Stamping out racism
15 January 2024
- The AEU has partnered with the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research to examine experiences of racism amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and educators.
- The institute has provided recommendations for the AEU to help fight racism and deliver best-practice bargaining clauses.
More than 20 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander AEU members have left a role because of discrimination, an AEU survey has found.
The survey data, analysed by the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at University of Technology, Sydney, also found that more than one third (35.6 per cent) of respondents were aware of a colleague having moved positions because of racism.
The AEU’s Yalukit Yulendj Committee, which designed the original survey in 2019, commissioned the institute to examine the findings and cross reference them against a Jumbunna Institute survey – entitled Gari Yala (speak the truth in Wiradjuri) – of about 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian workplaces.
The institute was asked to provide recommendations for the AEU to help fight racism and deliver best-practice bargaining clauses.
Jumbunna undertook Gari Yala to understand the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers’ experiences. The project was led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and overseen by a panel of distinguished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and employment practitioners.
Results were largely consistent across both surveys, revealing similar experiences of racism in workplaces.
One of the most concerning trends revealed by the AEU survey was that other educators were responsible for racist behaviour, more so than students, parents and the community. That was despite more than one third (36.4 per cent) of respondents noting that their school provided access to professional development on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture to all staff.
Almost half (48.6 per cent) of respondents who had experienced racism reported an effect on their mental health, while 37.2 per cent said racism had affected their physical health.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and education support professionals also reported feeling overwhelmed by expectations that they would represent their culture and identity, share their background at work, or do something they felt compromised their cultural integrity. They mentioned being told to “tone it down” or be less outspoken about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, while at the same time being made to feel responsible for First Nations issues in the workplace.
Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of respondents felt that they had to work harder to prove that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person could do the job.
Jumbunna’s director of the Indigenous People and Work and Eora woman Nareen Young, and Indigenous policy researcher and Worimi man Josh Gilbert presented their report findings to AEU Federal Conference delegates earlier in the year.
Young and Gilbert stressed the urgent need to address cultural awareness training in schools and presented recommendations on how the public school sector could address racism and cultural load in the workplace, based on the Gari Yala 10 Truths.
Gilbert says respondents felt “they were expected to speak on behalf of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” and were frequently “asked about their qualifications based on their identity”.
He says respondents used quotes such as: “I constantly feel like I have to educate my place that I don’t speak for everyone” and “I’m frequently called on for anything Aboriginal that needs to be done, displayed, consulted or achieved”.
Gilbert says half the respondents believed they experienced racism in their workplace yearly, around 8 per cent noticed it weekly, and 4.4 per cent noted it daily. Examples included comments or abuse, being put down because of identity, exclusion from social events and gatherings, and insulting phone calls or social media posts.
In presenting recommendations for the AEU, Young told delegates that discussions about “Aboriginal employment” – mostly by conservative politicians around election time – are “a narrative of the ‘bludging blacks’ getting handouts”.
“Not once have I ever seen this narrative based on the opinions and employment experiences of our mob and what might be important to us,” she says.
“These surveys open up a new era in which we approach matters of racism in this country, and hopefully fixing some stuff up for a better way. We’ll be engaging further with the AEU on workplace truth-telling, talking about what we can do as a broader trade union movement to ensure this is a key piece of a discussion as a country moving forward,” Young says.
AEU federal secretary Kevin Bates says there is no place for racism in schools and is concerned that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders likely faced additional burdens in the lead up to the Voice referendum.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that our workplaces are safe spaces, it’s important that the responsibility for calling out racist behaviour or comments doesn’t rest solely on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or other people of colour. It’s up to each of us to step up and work together to eradicate racism in schools,” he says.
“The survey outcomes and the report have set high expectations for the AEU to hear the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members on the issue of racism and respond with a comprehensive action plan for workplaces in every Australian jurisdiction.
“The AEU will work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members to develop national claims for anti-racism reforms and support the work of AEU Branches and Associated Bodies to negotiate these changes,” Bates says.
Gari Yala: 10 Truths
1. Commit to unearthing and acting on workplace truths – however uncomfortable they may be.
2. Ensure any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-related work is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led and informed.
3. Develop organisational principles to make it clear how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community engagement and employment should work in practice.
4. Focus on workplace readiness (cultural safety) rather than worker readiness.
5. Recognise identity strain and educate non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff about how to interact with their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues in ways that reduce this.
6. Recognise and remunerate cultural load as part of an employee’s workload.
7. Consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff on how to minimise cultural load while maintaining organisational activity.
8. Focus on sustainable careers and career development, rather than just short-term appointments.
9.T ake action to address workplace racism.
10. Look to high-impact initiatives – those that research shows are linked to better wellbeing and retention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff.
By Cyndi Tebbel
This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Summer 2023.