Time to respect what we haven’t experienced

5 minute read

Of course white Anglo-Australians don’t think we’re a racist nation (or health system). We have to respect and believe the experiences of others. 

The recent fuss about ABC journalist Laura Tingle and her declaration at a writers’ festival that “Australia is a racist country” – reminds me of the time I made a similar statement.    

It was 2018, I was working for the United Nations, and presenting at the Rural Medicine Australia conference. After my presentation, there was time for questions and answers, and I don’t recall the exact question, but I do recall taking a deep breath and saying: “It is my personal view that Australia remains a deeply racist country”.    

I didn’t sleep much that night – it felt like such a big statement, but one that I felt obliged to make. Having left Australia and worked for the UN, I had to confront my own racist assumptions, but also understand how the country that had raised me had shaped me. It’s very hard to recognise racism for what it is when you have been surrounded by it all your life, and never see a different way of thinking.    

To their credit, ACRRM responded swiftly, issuing a statement the next day renewing a commitment to work on addressing racial inequities for both patients and members.    

Six years later, and leading a national project – A Better Culture – that aims to address bullying, harassment, racism and discrimination in medicine, I am pleased that the dial has shifted enough that there is actually some data to back up the conversation.   

Before you are inclined to state that racism isn’t a problem, consider the absurdity of this exchange on the ABC’s program “Australia Talks National Survey” in 2021, when the following exchange took place between former Prime Minister John Howard and interviewer Naseem Hussain:  

“After the Cronulla riots, you refused to call it out as racist,” Hussain said. “Instead you said, ‘There is no underlying racism in Australia’. Yet today, 76% of Australians say there is a lot of racism in Australia. Are they wrong?”  

Mr Howard replied:  

Well, that has not been my experience. I have to respectfully say to that 76%, I don’t think there is underlying racism in Australia. I think there are racists in Australia.”  

Hussain asked:  

“You don’t think there is underlying racism?”  

“No I don’t,” Mr Howard insisted.  

It is in that ilk of “it hasn’t been my experience” that those who don’t experience racism decry the experience of those who do.    

In what world would racism have been Mr Howard’s “experience”?  Likewise, with the pile-on happening to Laura Tingle, in what world would any of the white, Anglo commentators have had experience of racism?  

Racism can be like a coded language.  The words flow past you if you don’t understand them, but those who do understand, at whom the macro- and micro-aggressions are targeted, recognise it all too well.   

The latest Medical Training survey data demonstrates this point with painfully direct anomalies in the data.  

The statement “racism is not tolerated in my workplace” was endorsed by 86% of the general cohort of all doctors in training nationally, but only 66% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors.    

That is, there’s a 20% gap in perceiving racism.  It’s data showing quite clearly that the lived experience of the many is not the same as the lived experience of the few.    

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander doctors experienced racism at three times the rate of the general cohort – 21% of them experienced racism directly, compared with 7% of the general cohort. They were twice as likely to directly experience bullying, harassment and discrimination.   

This data points to the fact that the lived experience of those who are on the receiving end of these horrible behaviours needs to be acknowledged, and we all need to be more aware of the journey of those who walk in different shoes to our own.   

To recognise the racism that permeates our world is to take the first, uncomfortable step towards addressing it.    

There are some very racist people in Australia, who truly do believe in white supremacy.  It is not those of whom I speak – they are the outliers.    

It’s people like me, who grew up with a comfortable assumption, not even really spoken, that those of different races were somehow inferior, to be pitied, feared, or controlled.  That sort of thinking soaks in and becomes part of the fabric of one’s character.  It takes effort and discomfort to identify and manage it in everyday thoughts and actions.  

I’d challenge everyone to take a moment to participate in Project Implicit, a tool developed by Harvard to help identify and surface our unconscious biases.    

Take a Test (harvard.edu)  

The results can be challenging, but if we don’t start understanding this, we won’t ever create workplaces where colleagues of all backgrounds can flourish.  It’s no longer enough to cite a blind view of a supposed utopia – it’s time to listen to the people who live with racism, acknowledge their experience as different from that of white Australia, and do something about it.    

Dr Jillann Farmer is a GP and medical administrator. She is former medical director of the United Nations, currently working as a rural emergency department locum, and as CEO of A Better Culture.  

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