The racism challenge for Australian schools - Education Matters Magazine
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The racism challenge for Australian schools

Results from a three-year study on intercultural understanding in Australian primary and secondary schools has revealed unique insights into young people’s thoughts on racism.

The project, Doing Diversity: Intercultural Understanding in Primary and Secondary Schools, examined the issue of responsibility for racism in focus groups with Year 7-10 high school students.

As intercultural understanding has been made a mandatory part of all curriculum areas in the new Australian curriculum, the researchers sought to investigate issues in schools and work on ways to best implement this new aspect.

Professor Christine Halse, Chair in Education, School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Education at Deakin University, said some of the key findings were how powerful outside of school influences were on shaping students’ attitudes and behaviours, and how important and necessary it was for schools to consider and take into account they operate in this broader social context.

“Schools are sites of social formation,” Halse said. “Students bring attitudes and values to the school space and schools have to be responsive to those sorts of contexts.

“We found the most effective schools were schools where issues of building the intercultural capabilities was a priority across all aspects of school activity. So it wasn’t just limited to the curriculum, it was a part of school policy, it was part of the nature of their interactions with school communities, and it was built into their strategic plan.”

The research also found that in schools where the intercultural capabilities were a priority across the school, there were much higher levels of acceptance of diversity, more positive relations between different cultures, and these schools had safe and calm environments that facilitated learning.

“Having a school where there is a supportive and active environment for diversity, meant they actually had very robust, calm learning environments and that had a direct positive impact on learning outcomes,” Halse said.

Students in the focus groups attributed responsibility for racism to one of five factors.

Racism is normal. Racism is a ‘fact of nature’, a universal characteristic of all humans, and ‘inevitable’. Attributing responsibility for racism in this way removes it from the possibility of human intervention: ‘you can’t control it; ‘you can’t stop it’; ‘you can’t get away from it’. For these children, it didn’t matter what teachers or schools did, stopping racism was ‘not going to happen’.

It’s the racist bully. The idea that one type of individual, the racist bully, is responsible for racism is widely promoted in anti-bullying and anti-racism programs in Australia and internationally. Assigning all responsibility for racism to the ‘racist bully’, however, removes the responsibility of others to recognise and reform how their own attitudes and behaviours contribute to racism. For example, through subtle acts of exclusion, as bystanders who ignore racist incidents, or through social practices and structures that discriminate and disadvantage different ethnic and cultural groups.

It’s ethnic minorities who don’t assimilate. Ethnic minorities who fail to adopt national social and cultural norms were seen to be responsible for racist behaviour. It is okay to maintain language and ‘other multicultural stuff’ (food, dress, dances) but practices that were unfamiliar and foreign to the social majority should be abandoned (such as the burka and polygamy). This was because ‘if you’re going to come to Australia…you’re going to have to follow, kind of, our way’. Ethnic groups that did not modify their own behaviour were responsible for any racism that resulted from failing to comply.

Whites are the real victims. Students insisted that racism is ‘not a good thing’ but denied any individual or collective responsibility for racism by the ‘white culture’. The argument is that whites are the real victims of racism because most accusations of racism were untrue or unreasonable, and this put an unfair burden on whites to alter their behaviour to avoid allegations of racism. This inverted racism attributes responsibility to the historical victims of racism.

We’re all responsible. Racism is seen as a mutual responsibility for everyone. Students used humourous, racialised nicknames as an example. It was OK, they said, to call a Greek-Australian friend ‘Souvlaki’ and an Indian friend ‘Curry’ because this was an accepted, cultural practice in Australia: ‘that’s just how we live today, like, in our society’. But everyone was responsible for ensuring that their jokes were ‘funny’ and did not cause ‘hurt’ for managing their responses: ‘it only hurts if you let it…you’ve got to not let it get to you’. In short, this view attributed all individuals with equal responsibility for managing their attitudes, behaviours and responses to prevent racism.

Halse said the research can be of use to schools to help create a genuinely anti-racist, multicultural nation.

“While those five factors are not representative of all schools it’s helpful for teachers to know that these are the different ways students think about responsibility so that in their engagement with students and the way they structure their curriculum, develop policies in schools, this is part of the knowledge base that can inform their decision making.”