Talking about racism


09 March 2022

Important conversations about race and racism are not happening in some schools, a Monash University review has found.

The 2020 review, How Does Race Play Out in Schools? A Scoping Review and Thematic Analysis of Racial Issues in Australian Schools, which analysed research in metropolitan primary schools in Victoria and NSW, found that some teachers don’t feel confident or competent to have conversations about race and racism with their students.

Lead author Hannah Yared, an Eritrean-Australian woman, says schools are missing an opportunity at a key moment in childrens’ development.

“Racism doesn’t just magically appear in adulthood. It begins early in childhood and slowly develops across the lifespan, becoming more ingrained and resistant to change by adulthood,” says Yared, a psychologist and Monash PhD candidate.

“Children enter school during a crucial time in their social cognitive development. It’s a time when their prejudice and negative views about race and ethnicity are developing, along with their sense of morality.”

Students want to talk about racism, but teachers don’t receive adequate training or support to hold safe and informed conversations, the review found. As a result, discussions about racism are often avoided.

“People don’t realise just how pervasive and harmful racism can be, not only to our wellbeing but also to our physical health. It inflicts a level of trauma,” says Yared.

Addressing the issue is about busting the myths that children ‘don’t see colour’ and that only evil people can be racist,
she says.

“It’s entirely possible to be a nice person and to also have racial prejudice.”

Confidence from training

The study found that schools were more likely to emphasise “sameness”, equality and “teaching kids to be kind” in an approach labelled “colour evasive”.

A colour-evasive view holds that it is preferable to deny, distort or minimise discussions about racial differences and racism rather than draw attention to them.

“The problem isn’t in noticing someone’s race. It’s what we do when we notice race that’s the issue,” says Yared. “If you can’t see a student’s race, then you also can’t see their experiences of racism. So it renders us incapable of being able to address those issues.”

Trauma-informed anti-racist training is needed to give teachers the confidence to have effective conversations about these difficult and uncomfortable issues, but we need more institutions that are open to these approaches, she says.

The same arguments have been made about the Australian curriculum and its lack of First Nations content and perspectives. Yared says the current push for changes to the curriculum, largely from First Nations educators, is directly linked to addressing issues of race and racism at school.

“If you don’t see yourself reflected in the curriculum, that sends a really clear message about how you’re valued in society.”

While the study’s findings indicate there is a lot of work to be done – at government, research, training and classroom levels – positive steps are being taken, says Yared.

“In the past year, racial justice received more media attention than I’ve seen in my lifetime. So people are definitely more interested in it.”

She’s hoping that eventually her research will lead to an anti-racist racial literacy framework for schools to rely on.

“I’m excited to see where this goes and the kind of change we can make.”

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Summer 2021