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Catalyst analysis – Is Australia a racist nation?

The Catalyst social and environmental research program provides an ongoing monitor of consumer sentiment towards a range of issues facing society.

Derek Brown, Managing Director of Glow Australia with a 20+ year career in market research, offers his take on one very important question below — using Catalyst results to investigate public opinion on what equality in Australia looks like today. Is Australia a racist nation?

Boomers say no, Millennials say yes. In fact, according to recent Catalyst research (powered by Glow), Boomers are 2.5x more likely to disagree with this statement than Millennials.

This is not an easy question – it starts with how we see ourselves and works outwards. Am I racist? Are my family, friends, work colleagues? Is the country I view, via a filter of television and social media, a racist one?

So, does this mean Boomers know and interact with less racist people or just that they define racism differently? Is it fair to say there are a lot of Boomers who think so-called friendly race banter such as calling English, ‘poms’, Americans, ‘septic tanks’, Italians, ‘dings’ and Greeks, ‘wogs’ does not constitute racist behaviour and that to suggest so is a world gone mad with political correctness? As opposed to a Millennial who is more sensitive to the offence these terms may cause?

All racism begins with stereotypes and all humans use stereotypes to make sense of their world. Therefore sitting within every human being is the germ of racism. For example, for many years I held the view that Asians were generally worse drivers than westerners and particularly Asian women. I held this view, which I felt to be largely harmless, through completely (limited) anecdotal evidence and it wasn’t dispelled until I travelled to Asian countries and saw first-hand the error of my assumptions. Was that a racist view? If it had been based on data, it wouldn’t have been. But it wasn’t.

So why are Boomers so resistant to the suggestion that we are a racist nation? Is it a pushback against this perceived ‘political correctness’ or is it just that they define racism differently? Do Boomers more easily (and perhaps conveniently) disentangle language from actions? One of my ex-girlfriends had an openly racist father, particularly when it came to Indigenous Australians. Interestingly, however, when I put forward the good Samaritan analogy to him – i.e. what he would do if he were driving along and came across a stranded aboriginal driver on a deserted road – he replied without hesitation; “I’d pull over and help him, of course!”

And therein lies the paradox between what we say and what we do. Both can be harmful and are certainly racist but is it possible that one generation values actions over words more than another? Or is the older generation simply anaesthetised to systemic racism?

Additional Catalyst research, which asks people to indicate what they’ve done in the last 12 months in relation to racism and discrimination, shows that Boomers are more likely to talk about racism/discrimination to friends and family than millennials (35% to 26%). However, they’re less likely to do anything about it, with 44% of Boomers saying they did nothing in the last 12 months to address racism/discrimination, compared to only 26% of Millennials. These actions included thinking about it, researching it, changing behaviour, purchasing products or services that support solving it, making charitable donations, attending demonstrations or protests.

This data suggests that Boomers are more talk and less action. And psychology and behavioural economics support the idea that actions are more powerful than words when it comes to changing ingrained attitudes. So are Boomers through their relative inaction, therefore more racist? And is it possible for a nation to be racist or are we simply a sum of our parts?

What do you reckon? Is Australia a racist nation and are Boomers more racist than Millennials?

by Derek Brown, Managing Director of Glow Australia

Get the monthly Catalyst data release here.