Diversity and discrimination in Australia
discrimination; diversity; qualities; characteristics; racism; sexism; homophobia; culture; difference; stereotypes; sexuality; race; sex; age;
This topic is about difference and Australian culture. It looks at diversity (the way in which people are different from one another) and how this can build a country with a rich range of qualities.
It also considers discrimination and the law in Australia. Discrimination can affect the health of yourself and your community as a whole. If you are currently experiencing discrimination it is useful to get legal advice now. Please refer to the Resources section at the end of this article.
Note: While this topic is mainly about diversity and discrimination in Australia, the ideas in it are important wherever you live.
- Imagine a community where everyone is exactly the same. How boring!
- Imagine a community where "different people" are put-down, attacked or shunned. How might this affect the people who live in it?
- In contrast, imagine a community where people are treated equally, respected, cared for and valued. How might this affect the people who live in it?
Australia has developed a culture rich in diversity that keeps adapting, changing and building strength. There are many different people with different backgrounds, religions, cultures, sexualities, races, shapes, languages, looks, sets of thoughts, and interests.
The things we do, the things we say and the way we look at the world have all been influenced by our culture. Think of how diversity has added to Australian culture.
You might like to think about:
- celebrations or festivals
- restaurants, recipes or eating habits (eg. cappuccino from Italy)
- sports, games or hobbies (eg. soccer from many countries)
- stories, nursery rhymes, art or music
- clothing or footwear
- words, language or "sayings"
- families, schools, friends, work, universities.
Diversity is celebrated and valued in Australia in heaps of different ways, from things like multicultural festivals, WOMAD, to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Diversity has become a part of our everyday lives.
Unfortunately, discrimination exists in our society - some people live with it "in their face" every day. If you don't believe discrimination happens these days, go to the cricket or football and listen to the crowd. You will probably hear a few abusive and discriminatory remarks. Many people might laugh or say that "this is all in fun". It might be 'fun' for the person doing it, but not for the person faced with this treatment.
There is a difference between general discrimination and unlawful discrimination. Unlawful discrimination (in South Australia, and elsewhere):
- is when people are treated unfairly on the basis of age, sex, marital status, pregnancy, sexuality, physical or intellectual impairment or race.
- can be in the areas of employment, education, provision of goods and services, accommodation, clubs and associations, advertising, conferral of qualifications or disposal of land.
- can include sexual harassment and victimisation.
Discrimination in general is about demanding that people do the same and be like the dominant culture. "Culture" is a way of doing things, a set of beliefs about how things should be. It can refer to the whole society, or to a particular group you work, play or relax in, eg. "surfie culture", "club culture" or "youth culture".
What is a "real" family supposed to be like?
- Some people might answer "Two parents, one male and one female. They have children or they want them at some stage".
In reality, there are many different types of families. If a family is different from the dominant idea of a family they might experience discrimination.
- Is the person a single parent? - You must have heard things like "She just had kids for the pension". Many young mothers say they're "given funny looks" when they are out with their children. Marriage could be seen as an "expectation" of the "dominant culture".
- Are parents of the same sex? - People who are same-sex attracted are sometimes bashed, called names and shunned. Same-sex attraction is often used as a put-down in our culture. Being straight (attracted to the opposite sex) is often wrongly seen as "the way people are expected to be" or part of a "dominant culture".
- Some parents adopt a child from a different culture from their own. They get asked intrusive questions or sometimes get racial criticism.
- Did you grow up in a foster family or shelters? - Many young people who can't live with their parents feel like they are separated not only from their family but from other people too.
Often without realising it, we have a "mind-set" about how things should be, which we have learned from the culture we have grown up in. We also often make quick judgments about situations and people, which is useful in this busy world. But all too often, our quick judgements and preconceived ideas mean that we stereotype other people.
- A stereotype is when we make judgments from a simplified idea or image, eg. 'men don't show emotion'.
- Stereotypes prevent us from recognising the unique things about a person or situation
- We stereotype people because of things like the colour of their skin, who they hang out with, or even how baggy their jeans are!
Think about the groups that you belong to.
- What is the "culture" of your group?
- Who might be "put down" by your group?
- Does you group tend to exclude or discriminate on the basis of gender, age, nationality, sexuality, family structure, ability or wealth?
Stereotyping leads to discrimination - so take care to notice when you are doing it.
People who experience discrimination have to deal with some difficult issues, and this can affect their wellbeing.
- They may feel that they have to change in order to "fit in".
- They may realise they can't change because the discrimination is based on an inherent part of their being, such as their race, skin colour, gender or sexuality.
- Over time, discrimination may lead someone to feel that they are not an OK person.
- Discrimination can be stressful, depressing, and scary for the victim - and most of all, it can hurt
Discrimination at it's worst is a form of abuse or violence.
It is also important to remember: discrimination is not always obvious.
- It might be obvious if someone is told that they didn't get a job because of the colour of their skin.
- It's less obvious when if a building doesn't have a wheelchair ramp.
Both examples give the same message – the person is excluded because he or she doesn't fit the dominant culture.
Discrimination can be very sneaky.
- This "indirect discrimination" can be inherent in systems and the way things are done or run (eg. policies, practices, procedures, laws, etc.).
- People might use the world 'tolerance' when talking about stamping out discrimination. But some people believe that this still suggests the person does not fit, and others have to tolerate them. A better word might be 'acceptance'.
The Equal Opportunities Commission of South Australia says:
Illegal discrimination is the unfair treatment of a person based on:
- marital status.
It is against the law to discriminate on any of these characteristics in these areas.
- goods or services
- clubs or associations
- disposal of land
- awarding of qualifications.
This means that if you discriminate against someone in this way, you may find yourself in court or having some other legal action taken against you.
If you have experienced or are experiencing discrimination, you might feel hurt, angry, stressed, scared, confused, humiliated, powerless, depressed or embarrassed.
It is natural to feel this way when you are treated unfairly. Here are some tips for what you might do.
- Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling and what is going on.
- Tell the person or people that you object to being discriminated against. Check out our topics Assertiveness and Conflict and Negotiation for some tips.
- Discuss the situation with a person who has been selected or trained to deal with discrimination.
- Contact your union or school counsellor.
- Contact the Equal Opportunity Commission - see Resources in South Australia.
- Suggest that your employer or management contacts the Equal Opportunities Commission for assistance in dealing with discrimination in their workplace, club, school or other meeting place.
- Trust yourself - sometimes it can be easy to doubt yourself or feel you are "making a big deal about nothing". If it hurts you or you feel you are being treated unfairly, listen to your feelings.
Apart from affecting individuals or groups of people, discrimination can have a wider impact on everyone. It can mean people don't work to the best of their ability, and it can have economic costs, cause tension or conflict, or mean people can't express themselves the way they want to.
Discrimination can be harmful to us all. Stand up to discrimination and celebrate diversity whenever you can!
Creighton A, Kivel P, (1990). 'Helping Teens Stop Violence - A Practical Guide for Educators, Counsellors and Parents'.
Curriculum and Gender Equity Policy Unit, 'No Fear Kit', Commonwealth Department for Employment Education and Training, ACT 1995.
Friedman, B (1996). 'Boys Talk - A program for young men about masculinity, non-violence and relationships', Men Against Sexual Assault.
The South Australian Equal Opportunities Act, 1984.
Wormer K, McKinney R, (2003). 'What Schools Can Do to Help Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Youth: A Harm Reduction Approach'. Adolescence. Vol 38(151) Fall 2003, 409-420.
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).