[This opinion piece was published in The Wimmera Mail-Times on 7 May 2018 as Why neighbourliness is our best defence]
When I read about how Horsham stood up for a local family targeted by racism, I was proud, as usual, of my state. And I was personally proud of the role that regional communities play in defending our values.
I know from my work as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, as well as my upbringing in country Victoria, that our state is overwhelmingly fair-minded and welcoming towards those who are different. But I also know that our values are sometimes tested, and that old-fashioned neighbourliness is our first line of defence. That’s why close-knit local communities like Horsham still mean so much to our state, and why I couldn’t do my job without them.
My job as Commissioner is to help all Victorians to access the laws that protect us from racism. Happily, these laws are strong. But some of the most damaging experiences of racism happen in community spaces that are hard for the Commission to reach. Many times in the classroom, playground, or local shops, it falls to bystanders and neighbours to bring these laws to life.
Scrawling ‘No Curries Here’ on a Premix King fridge may seem like a small act, but Horsham’s community was right to be concerned about the real-life effect on their town. And the Putani family was right to worry about their kids’ experience at school.
Studies show that feeling uncertain about racism can hurt people and hold them back, especially kids. In a 2012 study in America, researchers compared the performance of students trying to solve a simple task after experiencing subtle or blatant racism from the person at the desk next to them. The small acts that caused uncertainty and confusion —such as noticing their desk-mate inch away from them and wondering why—was a bigger drag on performance than blatant bigotry. It can also be damaging just to witness racism. A preliminary study in 2010 found that the more vicarious racist incidents students experienced, the more signs of trauma.
The good news is that swift bystander action, like what happened in Horsham, can turn this around almost completely. Our research shows that the negative effect of racism is neutralised if witnesses take clear supportive action. That’s why we depend on local communities to stick up for their neighbours.
The Commission is here to help, and will support any action against racism. We provide a free telephone and online enquiries service, which provides information about discrimination of all kinds. We also help people resolve individual complaints of race-based discrimination and vilification under the Equal Opportunity Act and the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. Each year we handle more than 200 complaints and 600 enquiries about race-related issues across Victoria. Our complaints service is free, it’s practical, it’s accessible and it works. But we couldn’t do it without the support of communities like Horsham.
I am privileged to spend my days advising individuals, private organisations and public bodies on their rights and responsibilities under the law. But last week Horsham made these rights real. They provided moral support and comfort to a family that badly needed it, when they needed it. And they showed that our Victoria’s first line of defence against racism – old-fashioned neighbourliness – is still our greatest strength.