Chief Executive Blog

racism. it’s a health problem.

7th December 2017

The Australian Human Rights Commission recently announced the cohealth Arts Generator Sisters and Brothers Program as the winner of their Racism. It Stops with Me award. We are honoured that the program was a finalist for the award among well respected and tireless anti-racism advocates including Clinton Pryor and Sean Gordon.

While I’m excited by this recognition of the great work done by the team, I remain disturbed that racism is such a continuing scourge in our community. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that 18 per cent of Victorians – nearly one in five – experience racism.

Racism comes in many forms. From overt acts of violence and aggression, to regular, persistent incidents of casual racism, to the systems and structures that perpetuate racism and in themselves act in a discriminatory manner.

Recently, the Australian Human Rights Commission issued some short videos calling out casual racism. Have a look at the clips along with some pretty confronting statistics on experiences of racism in Australia of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples and people of African background.

Closer to home, just a few weeks ago our partners the Kensington Flemington Legal Centre’s Peer Advocacy Team powerfully drew attention to the pressing need to end racial profiling and discriminatory policing.

Racial profiling occurs when police stop, question, search or detain a person because of their race. It is a form of discrimination which violates basic human rights and causes alienation, exclusion, mental health and socio-economic impacts.

As a rights based provider of health and social services to diverse communities cohealth is acutely aware of the impact that racism has on individuals, communities and society at large.

In addition to the ethical reasons to take a strong position against racism, there is now substantial evidence about the many health impacts on individuals of racism. As a recent Victorian Department of Health and Human Services report Racism in Victoria and what it means for the health of Victorians states:

“There is an abundance of high-quality scientific studies that show that racism is a key determinant of the health of Aboriginal Australians and other minority groups. This report shows that racism is harmful to the health of those who are its victims. Moreover, racism is not just harmful to mental health, it is also harmful to physical health.”

Racism has a negative effect on health both directly and indirectly.

For individuals, the harmful effects of racism on mental health include conditions such as psychological distress, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis and substance abuse disorders.

Harmful physical health effects of racism are just a significant, and include diseases and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, poor self-reported health, obesity, adult-onset asthma, cancer and accelerated biological ageing.  Racially motivated assaults of course have both physical and mental health consequences.

The impacts of racism go well beyond the individual. Alarmingly, there is now also evidence that maternal exposure to racism elicits a physiological stress response causing subtle but harmful effects on a foetus that can continue into adulthood.

More broadly, systemic racism serves to maintain or exacerbate the unequal distribution of opportunity across ethnic groups through the way our systems and services are structured and delivered.

Pat Anderson, Chairperson of the Lowitja Institute, describes the impact of systemic racism:

“… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may be reluctant to seek much-needed health, housing, welfare or other services from providers they perceive to be unwelcoming, unsafe or who they feel may hold negative stereotypes about them.

Last, there is a growing body of evidence that the health system itself does not provide the same level of care to indigenous people as to other Australians. This systemic racism is not necessarily the result of individual ill-will by health practitioners, but a reflection of inappropriate assumptions made about the health or behaviour of people belonging to a particular group.”

Racism reduces access to employment, housing and education, resulting in low socioeconomic status. As socioeconomic status declines, so does mental and physical health.

This clearly reflects our understanding of the social determinants of health – the structural conditions that make the largest impact on our health.  It is for this reason that cohealth has and will continue to strengthen our focus on race based inequality. We cannot pretend that racism is not a significant underpinning to poor health in many of our communities.

Acting to address racism of all types, and wherever we see it, is key to having a strong, inclusive and healthy community. I urge you to stand firm in repudiating racism, add your voice to the call for Victoria Police and the Victorian Parliament to monitor and stamp out the practice of racial profiling and join the Racism. It Stops with Me campaign.

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