Researchers say racism is costing the Australian economy billions

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When my turn came around to contribute story ideas at my first editorial meeting with a large media organisation, my supervisor, a middle-aged white woman, dismissed every single one of my suggestions, while the rest of my colleagues got positive feedback and support for theirs.

At first, I thought it was just me. I was a new staff member. Perhaps I had chosen stories that were too off the mark.

But after several subsequent meetings, I started to notice a pattern. I would speak. My supervisor would shut me – and only me – down.

Despite my credentials and experience as a journalist, I had to work much harder to convince her that my ideas were worth pursuing.

It was clear she did not trust my editorial judgement. What's more, she barely spoke to me or made eye contact. I felt invisible.

I consider it no coincidence that I received the treatment I did as the only African American staff member in those editorial meetings, and in my whole division.

My supervisor set a tone, and most of my co-workers – white women in their 20s and 30s – followed suit. I found myself quietly ostracised, and it hurt like hell.

I started to dread going to work. I consulted HR, but my concerns fell on deaf ears. I became so riddled with stress, anxiety and depression, I sought therapy to cope with the trauma of what was clearly racial discrimination. It ate away at me. After some time, several more meetings with HR, and no improvement, I had to get out, so I quit.

I walked away from a great job and a great salary with my confidence in shreds.

Racism is everybody's problem

My experience didn't just cost me and my family. A growing body of research shows that racism has a huge impact on the economy, as well.

"It is first and foremost a human rights problem that depletes the dignity of a person," Deakin University research fellow Amanuel Elias tells ABC RN's The Money.

"But racism has also an economic dimension. It is generally considered a source of inefficiency related to the loss of productivity and talent," he says.

Dr Elias and his colleague, Professor Yin Paradies, have been looking into that cost in Australia.

Their research shows that there are significant health impacts associated with experiencing racism, including its effects on mental health.

As a result of racial discrimination, Australia loses more than three per cent of its GDP annually, Dr Elias says.

That translates to around $37 billion per annum in terms of our total economy.

"People exposed to racism are disproportionately affected by at least 11 mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, PTSD and a lot of other psychological disorders. Racism is also related to physical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes," he says.

What are the direct and indirect costs? 

Dr Elias breaks down the costs of racism into three categories.

There are direct costs, which fall to the person who experiences racism, including medical fees or payments from insurance schemes.

There are indirect costs, which are incurred by businesses and things such as loss of productivity, absenteeism and lower work performance.

And there are intangible costs. These, says Dr Elias, are the most significant.

"Intangible costs are not visible to us in the sense of direct costs like out-of-pocket expenses. But the person who has depression, anxiety or PTSD, they are personally carrying the burden," he says.

Intangible costs can even lead to premature death, he says.

Dr Elias argues that the government needs to devote more attention to the range of problems associated with racism in Australia, and that pointing out the economic cost is a compelling argument for change.

He hopes a growing awareness of the economic impact of racism will lead to better government policies.

"Policymakers and practitioners want [an] evidence base for spending money to combat racism. If we have [an] evidence base, then definitely we can approach this from a policy perspective," Dr Elias says.

"I'm hoping that people will take racism seriously…that policymakers will take a hard look on racism and devise programs and initiatives that will ultimately at least reduce racism and its impact on society."

Hope for the future

When I think back to my experience at the media organisation, I wish that HR had taken my concerns more seriously. They could have used it as an opportunity to start a conversation about racial discrimination and unconscious biases.

They could have taken my supervisor aside and reminded her of the importance of diversity, not to mention company policy.

They could have done this and more, but they didn't and in the end, it was everybody's loss.

Whether it's for reasons of finances or fairness, I hope the organisation realises that loss, and that it inspires a lasting change in attitude, culture and accountability, so that no-one else ever has to go through what I did.

By Roje Augustin for The Money  (Original ABC Article)