What do you do when you witness racism and racial abuse online?
It can be hard to know what to do when you see disrespectful or abusive behaviour online. In this guide, we discuss some strategies for safely taking action.
Defining race, racism, racial discrimination, racial vilification, racial hatred
Race is widely acknowledged to be a social construct – an idea created and accepted by people – even though race and the traits associated with racial categories can’t be verified by science. The social understanding of race is generally developed out of a mix of things like skin colour, nationality, ethnic origin or ethnicity.
Racism is widely accepted as a wrong thing to take part in, but it can be hard to know what behaviours or thinking it encompasses. One of the most confusing things about racism is how many terms can be used interchangeably with it.
In this resource, “racism” is used to indicate all of “racial discrimination”, “racial vilification” and “racial hatred”, but also the subjective experience of racism, or the experience of the person on the receiving end of discrimination or abuse. This distinction is important because it helps to explain why even when an act or phrase might not seem like racial discrimination it is still understood by the target as such.
Under the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, it is against the law to treat people differently on the basis of their race, including for employment, joining clubs etc. In Victoria, the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 and the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975 make it unlawful to racially vilify or say something that would constitute racial hatred. Racial vilification or hatred refers to behaviour that “incites hatred, serious contempt, revulsion or severe ridicule” for a person or group of people, because of their race or religion.
According to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, this kind of behaviour includes:
- speaking about a person’s race or religion in a way that could make other people hate or ridicule them
- publishing claims that a racial or religious group is involved in serious crimes without any proof
- repeated and serious spoken or physical abuse about the race or religion of another person
- encouraging violence against people who belong to a particular race or religion, or damaging their property
- encouraging people to hate a racial or religious group using flyers, stickers, posters, a speech or publication, or websites, email or social media.
In online spaces, racial vilification and racial hatred are usually more immediately relevant than “racial discrimination” as Victorian law defines it.
Why should I do something?
It can be difficult for targets of racist behaviours to confront perpetrators. Research shows that when a third party (a bystander) intervenes it can:
· Provide emotional support to the person targeted;
· Discourage the perpetrator from repeating the behaviour; and
· Contribute to a culture that condemns racist and racially discriminatory behaviours.
In volatile and aggressive environments, it can be particularly important to demonstrate to the person involved and the wider community that certain behaviours are not appropriate, and potentially against the law.
What are bystanders?
A bystander is a person who witnesses something but is not directly involved in it. You can be a bystander if you are told about an incident or if you witness racist behaviour in a setting, including online.
An active bystander is someone who takes action after witnessing racist behaviour. In the online space, this can range from supportive behaviour to speaking out or reporting the behaviour.
No matter what you do, make sure that you feel safe to act. If an online space doesn’t feel safe, you can show support in different ways.
Active bystanding also includes taking action to challenge systems and culture that supports racist and racially discriminatory behaviours.
Active bystanding: What you can do if you are a bystander
If you feel safe to act, you can carry out one of the actions on the action pyramid below. Generally, actions higher up the pyramid are stronger ways of discouraging racist behaviour. The more intentional, severe and explicit the behaviour of the perpetrator, the higher the level of action the bystander may take.
Actions towards the bottom of the pyramid are appropriate when the bystander is worried about putting themselves or the targeted person at risk. While inexcusable and unacceptable, in some circumstances certain racist behaviours may be unintentional and/or caused by ingrained beliefs, values and practices, and may suit actions listed at the bottom of the pyramid.
Report the behaviour
Facebook/Instagram report post
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission Community Reporting Tool
This tool is anonymous and does not lead to any punishment. VEOHRC may use the information to shape its educational policies and advocacy work
Make a complaint to the eSafety Commissioner about seriously threatening, intimidating, harassing or humiliating behaviour.
For serious threats to personal safety, call the police in your state or 131 444, a national police assistance line.
Most State and Territory Police services have special units working on computer crime and may be able to help you further.
Call out and educate
Calmly disagree and publicly declare the action or statement to be racist or discriminatory
Diffuse the situation
Make a lighthearted comment or question to try to stop the situation. This may be more useful when you know the perpetrator or when you are worried about a power imbalance.
Support the victim
and people who are calling out the behaviour
“Like” comments that disagree with the statement
Private message the victim to express disapproval, ask if they are okay, or offer to help progress the matter.
Private message someone who has called out the behaviour to let them know you support them.
What if I’m a target?
You can use any of the range of behaviours in the table above.
If you feel that it is beyond that, you can contact your local Community Legal Centre for advice, or contact the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission or Australian Human Rights Commissions for advice and help about their complaint mechanisms and conciliation services.
Australian Human Rights Commission, Complaints form
Australian Human Rights Commnission, “Racial Discrimination”
Australian Human Rights Commission, “Cyber Racism”
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Complaints form
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, “Race Discrimination and Racial Vilification”