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Responding to prejudice and racism

Unfortunately, racism and discrimination are common experiences in our schools.

A 2017 study found that around one-third of students have experienced racism from their peers, and almost two-thirds say they have witnessed racism in school. A recent study showed that 40% of 225 surveyed students experienced racist behaviour online every week. It is confronting to note that 91% of students from African backgrounds reported that they had experienced racism and racist bullying at school. Efforts to counter racism in schools are being encouraged and increasingly drawing media and community attention. This ABC video series provides a good example.

Sadly, conversations around forced marriage can sometimes evoke prejudiced assumptions and anti-migrant attitudes. This can include questions or comments like “Aren’t girls in your culture married off super young?” or “Do your parents love each other, or were they forced to get married in your culture?”

While it’s disappointing to hear these kinds of comments and questions, they demonstrate that young people may not realise that forced marriages happen everywhere, including in western societies. You can use these moments as a learning opportunity, and help set the record straight (in situations where you feel safe to do so).

This section will help you to learn different ways of sensitively correcting inaccurate misconceptions about forced marriage, as well as providing tips to help you feel more equipped to respond to prejudice and racism – whether a comment is made about you, your background or someone else’s.

This section was developed in consultation with Dr Kathomi Gatwiri.


If you are directly impacted by racism or prejudice:

Two points to consider before you respond:

1. Put your safety first

It is not your responsibility to shoulder the burden of calling out someone else’s prejudices or educating them. This is what is referred to as ‘cultural labour’ – that is, feeling like it’s your responsibility to correct every assumption about you or your culture. Doing this all the time, and with everyone, can lead to deep fatigue. Putting your safety and wellbeing first is important. This might look like taking a moment to ensure you feel it’s safe for you to respond in this situation (where are you, who are you with, etc.). It may look like removing yourself from a situation that feels unsafe.

2. Assess the environment

The organisation Stop Race-Based Hate provides some guidance and resources around what you can say in these situations. But first, they recommend for you to take a moment and consider:

  1. Whether you have the mental capacity or emotional energy to engage at this time (i.e. cultural safety)

  2. The timing, power dynamic, and context of the situation (psychological safety)

  3. If it’s safe for you to respond (physical safety)

  4. Whether you respond privately or publicly (social safety)

Quickly assessing the environment around you is not necessarily going to be a perfect process – but it allows you to assess your safety, and to decide whether you have the tools, and resources (both material and energy) to respond.

What are your options if you decide to respond?

If you feel comfortable to respond, one option is to tell the person that you disagree with their comment, and explain why. However, this may be easier and safer for someone else to do, rather than for the person directly impacted. Speaking up doesn’t need to be about educating the other person – it can also be about putting the onus on the other person. E.g. “that comment made me uncomfortable”, “it’s surprising that you feel okay saying that about my culture”. Making your thoughts heard can let someone know that it isn’t okay to say these things, or to think this way – and just as impactfully, it can let the other people around know, too. However, it is very normal to feel conflicted about whether or not to respond in the moment. Remember that in many situations you have the option of addressing it at a later time (e.g. via message, email, etc. or at another occasion in person). This may be more safe and less stressful – giving you time to think, to debrief with other people and seek their advice, and to prepare your response. There will be some situations where responding later is not possible. In all cases, prioritise your safety and wellbeing first.

If you want to take a moment to correct an idea, we provide some quick responses to common comments below: 

  • ‘Actually, it isn’t right to call forced marriage a ‘migrant problem’… the majority of people who experience it here are Australian citizens.’

  • ‘Forced marriage is known to happen across every major religion, even though it's not approved of in any of them.’ 

  • ‘People freely consent to arranged marriages, it’s just that their partner has been introduced to them by family or community. They are free to reject the marriage without fearing something bad will happen. Forced marriage is different…’ 

  • ‘Do you know that forced marriages happen in Australia too? We don’t hear about them because the media does not amplify those stories. It's not a problem just “over there”… It's here too!’

You can use open-ended questions, such as ‘Why did you say that?’ or ‘Why do you think that’s funny?’ This can sometimes ‘disarm’ the person, or catch them off guard – and can prompt them to actually consider why they hold the views they do, or to consider why they find that funny. 

It also allows you an opportunity to understand their perspective; and understanding it helps you to counter it, and offer a new perspective. While not foolproof, this ‘why?’ strategy can sometimes lead the person to face up to their biases, and be more aware of how they impact on and dehumanise other people.

Remember what is and isn’t in your control: the different reactions to being challenged

Many people are not used to being challenged on these kinds of comments – they might not even realise it is something that causes harm and is culturally offensive. They may have many different reactions: they might be caught off-guard, and become defensive, abusive, dismissive, or aggressive.

Some might be defensive at first, but after reflecting on what was said later, will change their perspective.

Some people may be deeply entrenched in their biases and choose not to listen. But others will be receptive, acknowledge their gaps in knowledge and be curious about what to do better next time they are conversing about forced marriage.

Don’t forget you can’t control how people respond

Remember, peoples’ responses and reactions are entirely their responsibilities, and you can let someone know what is or isn’t okay to say, and why – but it is not within your control to change someone’s mind or values. Only they can do this.

Engage in self-care

Once you have said what you need to say in a way that feels safe and appropriate to you, return to yourself and focus on your wellbeing. Engaging in some form of self-care can help you to recover from a challenging emotional experience. Whatever gives your relief and comfort can only be defined by you because mental, cultural and spiritual health and wellbeing is a uniquely individual experience. Check out our mental health and wellbeing tips.

If you want to talk to someone, or report something:

Here are some tools and resources that can help you through taking care of yourself and responding to harmful comments.


Maya Cares

If you would like some initial guidance and support, talking to Maya Cares is a helpful place to begin. This new tool describes itself as “your digital big sister” whose goal is to help you heal from and address racism in Australia. Maya can help you talk through your experience, find resources, and report racism. While Maya is a bot, it has been developed entirely by Black, indigenous and women of colour who have lived experience of racism in Australia.


Embrace Multicultural Mental Health

Experiencing racism can be distressing and can have a significant negative impact on people’s mental health. To find culturally competent mental health services and community organisations across Australia.


The eSafety Commissioner

If you experience racism online, you have the option to report it to the eSafety Commissioner. It helps to take a screenshot of the offensive post or content, which can help identify the person “and ensure appropriate action can be taken in response to their behaviour”.

If you witness racism or prejudice:

First, it’s always important to be mindful of your environment and to ensure that you’re safe. Check out the section above for tips on assessing your environment. Assuming you feel safe to respond, here are some options below.

Speak up

When people are subjected to offensive comments about their culture, nationality, ethnicity or religion, they can often feel alone in feeling responsible for educating, correcting wrong ideas, and calling out prejudices. Other people who are present can have a crucial role in helping to set the standard for behaviours and comments that are (or are not) okay.

It is just as important to do this whether people who belong to that group are present or not. We should call out prejudice and racism wherever we see it. Simply put, the standard of behaviour you walk past is the one you accept.

"I think people should speak up anyway. You don’t have to get into the laws of Islam. You don’t have to respond with a counter-argument. You just need to remind people to be kind and not criminalise a whole group. So speaking up is very important.”

Rania Ayoub, Director of Public Relations, the Muslim Educational Trust

Reach Out provides some advice on the key things you can say or do in response to an offensive comment about someone else:

  • Remain calm – this will help you to talk to the person who is being discriminatory in a productive way.

  • Ask them why they have a particular point of view.

  • Offer an alternative perspective on the issue.

  • Show empathy for the person experiencing racism. This might help the person who is being racist to see that the person they are targeting is no different from anyone else.

  • If necessary, consider making notes on, or recording, the incident and reporting it to the police.

Challenge the stereotypes

If you want to take a moment to correct an idea, we provide some quick responses to common comments below:

  • ‘Actually, it isn’t right to call forced marriage a ‘migrant problem’… the majority of people who experience it here are Australian citizens.’

  • ‘Forced marriage is known to happen across every major religion, even though it is not approved of in any of them.’

  • ‘People freely consent to arranged marriages, it’s just that their potential partner(s) have been introduced to them by family or community. They are free to accept or reject the marriage without fearing that something bad will happen. Forced marriage is different…’

  • ‘Do you know that forced marriages happen in Australia too? We don’t hear about them because the media does not amplify those stories. It's not a problem just “over there”… It is here too!’

Let the person impacted choose how involved they become

It is powerful and effective to counter these ideas in the context that they’re being said, particularly in a group setting. But be considerate of those present who are being targeted by the harmful comments; they might be feeling deeply uncomfortable in this situation. Avoid inadvertently pressuring them to get involved in a debate, or spotlighting them to respond to comments and dispel myths themselves. Leave it to them to determine the extent of their involvement.

Set the standard

However, it can be helpful to humanise the person who is experiencing racism or prejudice, by offering them an apology in front of the person who is perpetrating the racism – and in front of others too. This could be something like, ‘I’m sorry you had to hear something like that’, ‘I’m sorry that you’ve been put in this situation’, etc. This mostly works powerfully if it is said in a group setting. When it is done right, this creates what we call ‘social contagion’ – and sets the standard for everyone participating in this situation, or witnessing it.

Check in

If someone around you may have been directly impacted by the harmful comment(s), try to find the right moment to check in. This could be one-on-one. Some good options are: ‘I don’t agree with what was said’, ‘I’m sorry you experienced that’, ‘Can I do anything?’ Then actively listen to what they have to say.

Don’t brush off the incident, pretend it didn’t happen or tell yourself that it’s not your business. Similarly, don’t dismiss the comment as not having intended to cause harm, or not being a ‘big deal’: this can minimise someone’s feelings and even make them feel like they don’t matter. Engaging, empathising and showing your support can make a difference.

Explore our Toolkit, and find out how you can make a difference.

Section One: How to support a friend

Section Two: The facts and the myths

Section Three: Engaging with your community

Examples of awareness-raising

Human Rights Calendar