Cultural Identity and Racism in Schools


Leonardo Rocker

Cultural Identity and Racism in Schools

Individuality, personality and difference are very much a part of every playground in Australian schools. Everywhere you look you will see children and teachers with their own unique looks and styles navigating their way on the ‘catwalk’ of the school community. Despite the consistency of looks provided by school uniforms, children will still create their very own style codes to make themselves look ‘different’ from others. Indeed it seems diversity is very much valued and encouraged in school. But what if we were to include cultural diversity in this mix? Would it be as equally prized?

Cultural Intolerance in Australian Schools

Cultural intolerance and discrimination are present in many Australian schools. It occurs between members of minority and majority communities. Note, for example, a 2009 study of secondary school students by the Foundation for Youth Australia, which found that 80 per cent of students from a non-Anglo background experienced racism, while 54.6 per cent of their Anglo-Australian colleagues reported such experience. They were reporting on a wide range of racism experiences, such as: ‘being called an offensive slang name for your cultural group' through to ‘being refused employment because of your cultural background’.

The Human Rights Commission has also highlighted the issue in many of its reports, triggering responses from states and territories around Australia.

Cultural Intolerance Towards Teachers

Not only students but teachers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) or Aboriginal backgrounds also experience discrimination by students and their colleagues. In fact, approximately 65 per cent of people participating in a survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission indicated that they have experienced racism.

So why are some Australian schools not accepting people from CALD backgrounds? And why are Aboriginal students still experiencing racism?

Researchers have asked these questions before and have concluded that children are influenced by prevailing social attitudes. They found that older children, for example, are more tolerant towards Asian-Australian children than their younger peers. However, this was not the case towards Aboriginal children, with young children being more tolerant towards them. Although the development of attitudes and beliefs is a very complex process, children’s attitudes towards cultural tolerance are very much shaped close to home via parents, peers and popular culture promoted through the media. To illustrate this further, a 12-year in-depth study based on comprehensive surveys of more than 12,500 Australians, conducted by the University of Western Sydney, found that one in 10 Australians believe that some races are naturally superior or inferior and advocate segregation.

Teachers attitude count around cultural tolerance

Teachers’ attitudes in the classroom are also key. Teachers often have limited knowledge of the cultural details of their students, especially from those of a CALD or Aboriginal background, and as a result may hold a stereotypical view of students, which may then negatively influence their behaviour and expectations of students. Several other studies featured on the ‘Racism. NoWay’ website by the NSW Education and Training Department, also demonstrate a predominantly negative attitude towards Aboriginal students in Australian primary and secondary schools.

The consequences for those experiencing racial discrimination are severe and range from psychological to physical health. A predominant effect experienced by victims of racial discrimination is that of confused or troubled cultural identity. Cultural identity refers to the way in which individuals define themselves in relation to the groups to which they belong, such as family, religion, community, nation, sporting group, etc; where a coherent sense of personal identity can act as a protective factor against psychological distress, a troubled or confused sense of identity may lead to mental and emotional distress.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Positive accounts of cultural diversity are found throughout Australia, and overall Australians are largely welcoming of other cultures, and are very positive about living in a multicultural society. Students revealed that making sure people from a CALD or Aboriginal backgrounds are treated equally is very important to them. Furthermore, 85 per cent of people think that something should be done to fight racism.

Indeed, schools provide a unique opportunity to support cultural diversity within the local community and Australia as a whole. Community members have indicated that schools are a top priority in terms of converting ideas into action. Schools vary in the way they support cultural diversity, ranging from a spectrum of action, reaction and inaction based on their local circumstances. Positive outcomes were found when strategies were utilised that celebrate and embrace cultural differences, invite community participation, and deliver educational programs aimed at deconstructing and expanding students’ knowledge of cultural issues.

Further Reading


Building Social and Emotional Learning during the School Holidays

What parents can do

Practical actions parents can take to promote healthy cultural behaviours include:

  • Review your own opinions of culture, diversity and religion
  • Talk positively about people as a whole, particularly in the presence of children
  • Never attach an individual’s behaviour to a specific cultural background
  • Make tolerance and cultural diversity a topic of discussion in the family home
  • Embrace the opportunity to talk to people from other cultural backgrounds and consider arranging more social contact. You may be surprised how much you and your family can benefit by pushing your comfort zone
  • Take a look at the media you and your family consume. Does it present a realistic view of a diverse society? If not, mix it up so that it reflects the reality of multiculturalism.

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What schools can do

Practical actions schools can take to promote healthy cultural behaviours include:

  • Actions should focus on current students’ attitudes instead of old cultural opinions
  • Provide students with opportunities to engage with many diverse cultures
  • Develop a close relationship between school and community
  • Improve professional development opportunities for teachers and staff
  • Update and improve cultural diversity projects for teacher and students, like the ‘School Days Project’ by Quirky Kid
  • Actively participate in Harmony Day
  • Organize volunteer opportunities for students in refugee agencies and local communities
  • Ask staff members from CALD backgrounds to make announcements at assembly or over the school intercom to celebrate diversity and encourage students from CALD backgrounds to also participate in public speaking opportunities.

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