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What's the impact of casual racism on mental health?

Passing remarks, offhand jokes and stigmatisation on the basis of race – no matter how innocuous or supposedly innocent – can affect the health and wellbeing of those around you.

Earlier this week, former Olympic gold medallist and Order of Australia recipient Kerri Pottharst caused an uproar while commentating on the Commonwealth Games beach volleyball matches, by saying two Caribbean athletes – who were covered in sweat and sand while competing – resembled "human lamingtons".

Backlash online was swift, and she subsequently said, "I made a comment I unreservedly apologise for and sincerely regret," and that "it was 100 per cent not meant to offend".

I've met Ms Pottharst twice, and on neither occasion did she strike me as a nasty or malicious person. But the latter comment in her mea culpa, regarding her lack of intent to insult, made me reflect on the prevalence of casual racism in Australia, both socially and professionally, and the apparent disconnect between what we might deem harmless versus what is actually offensive.

It is a pertinent discussion, for one does not need to look far to find examples of casual racism in Australian popular culture, and recent ones at that.

Channel 7's Sunrise program courted controversy a few weeks ago with its discussion of whether Indigenous children should be placed in the care of "white" or non-Indigenous Australian families, in instances of abuse or mistreatment.

What was particularly remarkable about that incident, and the much-maligned fashion in which the discussion was carried out, is that it was entirely unremarkable in the context of our national media discourse.

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines casual racism not as a belief in the superiority of one race over another, but as negative prejudice or stereotypes concerning race. Unlike overt and intentional acts of racism, casual racism isn't often intended to cause offence or harm.

The question of intent is interesting here, because – as the commission concedes – having an open conversation about race is harder in consideration of things that others do not see as being "truly or really" racist, which in turn can embolden prejudice.

"You don't need to subscribe to doctrines of racial superiority or incite racial violence to say or do something with racist implications," the commission writes.

"Racism is as much about impact as it is intention. We shouldn't forget about those who are on the receiving end of discrimination."

Even if conduct isn't motivated by hate or malice, casual racism can "marginalise, denigrate or humiliate" those who face it, and significantly impact upon mental health.

"Racism can have adverse effects on people's physical and mental health. It can cause anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and high blood pressure," the commission argues.

PsychSafe principal consultant Dr Rebecca Michalak agreed, saying "minor incivilities" can have a cumulative effect on wellbeing, and also be a slippery slope to more overt racism and bad behaviour within certain contexts, such as the workplace.

"Respecting others has to start with the tiny stuff. If you don't get the tiny stuff right, it unravels from there," she said.

"People who engage in this behaviour may start by accidentally or unintentionally doing it, but – because they are not pulled up on it — then push the limits a little further, and further. Before you know it, it's the norm for that behaviour to be occurring, and inevitably, it'll get more serious."

Ms Pottharst's lamington comment is a prime example of casual racism, she said – not intended to harm and intended to be funny, because it was funny to the person saying it at the time – "but would, nearly undoubtedly, have been found offensive" by the athletes in question.

This tendency for behaviour to escalate and become normalised, she mused, is a key reason why seemingly innocent off-hand comments are so dangerous, especially in the context of one's health and wellbeing.

"Wellbeing is multifaceted; it incorporates physical, psychological and emotional health. Possessing a positive self-identity, which includes knowing who you are, and what social groups you are a member of, plays a role in an individual's health. The sense of belonging to and being part of the community within those social groups fosters feelings of safety and security, which are very important to wellbeing," she said.

"Being a member of a given race forms an important part of one's identity. So while everyday 'generic' rudeness might not eat at you so much, everyday rudeness relating to your race – which most often involves degrading part of your identity – can have a much greater impact."

What is required, therefore, is greater recognition that we are all accountable for the things we say or do, whether it be in the workplace or otherwise. A change in social attitudes to casual racism is necessary, the commission argues, and every individual can contribute to this change by speaking up when they see or hear unbecoming conduct.

"You could start a conversation with a friend, family member, colleague or teammate," the commission suggests.

"This could, for example, involve pulling them aside to ask them what they mean by their comment, or ask them how they would feel if they were subjected to stereotypes."

Emotional intelligence — which includes self and other emotional awareness — is critical here, Ms Michalak added.

"Being aware of how you feel when people behave in a certain way towards you opens up the door for you to understand how other people may respond to your own conduct," she advised.

"Emotional intelligence enables you to put yourself in the shoes of others, pay attention to their reactions to your words and behaviour, and appreciate if you have just offended or hurt that person."

Those who are not emotionally intelligent are much less able to pick up what can be at times quite subtle cues, she said, resulting in varying interpretations of what constitutes offence, thereby leading to situations where a person can be insulted by what another person deems innocuous.

Being cognisant of these sensitivities is paramount, whether we are in the workplace or out in the community. Such cognition helps all of us understand not only why referring to people as "human lamingtons" is offensive, but how deleterious it can be for the recipient's mental health.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain