“Racism is the process by which systems and policies, actions and attitudes create inequitable opportunities and outcomes for people based on race…Racism includes all the laws, policies, ideologies and barriers that prevent people from experiencing justice, dignity, and equity because of their racial identity. It can come in the form of harassment, abuse or humiliation, violence or intimidating behaviour. However, racism also exists in systems and institutions that operate in ways that lead to inequity and injustice.”
Australian Human Rights Commission (2020)
Racism can take many forms, such as jokes or comments that cause offence or hurt, sometimes unintentionally; name-calling or verbal abuse; harassment or intimidation, or commentary in the media or online that inflames hostility towards certain groups.
At its most serious, racism can result in acts of physical abuse and violence.
Racism can directly or indirectly exclude people from accessing services or participating in employment, education, sport and social activities.
It can also occur at a systemic or institutional level through policies, conditions or practices that disadvantage certain groups.
It often manifests through unconscious bias or prejudice.
On a structural level, racism serves to perpetuate inequalities in access to power, resources and opportunities across racial and ethnic groups.
The belief that a particular race or ethnicity is inferior or superior to others is sometimes used to justify such inequalities.
Australian Human Rights Commission, National Anti-Racism Strategy, July 2012, page 4
Racist behaviour may be direct (overt) or indirect (covert) in nature. Direct racial discrimination is the unfair or unequal treatment of a person or a group on racial grounds. An example would be an employer who won’t hire someone on the basis of their cultural or linguistic background. This type of discrimination is typically deliberate.
In schools, direct racism can be seen in incidents of name calling, racist abuse, racist graffiti, stereotypes, harassment and discrimination. The findings of the 2017 Speak Out Against Racism project established that approximately one third of students experienced racism and 60% of students reported seeing their peers being racially discriminated against by other students.
It is important to note that institutional or systemic racism can also be direct. The Assimilation Policy is an example of past direct institutional racism in Australia.
Indirect racial discrimination is seemingly equitable on the surface, but in practice disadvantages people from particular groups. For example, a rule that says that all students must not wear anything on their heads could result in discrimination against students whose religion requires the wearing of headwear. Indirect racial discrimination can occur even when there is no intention to discriminate.
Indirect racism may take many forms including, prejudiced attitudes, lack of recognition of cultural diversity and culturally biased practices. One example could occur if a school directed all Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students into a non-academic pathway.
Institutional racism is commonly associated with indirect forms of racism.
Racism is destructive. It disempowers people by devaluing their identity. It destroys community cohesion and creates divisions in society.
Where these behaviours involve unequal power relationships between individuals or groups from different cultural backgrounds, racist actions on the part of members of the dominant culture have the effect of marginalising those from minority groups.
Racism in schools has damaging effects both on individuals and the learning and working environment.
There is a well-established body of research that links racism to negative health and well-being outcomes. Racism has been linked to a number of detrimental health implications including, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and lower self-confidence.
Students who experience racism talk of having reduced levels of self-confidence and feelings of insecurity or failure. Students who feel that their culture and identity are not valued may also experience reduced levels of self-esteem and self-worth and feel that they have no place in the schooling system. These feelings may lead to a rejection of their own culture, language and values and a subsequent loss of identity.
Racist abuse and harassment can cause students to be fearful of school and withdraw from other students and school activities. If the school does not address discriminatory attitudes and actions, both students and teachers will feel frustrated and helpless and that they have no rights to fair treatment.
Violence associated with racism occurs in Australian schools, either as part of the racist harassment or in retaliation to it. This violence can take different forms, ranging from pushing and shoving, property damage and fights between individual students to serious physical assaults.
Racism impacts on student engagement. Students who have been subject to racism are frequently unable to concentrate in class and may be unwilling to participate or take risks in learning for fear of retribution or ridicule. Evidence also suggests that students who are disaffected with school are less likely to attend school regularly and are likely to drop out earlier than other groups of students. Racism has been linked to diminished morale, lower productivity and an increase in the incidence of stress and absenteeism.
While all people are affected by racism, evidence shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff and those from language backgrounds other than English most consistently experience racism within Australian schools.
Together, the lower participation rates, behavioural problems and feelings of alienation that result from the presence of racism in schools impact on educational outcomes. Education depends on the regular sustained attendance of each student and their ability to participate effectively in the classroom. In a racist learning environment, this balance is disrupted and educational outcomes are limited as a result. Educational outcomes for individual students and student groups who are subject to racism may include lower levels of educational achievement and lower rates of participation in post-school education and training.