13 Jun, 2013 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

Opinion piece first published in the Herald Sun on 13 June 2013.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

If we can take one lesson from the Adam Goodes incident, it is this: racism hurts. If a confident, strong, AFL player can be so deeply affected by a single word, how does it feel for a child?

A 16-year-old Somali teen stands at the pedestrian crossing on Melbourne’s King Street at lunchtime on a crisp winter day. He’s on his way to Immigration to file for permanent residency, excited about his new future in Australia and the possibilities ahead. Three businessmen in suits approach him and look down on him with a menacing glare. Then one speaks. “What are you doing here? Go back to Africa, where you belong”. His mate punctuates the threat with a heavy blow to the stomach. The traffic light changes and the teen runs, his eyes wide with fear and confusion. He has never forgotten it.

A young woman walks outside Parliament Station, on her way home from a long day at work. She feels hot air ruffle the back of her hijab, turns, and is confronted by a man who blows cigarette smoke in her face. He tells her she’s not welcome on the train, or in this country, for that matter.

An Aboriginal boy proudly submits his project to the teacher early, after spending the entire weekend working on it. He knows he’s done a fantastic job. His teacher reads it for a moment, looks up, and demands to know where he has stolen it from. Shocked and deeply hurt, he makes the decision then and there that reading is not for him.

All these incidents are real. Significantly, they occurred in front of witnesses who chose to stay silent. We know a single voice would have made a profound difference to these people’s lives.

It is time to progress the debate about racism from problems to solutions. We know that racism can lead to serious health problems, such as anxiety and depression, particularly if people are exposed to many incidents over time. The good news is that it is preventable.

We all need to be part of the solution. If we stand together, Victoria will once again show global leadership and a collective commitment to consign this ugliness to the past.

Research VicHealth released today with the University of Melbourne reveals an incredible groundswell of support for ending racism in Victoria, with 83 per cent of us calling for more to be done.

But sadly, racism persists in spite of this community goodwill. One in three of the 601 Victorians we surveyed said they’d seen some form of racism in the past year. This is simply not good enough.

One-third said they would do or say something in every racist scenario we put to them. But depending on the situation, between 13 to 34 per cent said they wanted to act but weren’t sure how.

These people represent the next, exciting wave of action against racism. If we can empower them to take a stand, we will reach a tipping point where the majority of people are willing to step in when it matters. It takes courage to speak up, but if you feel supported, it’s easier to act.

Over the past year we’ve seen truly disturbing racist incidents, including abuse on the footy field and people attacked on public transport. They make headlines because they are shocking, but in reality, the majority of racist acts aren’t so extreme.

Humiliating jokes, racial exclusion, being treated differently, disapproving looks and gestures might be easily brushed aside and forgotten in isolation, but imagine how you would feel if this is what faced you every time you left the house.

Recently, I was at a barbecue when an acquaintance said something racist. I struggled with the tension between ignoring it and discomfort of saying something. I told him it wasn’t OK, and to my surprise, he admitted that he knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do. If Victoria is to lead the way, we need to combat racism everywhere, not just on the train or on the footy field. At the end of the day, she will think twice before repeating that comment again. And that’s the outcome we need.

Every form of action counts. Bystanders can make a real difference to racism in Australia and the health of people who suffer from being the target. History has taught us time and time again that we must never underestimate the value of people power to create change.

- Jerril