Racism in Australian schools: here’s new research that can help your school deal with it

By Christine Halse

Most Australians think multiculturalism is good for Australia and only a very small percentage believe racism is a problem. According to the 2015 Scanlon Report 86% of Australians think multiculturalism has been good for Australia while only 1.5% think racism is a problem.

Yet, if we are to believe recent news reports, race hate among school students in Australia is on the rise, particularly through social media and on-line. Certainly around 70% of Australian school students have experienced some form of racism, ranging from verbal comments to violence, and 67% of these incidents have been at school.

So who do young people believe is responsible for racism?

We examined this issue in focus groups with Year 7-10 high school students as part of larger research project Doing Diversity: Intercultural Understanding in primary and secondary schools.

Almost all students said they’d been ‘taught to accept’ that Australia is a ‘very multicultural society’ and that ‘we’re all alike, yet we’re different’. All children said they were anti-racist and that racism ‘just shouldn’t happen, it’s disgusting’.

Nevertheless, students also said that racism was a problem in Australia. They attributed responsibility for racism to one of five factors.

  1. 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’.
  2. 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 recogniseand 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Australia is a nation of immigrants. Ensuring that it is also a tolerant nation means that we have to help future generations in our schools view racism as an individual as well as a collective responsibility. Our research can be of use to Australian schools and school systems as they help create a genuinely anti-racist, multicultural nation.


ChrisHalseProfessor Christine Halse is Chair in Education, School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Education at Deakin University. Christine was President of the Australian Association for Research in Education from 2011 to 2012. Her research interests include Sociology of Education, Social and Cultural effects of curriculum and policy, Doctoral Education, and Ethics in Research and Education Practice.

 This blog is based on an article published in Discourse: Cultural Studies in the Politics of Education as part of special issue on Responsibility and Responbilisation, edited by Christine Halse, Catherine Hartung and Jan Wright.

Christine Halse is presenting at the at the 2015 AARE conference in Fremantle, Western Australia, this week.