Racism in schools
Seventeen-year-old Sarah Gastar is of Filipino descent, but she wishes she was Anglo-Australian, which is just the polite way of saying she wishes she was white.
After all, Sarah was born in Australia. She's lived in Hampton Park her whole life. She goes for Carlton and loves Vegemite and is obsessed with Home and Away.
But sometimes she thinks that's not enough. She's convinced that if she looked like the Anglo students in her class, no one would tell her to go back to where she came from. They wouldn't call her racist names or fake an Asian accent. Instead they'd talk about football and soapies and no one would ever ask her if all she eats for dinner is fried rice.
"The worst part is that they don't even know the difference between Filipino culture and the rest of Asia. They just throw stupid stereotypes at me and it sucks. It's not everyone in my class and it's not every day, just when some idiot near me feels like being mean," she says.
"I think what hurts the most is being told to go home. I don't get it. I am home. Australia is where I was born and I don't know any other life. When they say that, it makes me feel like I don't belong anywhere.
"My mum tells me to be proud of Filipino heritage, but it's not easy when kids are teasing you about it. They know I'm Asian just by looking at me. I can't even pretend. So, yeah, sometimes I do wish that I was white like everyone else. I just want to fit in."
In the most recent Foundation for Young Australians report (new window - scroll down to "The Impact of Racism upon the Health and Wellbeing of Young Australians") on racism, 70 per cent of Australian secondary students said they'd experienced some form of racism on an occasional basis.
For the majority, this racism occurred at school and included everything from being called offensive slang names, to being the target of racist jokes or stereotypes, to feeling excluded or left out simply because of their race.
This racism was more common among the older students than those who were in Years 7 and 8.
Ben Waterhouse, VicHealth's senior project officer for reducing race-based discrimination and supporting diversity, says young people aged 15 to 26 are extremely frequent perpetrators of racism.
"When you're 15, you're no longer being defined as your parents' child, but are beginning to be defined as your own person. You're trying to figure out who you are and race can play a big role in that," he says.
If that wasn't hard enough, the transition from adolescents into young adulthood is also a period where fitting in can seem like the most important thing in the world.
"Most young people just want to be popular. It's a time in their lives when their friends have the most pull over their actions and their opinions," Mr Waterhouse says.
"Younger children aren't like that. They recognise race, but such awareness is not necessarily linked to children's potential friendship choices or evaluation. Unfortunately, we're yet to figure out exactly why these cute, innocent 8-year-olds can turn into slightly evil 15-year-olds."
Stick and stones
For young victims of racism like Sarah, words can and do hurt.
In the Understanding Racism fact sheet (new window) issued by the NSW government, students who experience racism talk of having reduced levels of self-confidence and feelings of insecurity.
They also feel like their culture and identity are not valued and, as a result, experience reduced levels of self-esteem and self-worth.
As this is a time of self-development for the victims of racism too, these feelings may lead to a rejection of their own culture, language and values, something that Sarah knows all about.
"There are days when I don't want to be Filipino. There's nothing good about being different if people make fun of you. That's why I absolutely refuse to let mum give me boiled yams or anything with rice for lunch. I want a sandwich like everyone else," she says.
Racism has also been linked (new window - click on the "Coping in a new world" link) to psychological distress among young people, as well as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and anger, and in some extreme cases, attempted suicide.
Unfortunately, there is some evidence to show that racism can also affect a young person's physical health.
The Foundation For Young Australians racism report found that young victims of racism experienced everything from increased heart rate and an inability to concentrate on schoolwork.
The most severe cases reported constant headaches, anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress, which affected the way they ate and slept for weeks at a time.
Lead by example
There is no excuse for racist behaviour, but it can be hard not to join in when your friends are doing it.
Rachel Sher, 20, says she would have done anything to stay in the "popular group" when she was in high school.
"The idea of being a total loser terrified me. I wanted my friends to like me so bad that I became this complete fake. I'd look forward to the time when I could go home, just so I could be myself again."
But when Rachel's friends starting bullying some younger students, often calling them terrible racist names, Rachel put her foot down.
"I just couldn't take their racist remarks. Even though I knew it was social suicide, I told them to cut it out and let them know just how stupid I thought they were being. It felt fantastic."
In the grand scheme of things what Rachel did might not seem so life-changing, but it's something she's incredibly proud of.
You should always speak up if someone you know is being racist. It's not cool and if you let them know that, there's a good chance they might stop.
Rachel went on to set up a multicultural awareness group at her school and organised guests speakers to come a talk to her classmates about racism.
She says things at school improved heaps after she spoke out.
"You still had the odd idiot that thought they were being funny, but now everyone else would tell them to shut up and say sorry. So it just goes to show, one person really can make a difference. It might sound impossible, but it's not. I did it."
So don't be shy, take a leaf out of Sarah's book and stop racism in its tracks. It's not hard and you'll be happy you did!
Articles Written by Elisa
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