The Facebook page of “Aboriginal memes” — now removed from the site — said it was engaging in “controversial humour”. I didn’t find any humour. I have written and performed comedy in a previous life, and my sense of humour hasn’t deserted me.

This was just offensive racial vilification that made me feel sick. And it’s making indigenous people sick, too.

There is a clear effect of the experience of racism on health. Here’s some examples quoted by Dr Angela Durey, who has researched the health effects of racism:

  • Those who experience racist verbal abuse are 50% more likely to report their health being fair or poor than those who haven’t experienced it
  • Those who believed that most employers were racist were 40% more likely to report their health was fair or poor
  • A US systematic review reported an inverse correlation of racial discrimination with physical and mental health
  • Experiences of Maori people in New Zealand with verbal or physical abuse or unfair treatment in health, employment or housing resulted in a wide range of worse physical and mental health — including higher smoking rates.

On an individual level, I know people who hate going to hospital because of their experiences, who won’t go to the police if they have trouble because of their experience of racism from police officers. Many people will have their own stories.

When we talk about Aboriginal health, we often talk as if the problem is “being Aboriginal”. In reality, “being Aboriginal” is a marker for having experienced racism, discrimination and colonisation. It is the cause of so many of the health problems we keep describing, including lifestyle risks factors.

It seems clear that the experience of racism is a cause of ill health, and so working to eradicate racism is something we should do as a public health measure.

It’s also not enough to say that people can avoid experiencing racism by not visiting the website. This assumes that those contributing to the website and those visiting “just for a laugh” do not exist outside Facebook, that at work, or with friends, none of these attitudes come into play. It assumes an Aboriginal person can read that someone contributing to this website works for Consumer Affairs Victoria, Centrelink, an insurance company and a catering company — as Crikey reported yesterday — and believe that they will be treated fairly when they get there.

Those contributing to this group and reading it are reinforced in their beliefs that it is OK to talk like this, that it’s all just a bit of a laugh. But in the same way that drink-driving harms other people, racism harms other people. It’s not OK, and that needs to be made clear.

What is the way forward? A first step has been taken — Facebook seems to have taken some action. But we need to remain vigilant, as others will pop up. We should compare providing these pages to making someone work in a smoke-filled room or lending the drunk driver your car keys.

Tweet your displeasure; post your disagreement to Facebook. We could all leave Facebook if it persists in being slow to remove unhealthy racist material and quick to remove healthy breast-feeding material. We should follow with interest the investigations by ACMA and the Human Rights Commission. We can challenge racism wherever you see it — All Together Now campaigns well on this.

And finally, as Durey says, we need to turn the lens on ourselves — “white privilege is an invisible package of unearned assets” that we seldom examine. Or as John Scalzi imaginatively puts it: “The lowest difficulty setting there is.”

This is not about white guilt or self flagellation. This is recognising that we are stood at the top of a cliff, not at the end of a level playing field.

How are we constructing our health services? What is the experience of Aboriginal people using them? The answers won’t usually be as dramatic as those Facebook pages, but they may be just as damaging.

To do this, however, we need to listen more closely to the Aboriginal voices out there. For they are telling us about their experiences if we care to listen.

*Tim Senior has represented the RACGP at the Close the Gap steering committee and works for the Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation. These are personal opinions and not the official position of any organisations he works for.