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Most health students and staff think racism is morally reprehensible and want to do something about it – so don’t feel that you’re on your own!

In many health institutions, ordinary, everyday racism is an institutional norm and the rights of perpetrators to ‘free speech’ are put ahead of rights of the targets of racism.

Under Australian law, the right to free speech does not guarantee the right to make racist and discriminatory comments or actions. These are illegal, especially when they are used to justify discriminatory behaviour.

Racism is the antipathy of ethical and professional codes of conduct that mandate that health professionals act in the best interest of patients and do no harm.

No-one would argue that health work is easy at the frontline or that patients are always innocent. However, racism is health care adversely affects staff and patients as it breaks down trust, builds tensions and undermines efforts to care of the most vulnerable in society.

 Health students and staff recognise that racism:

  • is morally reprehensible and just not the right thing to do
  • grates on the Australian ethos of mateship and supporting the underdog
  • is a breach of trust between staff and patients
  • compromises effective health care
  • is a cause of both mental and physical sickness in itself
  • causes tension and conflict that is bad for patients and staff

 When seeing racism in health, students and staff say that they:

  • weren’t always sure that what they were seeing was racist – it can be so common!
  • felt they should respond, but did not
  • felt guilty about not responding
  • feared a backlash especially when racism came from a senior person
  • lacked the knowledge and confidence to respond effectively
  • when they did respond, often felt inadequate because they thought they did not handle it well .1

These feelings were amplified among health staff who were from the same ethnic group as those who the racism targets.   So Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander health professionals report often feeling inadequate about the way they handled a racist event, or guilty because they did not respond at all.2