In highlighting the importance of retaining section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus, speaking on Radio National today, said racial discrimination can make people sick.
In contrast, One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts suggested that minorities would not be hurt or offended by racism unless they chose to take offence.
Of course, racism comes in many forms, from verbal abuse, to employment barriers, all the way to racially motivated violence. Few would argue that it is a “choice” whether to be injured by physical assault, or that being unfairly denied employment is good for you.
Rather, the debate usually centres on a well-recognised form of interpersonal racism – exclusionary behaviour (including talk) between people of different ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds. How does this type of racism affect victims when it happens?
Racism and the brain
Neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have allowed scientists to study directly the impacts of socially exclusionary forms of racism on brain activity.
Several studies have shown how racism impacts directly on parts of the brain that control survival mechanisms (think “fight or flight”) together with the centres that control higher-order thinking (the cortex).
Through these pathways, racism can lead to imbalances in the level of cortisol (stress hormone) in the brain, and impaired functioning of other brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex (which is thought to control personality, decision-making and social behaviour), the anterior cingulate cortex (which is thought to control blood pressure and heart rate, as well as emotion and impulse control), the amygdala (emotions, memory) and the thalamus (consciousness, sleep, alertness).
Such impacts on the brain can result in increased anxiety and susceptibility to further experiences of racism and other unrelated stress, as well as depression and related mental illnesses.
Not just sticks and stones
The emotional pain created by experiences of racism look very similar to the patterns of brain activity caused by physical pain. In this sense, suggesting that we can choose whether racism affects us is like saying that people can decide whether a slap across the face is painful or not.
These forms of damage have been implicated in ill-health outcomes such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. By measuring various biomarkers such as those found in the blood, we are able to see this damage builds up as a result of inflammation caused by stress.
In Australia, studies have found that direct experiences of racism contribute to an array of health outcomes, including psychological distress, depression, smoking, alcohol and substance use, suicide risk, poor oral health, and the belief that oneself is unhealthy (self-rated health).
Emerging overseas research is now beginning to show that being racist (rather than experiencing racism) is also bad for your health, including associations with psychopathy, self-rated health and smoking. Witnessing racism can also have negative health implications such as psychological strain.
Looking beyond individuals, research has found that people in communities in the United States with high levels of racism die younger than individuals from less racist communities. This effect applies to both minority and majority populations.
Recent research in Australia found that the annual economic cost of racism in contributing to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychological disorder is more than 3% of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product.
The costs of racism are direct in terms of health and indirect in terms of detrimental social and economic impacts, with clear evidence racism can make us sick individually and as a society.
While anti-discrimination legislation cannot alone fix the problem of racism in society, it has an important part to play in promoting anti-racist social norms, providing avenues for victims to seek compensation and serving as a deterrent for perpetrators.