Challenging racism in Australian schools

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
Educators must be willing to learn from their students, to help effectively challenge racism in schools.
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Anti-Asian attitudes peaked during the Covid-19 pandemic – both in Australia and around the western world, worsening discrimination and sparking the online movement to #StopAsianHate. And while the threat of the pandemic has eased those feelings somewhat, the harmful attitudes are still lingering in Australian communities.

In an effort to counter those attitudes, UniSQ has partnered with Western Sydney University on the Challenging Racism Project event Australian School-Based Anti-Asian Racism in Post (?)-Pandemic Time, which will look at how schools – and young people – could be the answer to ending anti-Asian racism in Australia. The event will run on Tuesday, 30 April, from 12midday-1pm (AEST).

The academic spearheading the initiative is education sociologist Dr Aaron Teo, who will be presenting at the Challenging Racism event to share how his own experience as a Singaporean-Chinese first-generation migrant to Australia has shaped his research, particularly in the education/school setting.

As a former high school teacher, Dr Teo says educators must recognise and challenge their own privilege and biases, and be willing to learn from their students, to help effectively challenge racism in schools.

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Defining racism is the first important step

When EducationDaily asked Dr Teo what Asian Australians are noticing when it comes to experiencing racism in this country, he says the answer “is a complex one”.

“As my research shows, there are varied – and often erroneous – understandings of what constitutes racism – even within the Asian Australian (AA) community,” Dr Teo says.

“Much of these misunderstandings stem from the ways in which we conceptualise and speak about racism in Australia more broadly. What I’m referring to here is simplistic status quo understandings of racism purely as once-off, overt acts of aggression by aberrant individuals.”

But such misunderstandings, he told EducationDaily, “do not account for broader ideological and institutional systems that continue to privilege white Australian cultural norms at the expense of other cultural groups, and certainly do not account for the ways that these systems simultaneously inculcate and sustain harmful racist attitudes in the first place”.

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The other confounding element, Dr Teo says, is “how these broader misunderstandings are internalised and acted upon by AAs”.

To explain the need for his event, he points to a growing body of research on anti-Asian racism (particularly during COVID) by the Asian Australian Alliance and the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies.

“There is also other work by All Together Now (2020); Australian National University Centre for Social Research and Methods (Biddle et al., 2020); Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Studies (Kamp et al., 2021); Lowy Institute (Hsu, 2023); ReachOut Australia (n.d.),” he told EducationDaily.

“There is a dearth of research on school spaces in particular, which is where my work comes in.”

Overcoming an attitude of denial

Discussions about racism within the community range on a spectrum, including:

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  • outright denial that racism exists
  • acknowledgement that it exists, but that it’s not that big of a problem
  • acknowledgement that it exists and is a problem, combined with an uncertainty with how to move forward
  • acknowledgement that it exists and is a problem, combined with a desire to act towards positive social change

“In more concerning cases, certain members of the AA community demonstrate a form of victim-blaming on account of internalised racism that causes them to harbour, and act on, harmful deficit views of other AAs in the community. In essence, there is poor racial literacy within Australian society, and by extension, AA communities,” Dr Teo says.

He told EducationDaily that AAs face different forms of exclusion (i.e., being spat on or told to go back to where they came from, being asked about their language proficiency, facing name-based discrimination in hiring and promotion – and more) based on yet another erroneous conceptualisation of Asians as a homogeneous cultural group.

“This simplistic lumping together is part of a phenomenon known as the model minority myth, which explains why Asian Australians appear to fit in, until they don’t (think about the White Australia Policy, COVID-19 racism, etc.),” Dr Teo says.

“It also explains why discussions of racism in Australia tends to focus primarily on First Nations peoples and not the ways it affects racial minorities writ large.”

Schools can be powerful change-makers

But since Dr Teo says schools function as microcosms of society, “Asian Australian students are similarly stereotyped and consequently face overt forms of discrimination along with more covert instances of segregation, or conversely, as a threat on account of reductive cultural reasons“.

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He hopes the upcoming event will help address these issues and told EducationDaily that he believes there “is an urgent need for greater racial literacy both within and beyond AA communities, as this is the common starting point for more substantive social change”. 

“My presentation will simultaneously shed light on AA experiences of exclusion in school spaces, as well as expand on some of the aforementioned findings/complexities as a means of enhancing broader racial literacy,” Dr Teo says.

“My presentation will also touch on how, through their teaching, racially literate teachers (and students) can start to change harmful narratives and challenge simplistic understandings of (anti-Asian) racism.”

Teachers who step up can motivate others

School communities and teachers (AA or otherwise), Dr Teo says, “are often the biggest perpetrators of (anti-Asian) racism, so an important first step is for teachers and other members of the school community to recognise and question the cultural assumptions, values, and beliefs they’re bringing to school and classroom spaces”.

“For instance, teachers might ask how their own schooling and relative success in life, as a result of being part of the cultural majority, impacts the way they interact with, and teach, students from ethnically diverse backgrounds,” he told EducationDaily.

“Similarly, school leaders might interrogate the sorts of stereotypes (hidden or otherwise) they have about non-white teachers. Of course, there are broader department-level initiatives such as Racism. No Way! in NSW.”

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The conversations he hopes will flow from his event “need to be happening from the ground up, which then need to be taken seriously by school leaders and education departments”.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live