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Racism wasn’t built in a day (and it can’t be torn down in a day either)

Racism wasn’t built in a day (and it can’t be torn down in a day either)

Racism in all its forms – implicit or explicit – if left unchecked, risks being normalised and entrenched in school culture.  In 2017, the Speak out against racism survey found that about one-third of all students surveyed (some 4500+ primary and secondary students from Victoria and New South Wales) experienced racial discrimination by peers.  The study also found that almost 20% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students had experienced racial discrimination from their teachers.  Interestingly, the survey found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students reported less about their experiences of racial discrimination suggesting that this may be the result of Indigenous students becoming desensitised to racism.  Racism No way highlights that very few complaints of racism against schools are brought forward due to a “limited knowledge of legislation, fear or unwillingness on the part of children to report racist incidents or reluctance by parents to pursue legal redress”.

It is little wonder that there are low rates of reports of racism, when the United Nations Committee on the elimination of racial discrimination found that “expressions of racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia, including in the public sphere and political debates as well as in the media, are on the rise”.  It was not so long ago that Pauline Hanson’s motion ‘It’s OK to be white’ was almost passed in the Senate.  A mere 18 months since Kerri-Anne Kennerley was called out for her racist commentary about Invasion Day protests.  Some four years since the Bill Leak cartoon was reported to the Human Rights Commission for breaching the Racial Discrimination Act.  Each time the debates about whether it was racist or not was consistently dominated by White voices. And yet, it is well documented that “those who do not themselves experience racism either do not recognise it or dismiss it as trivial and so not see its potential for damage”.

June this year, in Singleton, a classroom teacher had reportedly stated that European colonisation was the ‘best thing to happen’ to Aboriginal peoples.  The teacher apologised to the students for their remarks and the Department of Education was investigating the incident.  The teacher was, at the time, still teaching at the school while the students were informed that they did not have to return to that class for the rest of the term.

Late last week it was reported that a casual teacher at a school in Coffs Harbour had reportedly told a group of Indigenous high school students that he supported the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families.  The teacher has since apologised for their remarks and the school has reported that the teacher will not return “unless the Education Department’s employee performance and conduct unit cleared him”.  However, the article also highlighted that there had been “at least three similar incidents at the school in recent months”.

Educators, schools and systems have been asked recently, What does a culturally competent teaching workforce in Australia look like? Using the latest media reported incidents of racism in schools, I want to show you what a culturally competent teaching workforce in Australia DOES NOT look like.

A culturally competent teaching workforce does not allow a system to perpetuate the power and privilege that they hold to inform the processes of determining whether a student’s reporting of racism is able to be validated against the words of a classroom teacher.  In the article, it was reported that the other incidents of racism within the very same school had been dealt with despite the NSW Department of Education finding “no conclusive evidence”.  The dismissal of claims further acts to silence reporting and normalise behaviours in school settings.

And what sort of evidence was necessary?  The word of a student versus the word of a teacher?  How can ‘conclusive evidence’ be found?  A school where Indigenous students feel they need to record classroom interactions on the ‘off chance’ that racist comments are made would not suggest that the classroom or the school is culturally safe and yet, it is the only conclusive evidence that would verify the student’s claims.

A culturally competent teaching workforce does not allow the classroom teacher to continue teaching while providing the student reporting the racism the option to not attend that class for the rest of the term.  A culturally competent teaching workforce would recognise that the ‘solution’ is contrary to policy.  A primary focus within the National Agreement on Closing the Gap is to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ to “achieve their full learning potential”.  By removing the student from the classroom and allowing the teacher to remain, the student can easily be perceived as ‘the problem’ rather than the racism demonstrated by the teacher.

A culturally competent teaching workforce does not see Cultural Awareness Training as ‘the solution’ in addressing the incidences of racism.  Because we all know, engrained racism embedded and normalised within the Australian social psyche cannot be resolved with a day’s training that staff are mandatorily made to attend.

Cultural Competence training or Cultural Awareness training, whatever it is called, should not be positioned as punishment.  If Student Evaluation Surveys on mandatory courses tells any academic anything, it is that people made to participate in a space they are not willingly entering will not actively engage and will actively resist.

Nor should Cultural Competence training be positioned as the answer to redressing the historically and socially accepted representations, biases, assumptions and stereotypes held about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by wider Australia.

A day’s training cannot undo generations of embedded biases and a culturally competent teaching workforce would know this.

Instead, as Bronwyn Fredericks, Debbie Bargallie and Bronwyn Carlson recently wrote, “cultural competency training must enable participants to interrogate their own cultural positionings and in doing so understand the pervasive nature of race and racism in Australian society and institutions”.

As an educationalist working in Initial Teacher Education, I consistently remind my students that they are to model lifelong learning; that the training in Indigenous education they may or may not have received in their teacher training is merely the starting point and that they must make a concerted effort to continue their learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, languages, histories and cultures.  I share how the course in which I teach is just as much about them and reflective practice than it is about how to teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures 101.  I share how the intention is to effect change within the system; to work towards shaping a world we can all live in.

This cannot occur unless people begin acknowledging how racism is embedded within institutions and systems. Schools and systems need to take decisive action to call out racism. It is not until then that change is possible.

Schools and teachers, as well as education systems, need to begin reflecting on their actions and the baggage they carry. They need to willingly partake in honest conversations about how they interact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, languages, histories and cultures.  A culturally competent teaching workforce is possible in Australia, but it will require some intelligent self-reflection as individuals, schools, organisations and institutions address the systemic issues holding back true growth and development as a profession capable of cultural competence.

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