Racism and mental health are linked, we know that, but what’s become apparent from talking to delegates at the International Network of Indigenous Knowledge Health and Development at UQ, is that the media itself is reinforcing negative perceptions of Indigenous people.
Professor Dennis McDermott from Flinders University in Adelaide, says racism has been shown to significantly impact Indigenous health.
“Racism we know is a significant driver of mental distress and there is about 15 years of research showing that through the activation of cortisol in the body, it brings about a physiological change,” said Professor McDermott.
“When you feel you’re being judged, it impacts your own notions of your self-worth and if you think people are holding negative attitudes about you it raises the level of anxiety and depression.”
The media has been accused of perpetuating these negative attitudes, which children as young as eight are recognising, says Melissa Walker from Queensland University of Technology.
“You grow up thinking you’re not portrayed well and around the age of eight or nine, I’ve seen everyone of my children go through the realisation that they’re Indigenous and those questions come. It’s hard and it’s purely because it’s around them, negative stuff is being said and they’re internalising it,” Ms Walker said.
Ms Walker says, there is a clear difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous media.
“Sit them side by side and compare them, when the topic of Indigenous comes up in your newspapers and television shows it’s always negative but if you look at ours they’re positive, we talk about what we as a community do together,” Ms Walker said.
“Also more white fellas, statistically, particularly young people, drink than Indigenous people, but just flat bang but we’re portrayed as negative.”
Dr Charlotte Reading from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada says ‘racist’ portrayals are also evident in Canada and the United States.
“Aboriginal and Native American people in general are either demonised – so the stereotypic image of someone who abuses alcohol or someone who doesn’t work. Or they are idealised – so the notion of the proud noble savage, the Pocahontas,” Dr Reading said.
“Those images are just as racist as the more negative images because they portray something that doesn’t exist, it’s a myth that’s perpetuated by a racist agenda seeking to ‘otherise’ Indigenous people.”
These images in the media validate socially constructed inferiority of Indigenous people says Dr Reading.
“It creates a distorted self image, a lot of people internalise those images because they are so prevalent in society,” Dr Reading said.
“Those images in the media are pervasive, so it creates in the minds of the dominant group this belief about the inferiority of Aboriginal people and it shapes the kinds of interactions they have with them.
“It reinforces and legitimises racist or discriminatory behaviours and it’s a way of validating those racist notions about inferiority that don’t really exist, but are socially constructed and people are encouraged to believe them even though they aren’t true.”
Causing Social Phobia
Professor McDermott says, Aboriginal men in some communities suffer from social phobia from the way they are portrayed in the media.
“In 2005 there was a great campaign of denigrating Aboriginal men and portraying all Aboriginal men as child abusers and violent husbands or both,” Professor McDermott said.
“I remember getting onto ‘The Australian’ website to get some news and finding a headline that said ‘Raping children part of men’s business’.
“I think that’s appalling, off course it’s not part of ‘men’s business’ and of sacred ways of working and our roles in society but that was up there for whole of Australia to believe.
“I know of many men, particularly in the Northern Territory, where these accusation were flying round who just, it was almost like social phobia, didn’t want to be out there in society because they suspected everyone thinking they were either an abuser or violent man.”
Professor McDermott says sharing understanding is key to change.
“We really need to get away from ‘othering’ and stereotyping,” Professor McDermott said.
“We get to know each other, we sit down and talk.
“We actually share ideas and experiences and through that getting to know the real people, real situation and foregrounding Aboriginal culture, understanding the shared history and accepting what’s gone down in this country, then things can change.”
This article is also available at the INIHKD website, http://inihkd2012.com/?p=746.