The extent of racism in Australian schools

There are no words to describe how racism feels. Everyone deals with it differently. Some people lash out verbally, others withdraw into themselves. Some people can talk openly about how it feels, others hide it deep within… How many of our children are trying to learn in racist classrooms? How does a child reach their full potential and exercise their rights as citizens of this country when they are given messages every day that they are worthless human beings? What if it was your son or daughter? What would you do?
Mark Williams, 1999

Racism is present in Australian schools. Direct racism can be seen in incidents of racist abuse, harassment and discrimination. Racism is also manifested indirectly, in the form of prejudiced attitudes, lack of recognition of cultural diversity and culturally biased practices.

An experience commonly reported is that racism in schools is often not acknowledged or addressed by teachers or others in authority who have the ability to do something about it. It seems that those who do not themselves experience racism either do not recognise it or dismiss it as trivial and do not see its potential for damage. The danger is that when racist attitudes and behaviours are permitted to go unchecked in a school, a climate develops which sees these actions as normal and so allows racism to become entrenched.

If parents feel they or their children have been discriminated against they may bring a complaint of racism against the school, individual teachers or the education system. However, complaints received under Commonwealth and State Acts relating to racial discrimination provide only one indication of the extent of racism in Australia schools. While few complaints are received in the area of education each year, this should not be equated with a low incidence of racist activity. Limited knowledge of legislation, fear or unwillingness on the part of children to report racist incidents or reluctance by parents to pursue legal redress are factors that may prevent the bringing of formal complaints. In addition, formal remedies for complaints of racial discrimination are not always appropriate, with mediation often being sought as a preferable alternative.

Research and anecdotal evidence from a variety of sources including education reports and independent studies as well as the personal accounts of individuals provide information on the nature and extent of racism in Australian schools. The evidence demonstrates that for many students and teachers, racism is part of daily life.

The sorts of racist incidents that are most commonly reported at school are name-calling, teasing, exclusion, verbal abuse and bullying.

In a major national report on racism in Australia, the Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1991), many students and parents from ethnic communities reported racial harassment and verbal abuse within schools, colleges and universities. The harassment directed at students was mainly carried out by other students but it was also reported that sometimes teachers either failed to intervene appropriately in situations of racist harassment, or instigated the harassment by inappropriately dealing with classroom discussions.

In a study of racism and its impact on education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (Brennan 1998), parents were asked about their perceptions of schooling for their children. It was found that all the parents in the study said that their children suffered from overt forms of racism. These included name calling, teasing, bullying and being provoked into fighting by other students. Every family had at least one child who had been called racist names. The parents believed that teachers discriminated against their children, blaming them for things they hadn’t done and punishing them more than non-Indigenous students.

The national Kids Help Line telephone counselling service compiled data on calls related to bullying experienced by young people made to it over a five year period (Kids Help Line Newsletter 1999). The information revealed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and students from language backgrounds other than English were much more likely to experience bullying at school than other students. Some examples of calls to the Kids Help Line follow:

Male caller (12) is being teased and has had threats of violence from kids at school because of his Asian background. He said the teasing also occurs outside of school by adults as well as kids.

Female caller (14) says she is often harassed by her peers for having dark skin. She has no friends and often feels bad about herself when others put her down.

Male caller (13) is constantly bullied about his Aboriginal background. His brother is also harassed. The students involved have been asked to stop, have been suspended and their parents consulted. However, the parents also harass Aboriginal people.

Further evidence is provided in the report, Immigration and Schooling in the 1990s, (Cahill 1996). It describes the nature of the racism experienced by students from language backgrounds other than English in schools:

Examples of racist behaviour mentioned by teachers included name-calling and bullying, culturally biased nicknames, resentment towards support given to non-English speaking background (NESB) students, ostracism of NESB students by other students, constant ‘sending up’ of NESB students in class, NESB students being told to return to their homeland, NESB students being taken advantage of because of their lack of English, off-hand racist comments made and thought to be funny, occasional fights triggered by racist views or taunts and students refusing to work with racially different students (p 124). [4]

These reports and a number of others [5] support the view that racist teasing, bullying and harassment are common in schools and that the students and parents who experience it often feel helpless to do anything about it.

They call me names and won’t let me join their group. They steal my things, put smoke(s) in my bag and make trouble for me with parents and teachers, abuse me for something I didn’t do and also quarrel with me over silly things. I know it’s racist because they told me I should go back home and that they don’t need black strangers in their country.
School student, quoted in Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia, 1991

Evidence also indicates that teachers and other school staff, particularly those who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or from language backgrounds other than English, experience racism in schools. This may take the form of harassment, abuse or the promotion of racist stereotypes by both students and colleagues.

In a study of secondary teachers’ perspectives on multiculturalism and multicultural education in a Victorian rural town (O’Shannessy 1996), one teacher described the difficulties experienced teaching in a racist environment:

When I first started teaching here six years ago, I used to go home in tears nearly every night because of the kids’ racist taunts. Now I only go home in tears sometimes. I can’t maintain my cultural heritage and teach in this school. I have to try and adapt. My own culture of which I am very proud is now non-existent. If I retain it, I’m considered less than a human being here. I’ve learnt to be tough, and at least try not to be hurt by what they (the students) say. In the interests of good classroom management, I can’t afford to let them see how their racist remarks hurt me. (p 222).

The teacher felt that racist behaviour within the school made it difficult for her to implement and maintain effective classroom management. She also described the failure of the school executive to appropriately deal with racist incidents:

While he (the student) was standing outside, the Principal happened to come along. He stopped, so I went outside the classroom to explain why the student was out of my class. I repeated quite calmly and logically without any hint of emotion exactly what the student had said to me in front of thirty other students. He (the Principal) simply turned to the boy and said, ‘You didn’t say that did you? You need to be educated’. That was all he said. This isn’t an uncommon incident. (p 223).

Teachers have also reported that they perceive discrimination in employment and promotional opportunities due to prejudiced attitudes regarding their English language competence, teaching skills or qualifications gained from overseas.

The Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commission in response to concerns about increasing numbers of incidents of apparently race-related harassment and abuse within schools in 1998 initiated a project to document effective strategies for addressing racism. The project focuses on how schools and their communities respond to racist behaviour.

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 and even concerted attacks by racist gangs.

As schools generally regard violence as more serious than bullying or name-calling, automatic sanctions, such as suspension, may be applied against students who use violence in response to racism. If schools do not investigate the cause of the violent behaviour, the result may be that the students who were being harassed in the first place can end up being more severely punished than the racist bullies. This has the effect of reinforcing the racist behaviour by apparently rewarding the bullies and punishing the victims.

It happened more than once. Several Australian students have tried to corner me during recess. They said Asian students were never wanted at their school and that I would invite trouble if I hang around any Australian girls.
School student, quoted in Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia, 1991.

The Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia found that racist violence was an endemic problem for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The report of the Inquiry argues that:

The fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are faced with racial discrimination in almost every aspect of their daily lives is the underlying reason for the high levels of racist violence reported to this Inquiry (p 121).

This is supported by another national report, Sticks and Stones, Report on Violence in Australian Schools (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Violence in Schools 1994), which found that racism, as a contributor to violence, was present in schools, as it was in the community. In the report, the South Australian Aboriginal Education Unit advised that Aboriginal students in schools in South Australia were involved in violence at a number of levels. Much of the violence committed towards, and by, Aboriginal students was the outcome of wider racist community attitudes.

Another example provided in the Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia describes a case in which a fourteen-year-old girl and a seventeen-year-old boy attending a Sydney high school were both subjected to verbal abuse and physical assault. It was claimed that the principal failed to take any action to protect the students although he admitted that many children in his school were the victims of racist abuse and assault.

Evidence indicates that violence associated with racism is more likely to occur in secondary schools than in primary schools. Cahill’s study found that in primary schools, incidents were quickly manageable whereas secondary schools were more likely to be affected by external gangs and the students were more likely to be influenced by home discussions and racial hatred than younger students.

Many accounts show that violence often occurs in retaliation to racist taunts, when the victims fight back against their tormentors. This issue is of critical importance for Aboriginal students, who report that getting involved in fights as a result of racist insults is the most common cause for them being suspended.

The findings of a national report Meeting the Educational Needs of Aboriginal Adolescents (Groome and Hamilton 1995), demonstrate that almost inevitably, where Aboriginal students were involved in violent behaviour, the roots of violence lay in racism experienced by the Aboriginal student. The authors argue:

If the child feels that the school is not recognising his or her needs or rights in a situation of racial harassment, they can resort to violence as a way of handling the situation (p 54). [6]

If violent incidents in schools are associated with racist behaviour, the school executive need to consider carefully the appropriate punishment for all concerned. Incidents of racist violence that are inappropriately dealt with will only confirm the perceptions of some students and their parents that schools are racist institutions.

Schools play a major role in influencing the formation of students’ attitudes and world views. Teachers need to assist students to develop an understanding of and respect for cultural differences if they are to be successful in countering racism within the school community and in preparing students to participate in the wider society.

The attitudes of school students towards the cultural diversity of their classrooms and communities vary widely. Among some students there is a commitment to multiculturalism and an understanding of cultural diversity. Other students fear differences and feel resentment towards people of different cultural backgrounds.

In a study of factors that influence the development of racist attitudes in children (Black-Gutman and Hickson 1996), it was found that older children showed greater tolerance to Asian-Australians than younger children. However, the same increase in tolerance with age was not demonstrated in attitudes towards Aboriginal children. Older children tended to have stronger negative attitudes towards Aboriginal children than younger ones. The authors attribute this to the influence of prevailing social attitudes on the development of racist attitudes in children.

The way children in Australia construct their ideas of racial difference and how these ideas are socially organised through the practices of pedagogy and curriculum was investigated in research undertaken in two primary and two secondary schools in Victoria (Rizvi 1993). The study found that while children develop their ideas on racial difference from the variety of messages they receive from their peers, parents and the wider community, they are not simply passive recipients of this information.

Children growing up in Australia are exposed to contradictory images of ‘race’ relations. On the one hand, they are taught to celebrate the fact that Australia is a multicultural society that values the principles of cultural tolerance and intercultural harmony. On the other hand, they are exposed to images of Aboriginal Australians and other minority groups that portray those groups as objects of paternalistic concern or as aliens whose presence threatens the cultural identity and economic well being of the majority community.

The development of beliefs and attitudes is a complex process. Students’ attitudes are strongly influenced by their families and peers as well as by the values and ideas of popular culture promoted through the media. The role of the school is also critical, through both the formal setting of the classroom and interactions within the wider school community.

The attitudes of students were also looked at in the Whole School Anti-Racism Project (NSW Department of School Education 1995), which examined accounts of racism in a number of schools and explored ways in which school communities could address racism. In a survey of one hundred and thirty secondary students, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, it was found that many students expressed prejudiced attitudes. The study showed that:

  • racist comments were more likely to be expressed by senior students than by junior students
  • a marked difference existed between the sexes on how to overcome racism. The girls’ approach to addressing racist problems was to seek non-violent solutions, whereas most boys recommended that racist problems be solved through physical force and aggressive actions.
  • Aboriginal students were less likely to display negative attitudes towards others than non-Aboriginal students
  • many responses from Aboriginal students revealed a sense of powerlessness to change an unresponsive system, no matter what they said or did.

In contrast to these findings, a postcard campaign conducted with students in Years 10 and 11 (Victorian Multicultural Commission 1997) found positive attitudes to diversity among young people.

If I could make a difference I’d put a stop to racial discrimination. The world is filled with different colours and shades, but underneath the frail cloak of colour is a person, a person like you and me, someone who feels and loves and cares.
Student response, quoted in Victorian Multicultural Commission,Postcard Campaign, Teacher’s Information Kit 1997

Being Australian means that I can go to school with a very big mixture of different cultures around me. And that I can make friends with lots of different people and talk about my background. To me Australia means that I can be down to earth about who I am.
Student response, quoted in Victorian Multicultural Commission,Postcard Campaign, Teacher’s Information Kit 1997

Of the nearly seven thousand responses received from the students, nearly half mentioned values relating to cultural diversity and many also used critical concepts such as racism, prejudice, stereotypes, ignorance, war and the ‘race debate’ and referred to multiculturalism, citizenship and rights. Negative responses to diversity represented less than half of one percent of the whole sample. The researchers concluded that:

For the generation of young people who responded on the postcards, diversity is the mainstream and difference is deep in their consciousness of themselves and their relationships with others.

These findings are supported by a study conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (Ainley et al 1998) for the National Report on Schooling in Australia.[7] More than half of both primary and secondary teachers surveyed reported that they placed a major emphasis in their teaching on non-sexist, non-racist understandings. In the student questionnaire, seventy-one percent of Year 5 students and sixty-five percent of Year 10 students indicated that making sure that people of all races are treated equally was extremely important to them.

The role of the school is crucial in developing students’ values and understandings of their world. Attitudes learnt from home or the wider society are tested and challenged both in the formal setting of the classroom and informally among peers.

Teachers’ knowledge of the cultural diversity within their classrooms and within the broader Australian community varies. Teachers may have little knowledge or understanding of the home lives and culture of students whose cultures and backgrounds differ from theirs. As a result, some teachers carry with them stereotyped views of what students can achieve or how they are likely to behave according to their culture or ethnicity. These expectations can influence the teachers’ behaviours and teaching styles.

Not once during my twelve years of formal schooling did any of my teachers or anyone else in the school system affirm my Aboriginality. Instead I grew up feeling ashamed of my Aboriginal heritage and I felt pressured to stress that I was only part Aboriginal.
Terry Ngarritjan-Kessaris, 1995

Brennan, in the study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents’ experiences of education argues that:

…schooling, for most Indigenous children and their parents, remains culturally alien. Most non-Indigenous teachers and students have little knowledge or understanding of Indigenous children’s home lives and culture and this lack of understanding is reflected in their interactions with them. (p 159).

The lack of cultural understanding on the part of teachers was further demonstrated in a study comparing the learning experiences and classroom interactions of urban Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children who were beginning school (Malin 1997). The study revealed a wide gulf in expectations between Aboriginal culture and the school.

The study showed that the non-Aboriginal children were used to having decisions made for them and were trained to obey adults and heed verbal instructions. Aboriginal families, on the other hand, expected their children to be able to make their own decisions and did not require the same level of obedience or attendance to verbal instructions from adults. Aboriginal children were also expected to be aware of others’ needs and not to make a fuss about minor injuries or upsets. Another significant difference was that the Aboriginal children were reluctant to be seen to make a mistake – they liked to practise a task before being asked to speak or act publicly.

As a result, the Aboriginal students tended to be more independent in the classroom and less attentive to the teacher than non-Aboriginal students. They were more likely to help other students, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, took longer to complete work and were shy to speak up in class in case they made a mistake. The teacher was unaware of these differences in expectations and interpreted the Aboriginal students’ behaviour as being disobedient or uncooperative or lacking in ability. It appeared that the Aboriginal students got into trouble from the teacher more often and received less positive feedback than other students.

These findings are supported by another study of classroom interactions between teachers and Aboriginal students (Hatton, Munns and Nicklin Dent 1996). The study found:

  • Aboriginal students were identified more often as troublemakers and the discipline applied was more severe than for other students
  • teachers spent less time with them in class and the time spent was used more for management and caring for the children than for instruction
  • the differences which students brought to the classroom – knowledge, language, values and skills – were ignored by teachers who believed that all students came with equivalent competencies and should be treated the same
  • the curriculum focused on the knowledge of the dominant group in society and alternative knowledge was largely ignored.

Evidence shows that in addition to this lack of cross-cultural understanding, some teachers are also perpetrators of direct racism. Partington, in an overview of research into ethnicity and education in Australia (Partington 1998b), argues that:

Teachers can be the foundation of racism, particularly at a time when there appears to be more public acceptance of negativity towards ethnic minority group members. In their day-to-day teaching, the way they interact with students can be quite hurtful.

Examples of teachers’ racist behaviour reported in the study included:

  • telling jokes that devalue particular cultural or ethnic groups
  • labelling students of particular ethnic or cultural groups so that they are perceived according to stereotypes rather than as individuals
  • giving less help and attention to students of particular cultural groups than to others
  • making demeaning comments about particular cultural or ethnic groups
  • refusing to make allowances for English language support needs for students from non-English speaking backgrounds
  • encouraging students from particular groups to leave school because teachers believe they have little hope of success in schooling, based on a stereotyped view of that group.

Further instances of racist behaviour on the part of teachers are provided in Groome and Hamilton’s report (1995). Aboriginal students in the study experienced racism both from fellow students and from teachers, but whereas they generally knew how to deal with racism from their peers, they were often distressed and not sure of what to do when the racism came from teachers. The kinds of racism they experienced from teachers included:

  • racial abuse and vilification
  • negative comments about their families and their behaviours on the basis of race
  • prejudicial treatment
  • being made to feel personally guilty for getting extra money and special benefits.

In a study of Asian girls’ experiences in high school (Matthews 1996), one girl described an incident where a teacher allowed racist assumptions to be openly discussed and promoted by students in the classroom:

And then she started saying stuff about how Asians were taking over Australia and we took all their jobs, and every…all the other girls started saying how we were all bad and everything like that. One of the girls made the point that there was this Asian family that lived near them, and when they first moved in they were poor and after a while they were rich, she was saying how everybody was taking their jobs and it is not fair that we get everything better than they do, and that we are a lot richer, and they don’t think…understand. But the thing is that the teacher did not stop them. It was just like constant abuse and after that, every single day it was like…pick on Asians.

In the same study another student described being treated differently by a teacher because she was Asian:

…she did not really talk directly to us, she only talked directly to the Australians and that made us really angry and we felt left out. She did not ask us any questions…but she mainly asked Australians. And when she is using names in the classrooms she did not use us at all.

When the student confronted the teacher later about the situation, the teacher explained that she thought that the students didn’t need any help because they were bright and always quiet in class. The author’s conclusion is that the cultural assumptions regarding Asians held by the teacher led her to neglect the students.

Teachers have a responsibility to ensure that their own behaviour is not racist, they must also ensure that teaching resources and classroom discussions do not perpetuate racist myths and cultural stereotypes that may be promoted in the media. Teachers must also have high expectations of all students regardless of their cultural or linguistic background.

At high school the other kids identify me as a ‘bloody Turk’, ‘Gaddafi’, or ‘Arab, crazy Arab’. The teacher showed me as an example of ethnic families having many children in front of the class, but my family is a very small one.
Boy of Turkish background,quoted in Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia, 1991.

Developing a school culture which values cultural diversity is important for ensuring healthy relationships and an environment conducive to learning. Education programs that are based on the assumption that the cultural practices of the dominant group in society are the best and only way to operate have the effect of marginalising students from minority groups and of diminishing their participation in and outcomes from schooling.

Issues of identity are critical for students. They need to be able to affirm their own cultural and group identities and explore their identity as members of Australian society. Curriculum and resources need to reflect the diversity of the school and of Australian society in order to ensure that all students can feel they belong. Teachers need to be able to build on the cultural skills that students bring to the classroom.

The importance of culture and identity for a sense of belonging is illustrated in one woman’s recollections (Ngarritjan-Kessaris 1995) of her growing up as an Aboriginal child at school:

School processes and attitudes of teachers and students that purvey middle class western values as ‘right’ in all contexts, are explicitly and implicitly disparaging of Aboriginal people. The school curriculum provided a hidden curriculum in terms of my Aboriginal identity. Much of the norms and values portrayed in what I read and heard from ‘White’ teachers bore little relation to what I experienced at home…in learning to read and write I learnt of the disrespect with which Aborigines were held by ‘White’ society. Schooling constantly forced upon me a choice between education and my identity as an Aboriginal.

Further examples of the importance of culture for young people are provided in a Victorian study on education for girls from language backgrounds other than English (Ministerial Advisory Committee on Multicultural and Migrant Education 1986). The girls interviewed for the study believed that the maintenance of their culture and language was very important although the study also showed that the girls saw some of their traditions and values changing as their cultures evolved in response to a new place and a new time.

For many Aboriginal students, the differences between the culture and expectations of the home and the school, combined with experiences of racism, can result in a cycle of resistance and school failure being established. Several studies support the view that many Aboriginal students feel that schooling is not relevant, that they are constantly subjected to racist treatment and their response is truancy and withdrawal.

The role of the school in supporting these students in developing a sense of identity is very important. In their study of Aboriginal adolescents, Groome and Hamilton argue:

For many Aboriginal young people, the school becomes the critical factor in their search for identity. If they feel accepted and affirmed in their schools, they will have a much stronger chance of developing a strong cultural identity. If the school is just another area of pressure and stress, it is often dismissed as irrelevant and not worth continuing with (p 33). [8]

A South Australian study (Sloniec and del Vecchio 1992) investigated cross-cultural tensions in eight schools with diverse populations. The study found that if students from language backgrounds other than English felt alienated from the school climate and policies, they tended to form a ‘counter culture’, reinforced by the formation of strong friendship groups based on ethnicity. It was also found that students who identified strongly with their cultural background perceived hostility coming from teachers and Anglo-Australian students.

While it is important that teachers take account of the cultural diversity within their classrooms and do not assume that all students come to school with identical values and understandings, it is equally important that teachers avoid making cultural assumptions based on stereotypes of particular groups.

In Brennan‘s study, the Western Australian Aboriginal Education Consultative Group reported that there was a popular misconception amongst non-Aboriginal people that Aboriginal people were either completely assimilated into non-Aboriginal culture or had maintained a traditional lifestyle and forfeited their right to participate in mainstream society. This view does not take account of the diversity in lifestyles and cultures among Aboriginal people and can lead to teachers making generalisations about the abilities and interests of Aboriginal children.

Partington, in the study on ethnicity and education in Australia (1998b), argues that teachers, in their desire to be inclusive of the backgrounds of all students, can unwittingly reinforce entrenched views of ethnic minority groups:

Multicultural displays and assignments are particularly fraught with the potential to produce such perceptions. Rather than researching the great diversity which exists in any society, individual members of different ethnic groups are represented in grass skirts, grass huts, teepees, igloos, with spears, bows and arrows, and so on. (p 185).

An example of the dangers of ethnic stereotyping is provided in a study of a strategy adopted by a high school in order to address the supposed needs of its ethnically diverse population (Perera and Pugliese 1998). The school produced a series of ‘ESL Student Information Sheets’ which offered ethno-cultural profiles of various groups of students from language backgrounds other than English based on cultural assumptions that reproduced racist stereotypes.

Acceptance of cultural diversity is critical for building a climate of respect and cooperation among students. Where racial tensions are present in schools, students may mix only with others of the same ethnic or cultural background. Antagonism and fights between groups of students of different backgrounds may be the result.

School community relations will be damaged if a school is perceived to be racist or to exclude the participation of groups from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Parents and members from those communities may be unwilling to support school activities and unlikely to have confidence in the schooling system. The level of involvement of parents and caregivers from diverse cultural backgrounds in school activities is also often affected by the availability and willingness of staff to support their needs. Typically, those schools offering greater levels of support have the most success in attracting parent and community involvement.

A report Truancy and Exclusion, (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training 1996) found evidence to suggest that when partnerships with parents do not exist or break down, then the student most at risk of deviating from the accepted pattern of school responsibilities will do so. The Committee further found in its inquiry into school violence that schools which involved parents had the greatest success in managing student behaviour.

All members of a school community have an interest in eliminating racism from the learning environment and in developing a climate which facilitates educational success. Schools which fail to do so, fail their communities and particularly those students most in need of support.

Racism in schools has damaging effects both on individuals and the learning and working environment. Racism generates tensions within school communities which distort cultural understanding and narrow the educational experience of all students.

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.

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 if they make a mistake. Evidence also suggests that students who are disaffected with school are less likely to attend school regularly and are likely to drop out of school 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.

Studies on the participation rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students show that they have lower participation rates compared to other groups of students and indicate a clear link between disengagement with schooling and low rates of attendance. In 1994, data from the National Review of Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples showed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students drop out of school in much greater proportion than other students. Furthermore, they continue to be the least likely group to complete Year 12.

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.


  • [4] D. Cahill, Immigration and Schooling in the 1990s, Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Belconnen, ACT, 1990. Commonwealth of Australia copyright reproduced by permission.
  • [5] See for example:
    • S. Zelinka, ‘Racism and one response’, in Ethnic Minority Youth in Australia, eds C. Guerra & R. White, National Clearinghouse for Youth Studies, Hobart, 1995.
    • Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Tracking Your Rights, HREOC, Sydney, 1997.
    • R. Pe-Pua, ‘We’re Just Like Other Kids’: Street-frequenting Youth of non-English speaking Background, Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research, Canberra, 1994.
  • [6] H. Groome and and A. Hamilton, Meeting the Educational Needs of Aboriginal Adolescents, Commissioned Report No. 35 for the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, AGPS, Canberra, 1995. Commonwealth of Australia copyright reproduced by permission.
  • [7] A statement formulated at a meeting of Commonwealth, State and Territory Ministers for Education in Hobart in 1989. The goals contained in the statement were replaced in April 1999 with The Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century, Ministerial Council on Education, Training and Youth Affairs, 1999.
  • [8] H. Groome and and A. Hamilton, Meeting the Educational Needs of Aboriginal Adolescents, Commissioned Report No. 35 for the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, AGPS, Canberra, 1995. Commonwealth of Australia copyright reproduced by permission.

Understanding racism – What is racism? : The importance of culture, language and identity : The extent of racism in Australian schools : References : Glossary