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Was that racist? New mobile phone app helps navigate the subtlety of racism

A new mobile phone app that challenges Australians’ understanding of racism through role play has won global praise for promoting cultural understanding.

Words by Krati Garg Megan Toomey

The app focuses on subtle racism – an indirect or understated form of discrimination that researchers found to be prevalent in Australia.

It invites players to put themselves in the shoes of an Aboriginal man, a Muslim woman or an Indian student, or to be themselves, as they negotiate a range of scenarios in which subtle racism is at play.

Promoted as both a game and an educational tool, the Everyday Racism app sends players texts, tweets, images and videos over the course of seven days.

More than 6000 users have downloaded it since its launch earlier this year. It has been promoted through social media outlets, online app markets and through the distribution of postcards to universities and on public transport.

The free app, which targets young people between the ages of 18 and 24, ran second last week in a United Nations-sponsored competition that recognises grassroots projects from around the world that encourage intercultural dialogue in a creative and positive way. For the 2014 Intercultural Innovation Award, 11 finalists were drawn from more than 600 entries from 100 countries.

The Everyday Racism app was a joint initiative of the anti-racism charity All Together Now, the University of Western Sydney, Deakin University and the University of Melbourne. Initial findings suggest that 55 per cent of players so far have been female and the largest identified group playing the game to be white Australians.

“We need to engage the future leaders of this country — 18 to 24 year olds in particular — to move away from the standard Australian response of denying racism,” said Priscilla Brice, the managing director of All Together Now. “By acknowledging that racism exists and learning how to speak up about it, young people can become great role models for the rest of society.”

Players of the app are presented with various scenarios of racial prejudice – from teasing or verbal abuse, to being ignored while ordering a coffee, to missing out on a promotion due to the cultural background of the character whose identity they have assumed. Players must decide how to respond.

When the character of “yourself” is chosen, the player is subjected to a bystander’s encounter with everyday racism, and asked how he or she would react as an onlooker.

“We hope we can empower young people to speak up in real life situations that may reflect those in the app.”     — Jacqueline Nelson, UWS

The app is a world-first for its approach to anti-racism, making it an interactive challenge, said Ms Brice. “There are other anti-racism apps overseas, but this is the first in Australia – and no-one else in the world has done something quite like this, in a game format.”

To ensure that the app would accurately depict real-life situations, a group of eight experts from varying research backgrounds were consulted. A reference group of 10 – a mix of Aboriginal men, Muslim women and Indian students – shared their own experiences of everyday racism and gave advice to the production team during development.

The app aims to increase awareness about the effects of everyday racism, especially on young people, according to Jacqueline Nelson, one of the consulting experts. She told The Citizen: “We hope we can empower young people to speak up in real life situations that may reflect those in the app.”

Dr Nelson, who is a senior research officer for the Challenging Racism project at the UWS School of Social Sciences and Psychology, said the project had found that “everyday racism is more common than racist attacks”.

She said that Scanlon Foundation’s annual Social Cohesion survey showed that in the past year nearly one-in-five respondents out of 2000 Australians claimed to have been a victim of racial discrimination. The report also showed that there was a sharp increase in the number of young people aged 18-24 who had been targeted. 

“There is no simple answer to this complex issue. Still, admitting to ourselves that we have all engaged in at least subtle racist thoughts at some point in our lives is a good start.” — Yin Paradies, Deakin University

“Changing young people’s attitudes leads to a generational shift in values and attitudes, and is something that will carry long into the 21st century, as young people enter the workforce, start families and move through society as more accepting individuals,” Dr Nelson said.

The framework for Everyday Racism was based on a 2009 report written by Yin Paradies, a professor at Deakin University and also a consulting expert for the app, whose report Building on our strengths focuses on reducing race-based discrimination.

He found that “Australians accept multiculturalism to a point where it does not conflict with their ideas of nationhood and national identity”. 

But subtle racism, Dr Paradies argued, was “certainly an issue in Australia, probably more so than overt racism”.

Dr Nelson added: “While we might think of this form of racism as more subtle, it can be just as harmful as more overt forms of racism.

“Forms of everyday racism like racist talk, racist jokes and being excluded because of your ethnic or cultural identity, can erode an individual’s sense of belonging in Australia. Everyday racism is how racist attitudes continue to thrive in Australia. Everyday racism is not defensible, it is not acceptable and it is not funny.”

A new campaign by the mental health awareness agency beyondblue addresses similar issues in its campaign titled ‘Stop. Think. Respect.’ The campaign is based on findings compiled by the Lowitja Institute, in which 97 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people experienced racism often and with this came an increase in psychological distress. The study also showed that subtle forms of racial discrimination such as ‘being left out or avoided’ were just as harmful to mental health as more overt forms.

Jessica Walton, a socio-cultural anthropologist and a research fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, and who works on a number of anti-racism projects, said that she preferred the term “everyday racism” ahead of “casual racism”.

SEE Personal stories: how racism stings 

“Casual racism seems to trivialise the issue as well as place too much emphasis on individual incidents as isolated or ‘once off’ rather than how it relates to the broader social context,” she said.  “[Everyday racism] refers to mundane experiences of racism that are so common, they are often taken for granted.”

Simply claiming that someone was being “too sensitive” or “using the race card” could too easily dismiss everyday racism. These more subtle forms of racism were seen as “benign” when compared to glaring racial discrimination. For these reasons, said Ms Walton, more focus was needed on addressing everyday forms of racism.

“The first step is recognising racism, acknowledging it exists and that people experience it from a young age, such as in primary school,” she said. The belief that children were “colour-blind” and did not “see” differences needed to be countered through proactive responses such as bystander anti-racism.

But, Dr Paradies cautioned: “There is no simple answer to this complex issue. Still, admitting to ourselves that we have all engaged in at least subtle racist thoughts at some point in our lives is a good start.”

All Together Now is planning an app for children as a follow-up to its international success that would allow them to react to racist situations at their level. The anti-racism advocacy group hopes that such an app could be used by teachers in the classroom to facilitate discussions about racism with young students.

* This story was re-published by Daily Life.

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