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How to stop being a bystander and stand up to racism and sexism

We are hopeless bystanders. New research from the Australian Human Rights Commission shows that the percentage of bystanders willing to act on sexual harassment they have observed in their workplace has fallen from one in two to one in three in just six years. Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, says one reason for this unwillingness was bystanders’ fearfulness for their careers if they took action. In particular, men reported being confused about what sexual harassment was and what they should do if they witnessed it. This backs up the work of criminologist Bianca Fileborn, who says men are less likely to intervene partly because of what she describes as social embarrassment. It’s unsurprising to her that the Dyson Heydon story only emerged when a woman, Susan Keifel, was installed as Chief Justice of the High Court.

Kevin Dunn, pro vice-chancellor, research, at Western Sydney University, and a lifelong researcher into racism, says plenty of folks say they would stand up for someone experiencing racism but only about 30 per cent actually do it. UTS researcher Jacqueline Nelson, who has worked with Dunn over the years, says we respond to racism within our workplace structures, that is, while some workplaces might rise to the challenge, others just reproduce racism.

As individuals, we find it hard to stand up and confront perpetrators. Instead of recognising the answer is to collectively challenge institutional power, we try to be individual heroes. But there are actions we can take beyond tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming, which are useful for mobilising but less useful for organising to make change. Those actions help the posters feel better about themselves but are unlikely to dismantle racist and/or sexist structures.

Moreton-Robinson has some ideas. Last month, the RMIT professor was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. That’s a huge deal – she’s the first Indigenous scholar to be elected outside the United States. She says she’s had more impact internationally than in Australia partly because we have no discipline of race studies in this country. She’s loath to answer questions about how white people can help. Figuring that out should be the work of white people. But she does have some robust advice – we must all think about how we can share power.

“You can’t have race privilege without race disadvantage and you can’t have structural advantage without other people being oppressed on the basis of race, one cannot work without the other. Race privilege exists as an effect of white male dominance,” she says. Those who wish to effect change must challenge the institutional power that provides them with the capacity to do so. Maybe other judges felt Heydon was doing the wrong thing but didn’t challenge it because of their investment in power.


As the University of Melbourne’s Ghassan Hage suggests, if some of our weakness in the face of oppression is about precarious employment, the best way to negotiate that is to act collectively. In our institutions, let’s not just have those happy celebrations of diversity or multiculturalism. Build a different kind of culture which is hungry to examine flaws and weaknesses. The chief executive of law firm Maddocks, Michelle Dixon, has tried to do just that. She says dismantling the hierarchy is hard – and listening to criticism can be confronting for some leaders. It’s a little easier to confront power if there are a few of you doing it at once (although Dixon stood up on her own before she became partner). Don’t just isolate the women of colour to do it on their own. Be a supporter – but let others do the leading. (I find this so hard. I almost always think I know best.)

Empathy is good. Action is better. Act on Beyonce’s advice. On Sunday US time, she accepted an award for humanitarian work at the BET awards and encouraged others: “To take action, continue to change and dismantle a racist and unequal system … we have to continue to do this together, to fight for each other and lift each other up.”

I know there will be people who read this and think that comparing the Jews’ experience of Nazism to what Aboriginal and Torres Islanders experience is hyperbolic. But being excluded from a job, a profession, an industry, a society, being treated poorly at work and on the streets, that’s not just how genocide begins. That’s how it ends unless we decide to make change.

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