anti-racism initiatives and disparities and others wanting to develop an everyday racism app that people can download to understand what it's like to be in somebody else's shoes for a week. These are all kinds of little things that are happening. And, you know, Beyond Blue do around their anti-racism campaigns about the mental health impacts on Aboriginal people. And so, we're trying to build awareness and the media is picking up on that those kinds of initiatives. Any quality across their gender, not just raised with gender sexuality, ability or disability and so on, are huge issues and they all intersect, and I think there's a particular backlash against understanding racism in terms of white privilege and white normativity because it's seen as being anti-white. Which is certainly isn’t, but it is to recognize that what people do hold a position of power in society and there's a hierarchy of that. So, yeah, I think it needs to be discussed certainly in higher education with this kind of, in a kind of mentoring guiding role so, it's not just, so really the first time people even think about this so there can be about media backlash.
Tricia:And it really challenges not only where we are now but challenges perhaps everything we've learnt or absorbed from our own families and that's not an easy thing. So, pointing the finger is not good, but education is good.
Jess: A lot of it is about undoing what you've learnt previously and that can be a long
Tricia: Yeah, a long journey.
Tricia: And has to come down from the top. So, Australia we need to start thinking about everyday racism. We’re out of time Jess. Any final points are important issues that we haven't mentioned?
Jess: I think we could on all those issues, just critical self-reflection, thinking about those biases or stereotypes that come up in your mind. And then rather than acting on it, questioning them yourself continuously I think will help of a lot of people.
Tricia: Jess thank you so much for being on.
Jess: Thank you, Tricia.
[Musical outro 22.38 to END]
Interview ENDS: 23.01