Guest: Bill Johnson
Guest Bio: Bill Johnson is a licensed clinical psychologist from New View Psychology. He writes a weekly column called “Dr. Bill” on The Good Life. He has been previously published on racism and specializes in multicultural counselling. At the Australian Catholic University, he was a lecturer of psychology for cross-cultural psychology. He has also chaired a multicultural and outreach committee for the University of California, CAPS, which stands for Counselling And Psychological Services.
Health Professional Radio
Katherine: Today we’re talking about racism in society. We are joined by Bill Johnson. He’s a licensed clinical psychologist from New View Psychology. He writes a weekly column called “Dr. Bill” on The Good Life. He has been previously published on racism and specializes in multicultural counselling. At the Australian Catholic University, he was a lecturer of psychology for cross-cultural psychology. He has also chaired a multicultural and outreach committee for the University of California, CAPS, which stands for Counselling And Psychological Services. Wow, that’s a mouthful. Welcome to our show, Bill. [laughs]
Dr. Bill: [laughs] Pleasure to be here. Hope that wasn’t too much there.
Katherine: Thanks for joining us. Now, you have lived in both the United States and Australia. As we know too well, racism exists in both of our societies. What are some of the main differences you see between the two countries? That’s a huge question, but yes…
Dr. Bill: I think this is a really a complex question, and I’ve got two answers for it. There’s a difference in the sociopolitics of the two countries because the ethnocultural groups are different. For example, we certainly have an indigenous population in the US, Native Americans, and you got indigenous Australians. But outside of that, for example you’ve got your immigration issues [indecipherable 01:48] xenophobia are connected to the so-called “stopping the boats” or the asylum seeker dynamics and the way the public feels about that. The immigration of Mediterranean cultures over the last 50 years, Greek and Italian and Maltese.
Whereas, as an African American from the United States, of course my ancestors were enslaved. We’ve got about 30 million African Americans living in the US. So the point is that the ethnocultural groups are different, and I really feel that that’s where the differences stop. Because if you ask someone who’s experienced racism, “Would you rather experience it in the US or Australia,” they’re going to say, “I just don’t want to experience it.”
It’s the same thing if we look at sexism. I don’t think it really matters to a woman if she experiences sexism in Sydney versus in New York. She doesn’t want to experience sexism. Sexism is painful, it’s oppressive, it’s hurtful. So I really think that that’s where the differences stop. Outside of that, I think you’ve got a lot of similarities. For example, we know that the so-called blatant racism, blatant negative racial attitudes, they’re still present, but not as present as they were, let’s say, 30, 40 years ago.
What’s replaced those attitudes is a so-called modern or covert racism. Within this model, we deny the existence of racism, which then perpetuates negative racial experiences and attitudes. Here’s how it works. If I deny that racism exists, for example, within Australia, then I can blame you for your inability, for example, to find work, to receive adequate healthcare. I could blame you and your individual predicament versus saying, “Well, we do live in a society which seems like there are privileges given to people who have white skin.”
So, one of the similarities between the two countries is this movement from blatant racism to the so-called modern or covert racism. One last thing. I don’t want to get anything confused. Blatant racism exists. You can just look at the recent articles which were written within Melbourne, with people being harassed and spewed with racial slurs on the train, both in Melbourne and in Sydney. Or you can look at what happened with the Collingwood Football AFL team, where the president made connections between an indigenous player and an ape. This is the embodiment of racism. So blatant racism still exists, but it’s not as prevalent as modern or covert racism.
Katherine: That’s a very good point, what you say, defining the two types. Some people, they argue that they were born racists. They got it from their parents. You mentioned that there’s a huge immigration population in Australia, and some of these cultures, they’ve come from a war-torn country. They bring with them a lot of hurt and maybe hatred, and then they have children and they pass this prejudice on to their children. I think comments like this – this is just my personal opinion – they’re not taking responsibility for their own choices in saying, “Well, I was born racist.” Do you think there’s some truth to this?
Dr. Bill: No, and here’s the thing. No one [laughs] is born racist.
Katherine: I don’t think so either [laughs]. There’s no gene.
Dr. Bill: We were working on the human body for a long time, never found a so-called racist gene. As a matter of fact, let’s just stay with this topic for just a second. If you look at the behaviour of babies, babies are naturally curious. They want to touch things, they want to suckle on things, they want to look at things, they want to make weird [laughs] noises towards things. So humans, actually, not only are we not born racist, we’re born extremely open to the world. We want to know, what’s that, what’s this? How does this feel? What’s going on with that thing over there?
But then we’re taught about the sociological or the social implications of different ethnocultural groups, so the social implications of racism. I think that it’s okay, I even recommend for people to understand where their negative racial attitudes came from. My parents or the TV. There seems to be a plethora of sources, not just one source. It’s important to understand where that came from. But then after that, after you’ve got that insight, it’s critical to begin taking accountability for your own negative racial attitudes, and working to eradicate them.
If I can just say, one thing I recommend — and I know we’re not there just yet within our dialogue, you and I, but I just want to say that I think it’s starts with having a dialogue, just like you and I are having right now. Unfortunately, dialogues like this are rare. It’s so much easier again to avoid this, to ignore it, to pretend like it’s not there, as if… it’s like the elephant, if we pretend it’s not there, then maybe the elephant will go away. No, it’ll stink up the joint. [laughs] So dialogues are important.
Katherine: I think you’re 100 percent correct. There should be a dialogue. It’s hard to bring it up, so you wrote a good article about that incident with Adam Goodes and Eddie McGuire. In a way, as unfortunate as that situation was, it opened the floodgates to let Australians actually start a dialogue.
Dr. Bill: No, you’re right, a real opportunity there. In that article that I wrote called “Racism In Melbourne“—it’s on The Good Men Project magazine—one thing I tried to highlight there was that, like you said, this is an opportunity. Instead of scapegoating McGuire, we can all start to look at ourselves. “What role do I play in this whole kind of – if there’s negative racial attitudes in Melbourne, what are my attitudes? And where does that come from? How can I work on this?”
So I’m hoping that we don’t let this opportunity pass us by, that we grab the bull by the horns and begin to persistently engage in dialogue. Unfortunately, the media talk has already died down. I’ve not heard much about racism in Melbourne in the last month now. So what we tend to do is we sensationalize an event, and then, after that, we ignore it until the next blatant racist event happens. Instead of doing that, we can create persistent dialogues, just like you and I are having right now, Katherine, around negative racial attitudes.
Katherine: It was heartening to hear that Australians did recognise that you can’t hide behind larrikinism and say, “Oh, I’m only joking when it comes to racial slurs,” because it is hurtful. In many ways, that is wrong, to do that. I’m glad that Australians owned up to the fact that it’s not okay to do that. What I wanted to bring up was for some people, they may dislike a certain race because of an isolated incident.
Maybe they had a bad experience with somebody in the past, and now they’re prejudiced towards the whole race. They can’t isolate that event or individual, and then they tarnish the whole race. Now, what is this? Would you say they’re being ignorant, not being able to…?
Dr. Bill: If anyone has experienced any hurt, then I feel compassion and I feel empathy. That’s really unfortunate. If I’ve ever hurt anyone, then I certainly feel awful about that. Obviously I would hope that if I hurt someone, that they don’t blame the other 30 million African Americans for my behaviour, for my mistake. Now, look, there’s a part of that that’s a bit human, if we look at evolution stuff. But then there’s also a part of that that’s really about salience.
Here’s what I mean by that. I’ve been hurt, for example, by male drivers, just male drivers who cut me off on the road or something. Now if I said, I hate all men, I’m really going to struggle in life. Or a female jumped in front of me at the store. If I say I hate all women, then you and I, Katherine, are going to have a hard time with having this dialogue today. So the fact that we’d say, “Well, then I don’t like all people of that race. They’re all like this,” is really less about the stereotypes having any sort of validity and really more you’re choosing to scapegoat an entire group of people on an isolated incident.
I think the tougher thing, but the better thing to do, is to acknowledge that, yes look, this person may have behaved this way at this one time, but it was situational. It was contextual, and that doesn’t mean that the next person I meet is going to engage in that kind of behaviour. Australians would certainly hate it if when they went abroad, someone said, “Oh, you’re going to behave just like the last group of Australians, and they were really obnoxious,” or whatever it was.
No one deserves that kind of treatment. I am absolutely terrified of that kind of treatment. I think the better thing to do is to just acknowledge that this is an isolated incident that happened to one person and may not happen… Or at least that doesn’t mean that it will happen in your next interaction with a group of people from that ethnocultural group.
Katherine: Some people who have experienced very little racism, it’s hard for them to empathise. I think if people understood how deeply it can hurt someone, by what they say or their reactions towards them, they might act differently. For people who don’t know, if someone is subjected to racial slurs constantly, what can these do to them on a psychological level? I wanted to ask you.
Dr. Bill: Yes, thanks for that. There’s an article called “This Racism is Killing Me,” and it was written by some Australian researchers. There’s another article in the US written by Thomas Parham, called “Black Men, An Endangered Species.” Both these articles talk about the psychological implications of experiencing chronic racism. Let’s look at the macro level. We know that within Australia, indigenous Australians are highly likely to experience negative racial attitudes.
What impact does this have on the macro level? Well, we also know that this group is much less likely to receive a degree or higher education, more likely to experience physical health issues, more likely to experience addiction, more likely to be imprisoned. These are all macro-level implications of racism. Let’s look at the psychological. If every day you leave your place, you experience implicit negative racial attitudes—people not embracing you, people ignoring you, being followed in the store, or you have to worry about this person, they’re not responding to me, is it because I’m indigenous, is it because I’m black American?—that’s going to increase your anxiety.
We know that people who have high levels of anxiety are more likely to engage in other maladaptive behaviours. For example, they’re more likely to have suicidal ideation, they’re more likely to have a depressed mood, and more likely to experience depression in general. Racism has tremendous negative implications for both physical and psychological health.
Katherine: Thank you for answering that question. I think it’s really important for people to see how deeply it can affect others. Actually, the last two times I was on public transport, there were some extremely racist comments made among some of the commuters to each other. I can’t repeat them on air, but everyone that was on this same carriage, we obviously heard it, and we were stunned, and were silent. We were looking at each other, and we kind of acknowledged that this was going on.
But none of us said anything, not because we agreed, but we were fearful that if we say something, these people could turn on us and may be violent toward us. So we felt it was safer not to say anything, judging by what they were saying. So we just sat there in stunned silence just looking at each other. Then after the event—and it happened, like I said, two times in… the last time I was on public transport—you kind of feel guilty. “Oh God, maybe I should have said something,” but then you felt unsafe. What do you? What’s your advice in these situations? It’s a bit tough.
Dr. Bill: Look, Katherine, this is tough. This is hard, and I don’t want to pretend it’s easy. The obvious answer is yes, go ahead, say something, confront them. But I want to acknowledge that this is hard, this is hard. I want to acknowledge there are times when I’ve heard racial slurs echo—maybe not about my group, about other groups—and I stood in silence, or I sat in silence, worried about a few things. One, I’m thinking, “You know what? I’ve got enough on my plate [laughs]. Do I need to…?” So a bit of social survival.
The other thing is thinking, “If I speak up, will they turn? And suddenly I’ll hear how awful black Americans are? What’s going to happen here?” Unfortunately, by my silence, I allowed racism to go on unconfronted. When that happens, people are sent the message that it’s okay for them to express negative racial attitudes in society. But I want to say, this is tough. This is tough. Here’s what I’d recommend. If it’s someone you know, you don’t have to browbeat him a book by Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. King.
You can just say something as simple as, “I don’t really agree,” or, “No, I don’t really follow,” and then you can just move on with the conversation. That’s all it takes us to send them the message that that’s not okay. If it’s not safe, if you don’t feel safe—and I would never say put yourself in harm’s way. And yet on the train, in that situation, Katherine, the collective of you all could have been quite strong. Look, I want to ask you, frankly, as I’m thinking about it now, I don’t know if I have a clear-cut answer to what you do in that situation.
Katherine: Yeah, it’s a tough one.
Dr. Bill: It’s a tough one. What do you…
Katherine: I think people make a call. I felt unsafe, I felt that these people could be violent. Judging by some of the things they were saying, I do feel a bit of hopelessness. I feel like even if all of us on the train say something, I don’t think they’ll change. It’s such deep hatred, and I don’t know if a few random strangers saying something will make a difference.
Dr. Bill: If it’s going to make a massive difference.
Katherine: Yes. Anyway, we all chose not to say anything, but we acknowledged it. We looked at each other and we all raised our eyebrows, and some people changed carriages [laughs].
Dr. Bill: One of the strengths of that experience though, is that it got you thinking. It led you to bring it up here on the radio. I really like how you could have let it die that day. But instead, it’s enabled you and I to have a dialogue about that. Maybe by talking about it, after you’ve left the train, to other people in your life, then that will get them talking. So there can be some real positives, even by not speaking up there, there could be some real positives.
Katherine: Sure. Thank you for joining us today, and let’s keep talking about this issue and keeping learning from each other. Thank you for your time, Bill.
Dr. Bill: It’s been a real pleasure. Anytime, Katherine.