The History of Racism in Australia

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Most Australian laws protect the people against racial discrimination and discrimination of any form, and the freedom of individuals. However, racism in Australia, especially against the indigenous people, is widely spread and it traces back from both historical and modern racist attitudes by communities. Such attitudes are enhanced by negligence by the government and failure of the administration to comply with the United Nations’ human rights customs, as well as the incidences experienced in Australia. The indigenous people who lived in Australian before colonization by the British government were the Aboriginal Australians and the Torres Strait Islanders (Gray & Tesfaghiorghis, 2018). Currently, Australian population is made up of various races as a result of immigration, mostly from Ireland and the United Kingdom, with the population of the indigenous Australians decreasing due to ethnic cleansing, the Australian genocide, and the Batman’s and Armytage Massacres (Short, 2016). Although there are inter-ethnic marriages in Austrian, for example, nuptials amid indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, the level of racial discrimination in public institutions and services against the indigenous people of Australia is often evident due to the community attitudes and racist policies by the government. For example, the indigenous people were initially denied the right to full citizenship of Australia and are often discriminated against in the health sector (AIHW, 2011). This paper tries to examine the racism against the indigenous Australian people, by examining their history regarding their social, political and cultural constructions and their identity in Australia as a country. 

The Aboriginal, indigenous people occupied Australia for many years before 1788, when the British settlers arrived and claimed the Eastern part of Australia as their own. The establishment of the Van Diemen's Land Colony by the British and the policies that got enacted to enhanced migration of the white settlers in Australian led to collapse of the structure of the Aboriginal indigenous people, as this was followed by the genocide and ethnic cleansing where the indigenous people got rounded up and many indigenous women raped (Short, 2016). Multicultural policies got enacted, which led to the increased sum of émigrés from Europe, Asia, and Africa after the Second World War. The immigration caused an increase in racial discrimination. As a result, significant legislations got sanctioned to outlaw racial discrimination in the public domain in Australia, for example, the Commonwealth Racial Act of 1995. 

Although there is discrepancy across various Australian governments on the management of the indigenous people, there is consistency in the definition of the people, who are regarded as the indigenous Australians. The common definition of the indigenous Australians as given by the Australian high court is “a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives” (Gammage, 2011). According to Bodkin-Andrews & Carlson (2016), the sense of Indigeneity determines the development of the education standards of Australia and the progress of social justice. However, the real identity of the indigenous people in contemporary Australia is still debatable as they are regarded as inferior, and their identity is limited concerning exploration and diverse aspects of the indigenous communities. Thus the identity of the indigenous people is often associated with victimizations notions and perceived social-economic welfare from the government. The failure of the indigenous population in formal education is mostly blamed on Aboriginal culture and cultural obligations because of their lack of bases in the formal education and limited western civilization. All this assumptions and claims are based on racial stereotyping of the indigenous population.         

The British common law recognized indigenous people in Australian as the British subjects, who were supposed to enjoy equal rights before the law. However, the Aboriginal, indigenous people were often treated as inferior by the public opinion and the colonial administration policy. The indigenous people were not given the right to full Australian citizenship and did not count among the Australian population like other Australians until after the referendum of 1967 (Short, 2016). Due to the establishment of the European Settlement and the expansion of immigration, the indigenous Australian populations were incorporated to the established municipal entities of the Australian colonies, while others got forced into the neighboring territories. The expansion caused violent conflicts between the indigenous people and the European settlers, which is described as frontier wars by some historians, which saw many of the indigenous populations forcibly relocated to the missions and land reserves. The conditions in these missions and land reserves were pathetic and facilitated the spread of diseases closely, which lead to the closure of many as the number of the population reduced (Gray & Tesfaghiorghis, 2018).

Due to the increased incidences of racial discrimination and maltreatment of the indigenous Australian population, the colonial government in the 1830s established the office of the Protector of Aborigines, a quite controversial office in current Australia, in an attempt to curb maltreatment of the indigenous people.  Colonial Christian’s churches were established to try and convert indigenous people by advocating for their rights, but they were often used by the colonial government to achieve assimilation and welfare policies. For example, in 1938, an indigenous activists Douglas Nicholls organized a protest to campaign for the rights of the indigenous people as they marked 150th

years anniversary since the arrival of the British first fleet in Australia (Gammage, 2011). At this time, the indigenous people were restricted to movement and denied work opportunities. The colonial government also wanted the indigenous population to get assimilated to the mode of life of other Australians by suppressing their cultural identity for them to achieve rights to full Australian citizenship.

Racial discrimination against the indigenous population in Australia was enhanced by the colonial government laws which denial the indigenous people equal rights with other Australians population. The indigenous people were denied right to vote unless if one was as ex-servicemen otherwise they all got denied representation in the government. In 1962, the Commonwealth Electoral Act, signed by Robert Menzies, proved for the voting rights of the indigenous people, which were further reinforced by the 1967 referendum which modified the constitution to remove the discriminatory references that were used against the indigenous people, while granting the administration authority to legislate laws specifically for the Indigenous Australian population (Short, 2016).  

The discrimination against the indigenous populace in Australia has caused changes in the social, political, and cultural constructions of the indigenous population over time. This is because of the ethnic cleansing attempt and the colonial government policy which aimed at assimilating the indigenous Australians to the way of life of other Australians. This le d to “stolen generation were young Aboriginal children who got considered as whites were removed from their families in an attempt to curb the indigenous culture (Walter & Butler, 2013). In the contemporary Australian society, the state governments are in charge of the several attempts to create an inclusive culture that will value the lives of all the Australian people. For example, the states governments have taken the social foundation including the provision of essential community services by use of popular community language, funding the social clubs for seniors and providing security for the place of worship through rezoning. However, most of these initiatives are more concerned with public involvement rather than a strategy to curb racism by integrations all the races. Racism dominates most of the social institutions in Austrians including education and health. For example, Gavin Mooney, a health economist, in a paper he wrote in 2003, claimed that racism was dominant in most Australian government institutions (Mooney et al., 2016). According to Mooney, the medical services for the Aboriginal population were under-supported by the Austrian governments and unfunded. The indigenous Australians are not represented in Australian cultural event such as sport and fail to participate in organized sport due to fear of racial vilification, which is common in the Australian Sport (Gammage, 2011). This explains how racism against the indigenous people is prevalent despite the many attempts to stamp it out. However, a program known as Kickstart Indigenous Program was established to encourage the participation of the indigenous people in social sectors such as education, employment, and health.

Most of the human rights activists blame the poor social-economic conditions that the Aboriginal Australians get subjected to on racism. According to Gammage (2011), racism in Australian became dominant after the Second World War due to the multicultural policy which led to the mass immigration of Europeans, Asians, and Africans to Australia. This increased the cultural diversity of Australians, which caused the suppression of the indigenous Australian culture due to the assimilation policy that required them to adapt to the way of life of non-indigenous Australians. In 1998, Pauline Hanson, who was a member of the Australian House of Representatives, was accused of racism for claiming that the mainstream Australians got granted the priority they did not deserve at the expense of the indigenous and minority group who deserved funding and good welfare from the government (Bodkin-Andrews & Craven, 2013). She also argued that indigenous Australians got neglected by the government and called for government policies that will protect the social-economic status of the indigenous people. She was very notorious in fighting for the rights of the indigenous minority groups and even helped to form the One Nation Party to represent the minority groups in the government. Some government policies enacted promote racism, while some media stations also facilitate racism through the information they air to the public. For example in the health sector, Australian media as influence the provision and the demand of the health services by the indigenous people by influencing their decision on health matters concerning race (Paradies, 2016).  

The indigenous population in Australia often gets subjected to racial discrimination concerning social-economic welfare and provision of public services such as education, employment, and health. They get regarded as inferior compared to other races, and many laws have been enacted since the British colonial period to assimilate the indigenous people the way of life of the non-indigenous Australians. Most of the social campaigns and information passed to the public concerning social services such as health and education use the language of the dominant group which influence the way Australians citizens, mostly the indigenous population, participate in these services. For example, Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait Islanders, who comprise the indigenous population, are often discriminated in the Australian education system and other social institutions. As a consequence, the native populace in the contemporary Australian context are often given low levels employment, are in constant contact with the justice system due to health risk behaviors and criminal activities, and often experience adverse mental and physical complications. 


AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare). 2011. The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People an Overview 2011. Cat. No. IHW 42. Canberra: AIHW.

Bodkin-Andrews, G., & Carlson, B. (2016). The legacy of racism and Indigenous Australian identity within education. Race Ethnicity and Education, 19(4), 784-807.

Bodkin-Andrews, G., and R. Craven. 2013. “Negotiating Racism: The Voices of Aboriginal Australian Post-Graduate Students.” In Diversity in Higher Education: Seeding Success in Indigenous Australian Higher Education, edited by R. Craven and J.     , Vol. 14, 157–185. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group.

Gammage, W. (2011). The biggest estate on earth: how Aborigines made Australia. Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Gray, A., & Tesfaghiorghis, H. (2018). Social indicators of the Aboriginal population of Australia. Melbourne: AIR.

Mooney, J., Seaton, M., Kaur, G., Marsh, H. W., & Yeung, A. S. (2016). Cultural perspectives on Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian students' school motivation and engagement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 47, 11-23.

Paradies, Y. (2016). Colonization, racism and indigenous health. Journal of population research,   33(1), 83-96.

Short, D. (2016). Reconciliation and colonial power: Indigenous rights in Australia. USA: Routledge.

 Walter, M., & Butler, K. 2013. “Teaching race to teach indigeneity.” Journal of Sociology 49 (4), 397–41

August 14, 2023

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