Racial discrimination in Australia

Discrimination is a subtle sword Australians use not only against Aboriginal people. Many experience discrimination for their skin colour or heritage.

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Selected statistics

Percentage of Australians who experienced discrimination in 2014.
Percentage of Australians who said they would engage in discriminatory behaviour against Aboriginal Australians in certain circumstances.
Percentage of secondary school students (including Aboriginal students) who have experienced racism.

What is discrimination?

Definition: Discrimination

Discrimination happens when you are unfairly treated because you have a particular characteristic or come from a particular group.

There are several types of discrimination:

  • Race discrimination. You are treated unfairly because of your race, colour, ethnic background, religions background, descent or nationality. This is the most common form of discrimination against Aboriginal people.
  • Sex discrimination. Unfair treatment happens because you are a man or because you are a woman (for example because you are pregnant or breastfeeding). Transgender people also face sex discrimination.
  • Age discrimination. You are treated differently because of your age (too old, too young).
  • Marital status discrimination. Unfair treatment because you are married, single or living in a de facto relationship.
  • Sexual discrimination. You are discriminated against because of your sexuality, e.g. you are, or someone thinks you are, gay or lesbian.
  • Disability discrimination. You are treated unfairly because you have a disability (physical, intellectual, psychiatric, learning, emotional).

No-one should be discriminated when they

  • try to get goods or services,
  • try to enter a registered club,
  • rent accommodation,
  • are in employment, or
  • visit an educational institution.

Is discrimination an issue in Australia?

A poster showing a woman with brown skin smiling.
"The best skin treatment doesn't come in a bottle." A clever 2009 Respect awareness campaign devised by Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) and the Body Shop subtly reminds that skin colour should never be a reason for discrimination.

In 2014 nearly 20% of Australians experienced discrimination because of their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion. Self-reported discrimination is on an upward trend.

Since white people arrived in Australia it has always been difficult for them to understand Aboriginal culture. Ignorance led to many thousand Aboriginal people being killed by white settlers, and attempts were made to "breed out" their culture through assimilation.

Aboriginal people continue to feel misunderstood by white Australian politics. They claim that many legislative acts reflect a white point of view where at least a dual view would be necessary. Some activists even speak of "genocide" still going on in Australia today.

A 2011 survey of academic staff in higher education revealed that more than 70% of Aboriginal academics and professional staff had experienced discrimination and racist attitudes in their workplaces . The academics especially described discrimination, tokenism and paternalism.

"The survey confirms that racial discrimination continues to exist in the higher education sector," says Jillian Miller, Chair of the National Tertiary Education Union's Indigenous Policy Committee .

Only 18.6% of employers had taken positive action to address discrimination and racism.

Almost 10% of surveyed Australians said they would engage in discriminatory behaviour against Aboriginal Australians in "certain circumstances", and 30% said they had witnessed such behaviour .

Anti-discrimination laws have failed to result in any successful prosecutions since they were introduced in 1989, despite more than 27 public complaints about alleged breaches .

Assimilation politics of the 1970s seem to have left a legacy in the Australian conscience: More than half of surveyed Australians support the idea that "people from racial, ethnic, cultural and religious minority groups should behave more like mainstream Australians". Only a third disagreed with this idea.

Homework: What determines your skin colour?

Race does not determine skin colour. Nor does skin colour determine race. Skin colour does not give you specific physical or mental abilities, character traits, virtues, vices or values.

Your skin colour is solely related to the amount of pigment, especially melanin, in your skin. If you have high levels of melanin, your skin colour is darker, if you have lower levels it is lighter. Melanin also influences the colour of your hair and eye.


Put the photo of a person of colour next to your switched-off monitor. Put the photo of a white person next to an empty sheet of paper.

Why do you think we call the coloured person's skin "black" and that of a white person "white" when, clearly, they are not?

Start by watching this TED talk of Anthony Peterson (19 mins – watch at least the first 6 mins).

Racial discrimination is embedded in the Australian Constitution and continues to be enacted in the laws and policies of our states and territories.

— Rachel Siewert, Greens Senator

White Australians reserve for the First people of this country a particular discrimination, both raw and insidious.

— John Pilger, journalist and author

Denial of discrimination

You don't need to actively discriminate. Some people deny discrimination which is a form of prejudice that can be harmful to those who are its target.

Denial can be harmful in itself. It can create an environment in which people may feel silenced. This can actually compound the stress caused by the initial experience. Denial can also discourage people affected by discrimination to take action to reduce discrimination and its effects. How can you deny discrimination? Take this example: In a survey about the attitudes toward Aboriginal people , 83% of people agreed that "Aboriginal people hold a special place as the first Australians". But at the same time 28% disagreed that being Aboriginal makes it harder to succeed in Australia today, and 43% thought that Aboriginal people get more government money than they should, which is a common myth.

If these 28% and 43% had done their homework they would know better and not deny that Aboriginal people face more hardship and do not receive enough government support.

Video: Campaign against discrimination

Beyondblue in 2014 launched a national anti-discrimination campaign to highlight its impact on the social and emotional well-being of Aboriginal people.

Subtle or 'casual' racism can be just as harmful as more overt forms. Imagine being judged in a job interview by the colour of your skin, rather than the strength of your CV. How would you feel if you were watched in a shop or treated differently on public transport?

Stories of discrimination

Story: Where were the Aboriginal people we invited?

Elizabeth Jones, an intern working at Reconciliation Australia, remembers how a day during Reconciliation Week had gone wrong .

"I remember one day in 2007 when I had just started university my parents were going over the events of that afternoon [during Reconciliation Week].

As it turned out, my mother, who had been organising a community meeting with a local Indigenous group, had come home disappointed — none of the expected guests had shown up.

On enquiring as to why this was my mother was surprised to hear someone respond — ‘I am sorry but we did turn up, a whole mob of us, and after only a few minutes someone had called the police concerned there was a bunch of black people congregating in the park and we were asked to move on’."

Story: Joan Martin vs Homeswest

In March 1997 public housing provider Homeswest evicted Aboriginal Yamatji artist Joan Martin from her home in Paris Way, Karrinyup (north-west Perth, Western Australia), where she had lived for 17 years. Neighbours had filed racially motivated complaints about her son's alcohol problems and her grandchildren 'terrorising the neighbourhood' .

Joan fought the eviction all the way to the Western Australian Supreme Court which upheld her complaint in March 1998, finding that Homeswest had indirectly discriminated by evicting on the grounds of overcrowding. This was the first time that the WA Supreme Court had found in favour of an Aboriginal person on the grounds of racial discrimination.

Joan's victory made international headlines. Sadly, the court's decision was overturned later by its Full Bench.

Joan Martin died on 6 October 2008, aged 67.

This is not a unique story. Kelly Briggs, from Moree, got so tired of being rejected as a tenant for being "too dark" that she asked a white friend to rent the house she now lives in after six months of applying as an Aboriginal woman and getting nowhere .

Story: Membership refused based on race

In July 2006 Aboriginal Elder Matilda House and her daughter-in-law Antoinette House applied to join the radio station QBN-FM 96.7, near Canberra. Their application was refused because they 'lived at different addresses' .

Leaked draft minutes from the station's board meeting told a different story.

The minutes recorded the station manager as saying that the women 'wanted to take over the station' and that 'the Aboriginals were fighting on street corners'. A board member was minuted as having suggested to 'kick them all out'.

A complaint to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission was unsuccessful because there was no prospect of settlement by conciliation. It took the Federal Magistrates Court to decide in February 2007 that the two women were unlawfully rejected membership.

The court ruled AUD 12,000 in compensation plus court costs to be paid by the radio station.

Story: Afraid of the welfare

When Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant was a child his biggest fear was "the welfare".

"He vividly recalls being called out of class so that a government welfare officer could inspect his scalp for head lice, and his fingernails for dirt. The contents of his lunch bag were checked and he was asked what he'd had for dinner the previous night. When he saw a white car parked in his street, he stayed away until nightfall, terrified that the authorities had come to get him."

Discrimination between Aboriginal people

You may be surprised to learn that discrimination is also an issue between Aboriginal people. Based on their skin colour Aboriginal people discriminate against each other, mirroring the stereotypes that usually non-Indigenous people apply to them.

This form of discrimination is also called lateral violence.

For example, when Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant was a teenager, he would hide his interest in learning from his peers. They considered doing homework or reading a book as "acting white". 

The living discrimination between very dark skinned Aboriginals and lighter skinned ones is an issue that is alive and well.

— Richard Frankland, Aboriginal director

Discrimination effects: poor health, suicide

Aboriginal community members of Narrogin, a small West Australian town 200km south of Perth, attribute a spate of suicides which occurred in 2008 to racism and discrimination.

They claim that discrimination included being told there were no jobs at the council, only to see the jobs offered to white people . Others get nowhere when trying to rent a house, ending up asking white friends to do it for them .

Discrimination and racism can have a negative impact on people's mental and physical health due to the stress, fear and other negative emotions that accompany it. People can internalise the negative comments and stereotypes they are subjected to. Eventually they may no longer look after themselves and neglect regular sleep and exercise, or numb their feelings with smoking, alcohol or drugs. One generation can pass on the detrimental effects of discrimination to the next generation .

"It's just this really deep, deep feeling of you don't belong and no matter what you're doing, nothing's going to change. You feel like a non-person," said one Aboriginal woman . "I just couldn't see any way out."

Entrenched disadvantage and a lack of jobs and money all contribute to Aboriginal suicide.

Members of Aboriginal communities also have a perception that police treats them differently than white people when they respond to calls.

One lawyer said that I wasn't black enough to be black the other lawyer said I wasn't white enough to be white. They then argued this point in front of me for sometime. Both my parents were Aboriginal. It was such an insult to me and my family.

— Gordon Syron, Aboriginal painter

Homework: Effects of discrimination

Bindi Cole is a photographer, curator and new media artist of Wathaurung and Australian descent whose work is held in various collections across the world. Much of her work deals with issues of identity.

She writes in an article about the proposed repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act:

"Discrimination of any sort is just plain wrong. From personal experience, I’ve spent much time in tears, not wanting to leave the house, avoiding being in public and feeling a dark cloud of shame hanging over me... Through the broad and powerful influence of public humiliation and discrimination, I’ve lost friends, acquaintances, community standing and professional opportunities. All this has left a scar in my life. The worst part of this is that the discrimination has come from people who have never once met me, talked to me, talked to anyone who knows me, or even tried to make any sort of contact with me at all."


  • What are the effects of discrimination?
  • For each effect you found, explain why this effect happens.
  • Check out Section 18C of the RDA. How does it apply to Bindi's experience?
  • What would you suggest people like Bindi can do to heal from such incidents?
  • Plan and execute an activity to help someone you know who has suffered from discrimination!

Uniting Church acknowledges wrongs

In the first review of its constitution since 1977 the Uniting Church acknowledges in the new preamble that some of its members had acted towards Aboriginal people in ways that were racist and paternalistic .

"They were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land," the preamble now says. It was developed over two years.

Australia and the United Nations (UN)

Non-Government organisations (NGO) have taken on responsibility of the racial conditions seen in Australia. They have filed numerous reports to the UN addressing the racial discrimination problems found in Australia. Many reports complement, if not contradict, the official statements of the Australian Government.

The UN reviews racial discrimination on a regular basis and established several committees for this area.

Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)

The UN Human Rights System sees many so-called "treaty-based" committees, i.e. committees which oversee the fulfillment of international human rights treaties. While with no power to issue measures to countries which don't follow these treaties they can make comments on the treaty's implementation and receive petitions from individuals against a state party.

Since Australia has signed the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination it has to report regularly on the progress made.

In the past, Australia received critique for the lack of constitutional protection against discrimination, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act during the Northern Territory intervention, the high incarceration rates for Indigenous people, continuing deaths in custody and the disproportionate disadvantage of Aboriginal people in Northern Territory communities .

Read the Fact Sheets for UN CERD Review of Australia (2010).

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

On 3 April 2009 Australia supported the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The move came after the declaration was formally adopted by the UN General Assembly on 13 September 2007 with the support of 143 member states and the opposition of just four—Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand.

At that time the then-Howard government claimed that it would elevate Aboriginal customary law above national law, an argument which was clearly an excuse because the UNDRIP is a non-binding document.

The declaration was 20 years in the making and sets out basic standards for the recognition and protection of Indigenous peoples' rights worldwide, including identity, land and resources, self-determination, freedom from discrimination, culture, traditions and language. You can read more about many of these areas on this website exploring Australian Aboriginal culture.

Human rights do not dispossess people. Human rights do not marginalise people. Human rights do not cause their poverty and they don't cause the gaps in the life expectancy and other life outcomes. It is the denial of rights that is the largest contributor to these things. The value of human rights is not in their existence; it is in their implementation.

— Prof Mick Dodson, Australian of the Year 2009

Read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


The Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW was set up in 1977 to administer the Anti-Discrimination Act. It investigates and tries to settle complaints, educates about anti-discrimination laws and suggests changes to the law.


View article sources (20)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] [1e] loc. cit., p.17
[2] 'Treated unfairly because you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person?', flyer, Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, 7/2008
[3] [3a] 'Uni racism finding in new report', Koori Mail 515 p.26
[4] 'Racist taunts an ongoing problem: inquiry', The Tracker 9/4/2013
[5] loc. cit., p.23
[6] [6a] 'Australia blasted by UN committee', Koori Mail 484 p.6
[7] 'John Pilger on racism in Australia', The Stringer 4/5/2013
[8] 'Findings from the 2013 survey of Victorians' attitudes to race and cultural diversity', Victorian Health Promotion Foundation 2014, Melbourne, p.29
[9] 'Internal thoughts on reconciliation', Reconciliation News 4/2011 p.18
[10] 'Joan Martin mourned', Koori Mail 438 p.17
[11] Legislative Assembly, Grievance, 30 June 2005,$FILE/A37%20S1%2020050630%20p3752d-3754a.pdf
[12] [12a] [12b] 'Skin colour a bar to renting in Moree', SMH 20/11/2014
[13] 'Women win case', Koori Mail 436 p.19
[14] [14a] 'Stan Grant's challenge to Australia: How seriously are you going to take me?'', SMH Good Weekend 23/4/2016
[15] 'Focus on Moffatt', Koori Mail 469 p.45
[16] 'Racism, discrimination linked to suicides in WA town', National Indigenous Times 165, 30/10/2008 p.5
[17] 'Judgement By His Peers', painting by Gordon Syron, (3/1/2009)
[18] 'I took Andrew Bolt to court – because free speech should never mean the right to savagely hurt others', The Guardian 29/4/2014
[19] 'Injustices acknowledged', Koori Mail 456 p.12
[20] 'Govt wins praise, but also warned', Koori Mail 448 p.6

Cite this page

Korff, J 2023, Racial discrimination in Australia, <>, retrieved 29 May 2024

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