Racism and Discrimination

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Notes on Racism and Discrimination

Is your friend experiencing racial discrimination?

An experience of racism is not often attributed to a specific single act, or word, or expression. Instead it might be a range of behaviours which don’t appear to be related.

Racism is treating someone differently (in a negative way) because of their colour, nationality, national or ethnic background. At an individual level its effects can lead to depression, low self-esteem and poor achievement in studies. On a societal level it can lead to devastating inequalities that disadvantage or marginalise a whole section of the community.

Not speaking about racism is one major reason why it continues.

This is why it is very important to encourage your friend to speak about it so that you and others around you can understand the patterns of the way they are being treated. For those who have not personally experienced racism it is difficult to see it happening around us.

Often racial discrimination can be identified, however, it can also be very subtle, possibly even non-verbal. Therefore, the person may find it easy to argue away the behaviour as not important or relevant and may choose to ignore it. A further problem for the victim is that if they have managed to clearly identify a racist behaviour and decide to make a complaint, they can then find that their own behaviour becomes the subject of scrutiny.

For many victims of racism their own behaviour has not triggered the racial discrimination, but because they belong to a group of people (it could be a community, a whole nation or religion) then that is enough to produce the dislike and feelings of superiority of the perpetrator.

The apparent subtlety of racism is what makes it so insidious.

For some examples of how racism  has been experienced, read the Story of S and the Story of N.


  • Listen to the experience. Try to understand how a particular experience might be part of a whole lot of behaviours that your friend is experiencing even though they may not be able to recall the specifics. It is likely that the experience of racial discrimination has been felt before.
  • Encourage them to tell you when they experience instances that make them feel uncomfortable. Talking about it helps.
  • Ask your friend to think about possible reasons why these people are behaving in an offensive manner – make the point that you are not trying to justify their behaviour but instead find out more information so that together you can come up with a strategy of re-educating these people. This will help in being able to find the words to explain what is happening and how your friend is feeling. One student, who was experiencing racism at their tertiary institution, decided to invite the offending tutor out to coffee to indicate their desire to talk about their feelings that had been triggered by the tutor’s behaviour.
  • Sometimes it can help to discuss with your friend what an appropriate response would be. For example in S’s scenario, how would S feel about responding to a student colleague by saying “I may not look Aboriginal to you, but I am and it makes me feel bad to have to constantly justify my heritage”. Similarly you could discuss with N how she might respond to the classmate who doesn’t greet her. For example, she might be able to try saying, “My name is N, I’ve said hello to you every time and I don’t understand why you never say hello to me first?” This may or may not work for S or N but together you might be able to generate a response that your friend feels comfortable with.
  • You might like to offer to accompany your friend if they wish to talk to someone about what they’re experiencing and they want to change the situation. People to talk to can include: your student services organisation, a trusted staff member, a student representative group, a welfare officer or a counsellor. Discuss the possible options with your friend.