Racism: how it affects children and teenagers in Australia
Racism is a common experience for many children and teenagers in Australia, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It’s always harmful to children and their families.
Children might witness or experience racism in many ways – at school, in the community, online, on TV or in other forms of media.
When children and teenagers experience racism, it can affect their health, education, wellbeing and development in the short and long term. For example, children who experience racism are more likely to have anxiety, depression and physical illness. They’re at greater risk of suicide. And racism can harm their self-esteem and academic performance.
Witnessing racism can be stressful and upsetting for children and teenagers too. It can be especially traumatic if they witness racism against someone from their own cultural or ethnic background – for example, if a child sees their parents experiencing racism.
If children and teenagers experience racism and also discrimination because of their culture, religion, language, gender or sexuality, their health and wellbeing can be at even greater risk.
All children have the right to grow up feeling respected, valued and safe. When you help children recognise racism and talk with them about it, you can help them develop anti-racist attitudes. This is part of creating environments that help all children grow and thrive.
What racism looks like: speech and language
You can help your child recognise racism in what people say. For example:
- Name-calling or racial slurs – this kind of racism is easy to recognise.
- Comments or jokes that put racial groups down – this includes making fun of a child’s accent, appearance, clothes or food.
- Questions like ‘Where are you really from?’ – this implies that a child doesn’t belong in Australia, based on how they look.
- Comments like ‘Aboriginal people should just get over the past’ – this implies that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people no longer experience harm or injustice.
What racism looks like: actions
You can help your child identify racism in how people behave in your community, school, sport or social gatherings. For example:
- Exclusion – this includes leaving a child out of play or activities because of their cultural or ethnic background.
- Unfair treatment – this might include a teacher giving harsher consequences to a child from a certain cultural or ethnic background.
- Harassment, intimidation or physical violence – this might include a security guard assuming that a teenage child from a particular cultural or ethnic background is stealing.
- Questioning people’s cultural or ethnic identity – this might include saying, ‘You can’t be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander if your skin is white’.
Some children and adults don’t realise that certain comments or actions are racist. Whether they realise or not, it’s never OK for them to put down a person or group of people or to treat them badly or unfairly.
What racism looks like: ideas and stereotypes
Racism shows up in what children and teenagers think and believe about themselves and others. Racial and cultural stereotypes are a key example of this. Racial and cultural stereotypes are ideas and assumptions about someone’s abilities, behaviour or characteristics, based on their cultural or ethnic background.
You can help your child learn that both positive and negative racial and cultural stereotypes are harmful because they present everyone in a certain group as the same. For example, ‘Asian students are good at maths’.
If people live up to the stereotypes, they often don’t get the credit they deserve. If they don’t live up to them, they can feel like failures. And ‘positive’ stereotypes are often closely linked to negative ones anyway. For example, the idea that ‘Asian students are good at maths’ is closely linked to the idea that ‘Asian students aren’t good at sport’.
What racism looks like: social organisation
You can help your child recognise racism in how our society is organised. For example:
- There are fewer people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Asian, Black, Brown and other racially marginalised backgrounds in leadership and senior roles in corporations and government than there are white people.
- Many school courses still present Australian history from the European perspective and leave out the perspective and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
- Many mainstream TV programs and movies have fewer racially marginalised characters than white characters. Or white people are main characters or have more interesting storylines than racially marginalised characters.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to be arrested and put in jail than white people.
Helping children develop anti-racist attitudes
You play a big role in helping your child see and understand racism, develop anti-racist attitudes, respond appropriately if they witness racism, and handle experiences of racism.
These articles can get you started:
- Racism: talking with children and teenagers
- Racism: anti-racist attitudes for children and teenagers
- When children and teenagers experience racism: what to do
- Families experiencing racism: services, resources and support
It’s important to call out racism when you see someone being racially targeted in person or online – if it’s safe for you to do so. If you say or do nothing, it sends the message that racism is OK and allows racism to continue.
More about race and racism in Australia
‘Race’ isn’t based in biology. But it’s a powerful idea that shapes people’s behaviour and our society in big and small ways.
Racism is the system that groups people into ‘races’ and, depending on their race, gives them more or less power, resources and opportunities.
Racism is also when the belief that some ‘races’ are better than others combines with the use or abuse of power to discriminate against people.
In Australia, racism has shaped society since the beginning of European colonisation in 1788. Colonisation brought racist policies, practices, beliefs, attitudes and treatment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Because of this, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still experience racism.
Asian, Black, Brown and other racially marginalised people in Australia also experience racism.
Racism can be intentional or unintentional. All forms of racism are harmful to children and their families.