The Brave and Multiracial Marc Fennell (a fellow Eurasian) hosted a program recently on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) called ‘The School that Tried to End Racism’. It was an interesting foray opening up discussions on racial discrimination in Australia with school kids. I really liked the premise of this show and I do think (evident from posts on this blog) that it is a discussion Australia needs to have. The stiff upper British Lip has surely evolved beyond colonial times to open up for conversational engagement on ‘icky’ matters. Perhaps Australia still isn’t ready for it.
The show starts with introducing topics of race, bias/prejudice, privilege and stereotypes, all worthy topics when discussing racism. A classroom of Year 6 students from a primary school in South West Sydney participated in the program and specific attention is given to certain students in the group. It was interesting to see the different personalities, the maturity and ability to articulate some fairly complex thoughts to the camera and home audience. If anything, the program demonstrated how insightful and articulate school kids can be.
Marc Fenell’s social media predictably indicated many in Australia viewed the program for it’s true intent and premise with reviews being mainly positive. However, as to be expected from right wing media outlets like Sky and The Australian the criticisms came thick and fast. Especially scathing was an article written by Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian accusing the show of priming critical race theory in schools, creating that old trope ‘victims’ and therefore causing division amongst Australians. Out of my own curiosity as to why this woman was privileged with a mouth piece, further research into Ms Albrechtsen’s background revealed she’s a lawyer and was working in the Law Faculty of Sydney University. Around John Howard’s prime ministership, she was parachuted by the Liberal party onto the ABC board. Ms Albrechtsen described the ABC workplace as a ‘soviet style workers collective’. I began to think that Ms Albrechtsen was indeed shackled up in a Soviet Union collective in her younger days and that perhaps she’s had personal experience to enable her such conclusions? I’ll go one step further on account of her article about the program; does Ms Albrechtsen have any experience whatsoever of what it means to be discriminated against according to race? Why is it in Australia the loudest fog horns against a particular issue often do not have first-hand personal experience of the issue? What gives these people the right to voice any opinion about any matter when they can’t give a credible account of experiencing the topic first hand?
One thing I will say in defence of Ms Albrechtsen is that I can understand how the show would put a few high bridged western noses out of joint. There was a moment in the show when the kids were asked to split into their affiliation groups and I noticed the conveners were careful not to add racial labels, but nevertheless, low and behold the kids split into roughly the white group and the ‘others’ group. I was I had to say a little uncomfortable about the finger pointing ‘shaming and blaming’ the white kids for their privilege. I did feel completely uneasy when they were made to almost take the blame for being the skin colour that is automatically assigned privilege and the racial aggressors here in Australia. Trying to highlight racial stereotypes in the program and then doing exactly that to white kids made this a problematic exercise in my mind. As an allied health therapist, I’ve seen white underprivileged children who will never, despite the inherent bias that works in their favour here in Australia, will never catch up to their privileged white counterparts. The years of abuse and trauma would ensure that.
Why should a young white girl be forced to admit that she benefits from a system she had little say in manufacturing? And yes, I understand that this awareness may spark some empathy to want to change systems for all involved but that’s the rub of this show- will it actually make any systemic changes here in Australia? I’m not sure putting off white people with a finger pointing shaming activity is going to do that.
I guess this is why everyone leaves this ‘icky’ issue of addressing racism alone. When actions, behaviours and microaggressions are interpreted mostly as racism then we start to see the world as a very binary platform that plays into the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality and we’re trapped into the mindset of the perpetrators. This mindset holds dear homogeneity, that ‘youse all are like that’, creating stereotypes that label the innocent. In addition, racial discrimination occurs between non white migrant groups in Australia. I’ve been privy to many conversations when racist stereotypes of an ‘ethnic’ group have been expressed by an ‘ethnic’. Being a perpetrator and aggressor of racism is not purely the domain of the white colonists. When examining racism, we need to do and be better than that. I’m by no way diminishing the experience of lived racism (having experienced this myself) and I am of course talking about the nebulous variety of perceived racism certainly not the systemic ones where numbers and facts like incarceration rates, deaths in custody, poverty rates, infant mortality, early death etc are well documented.
Which comes to my next point. I thought the activities in the show that actually did create communication, empathy and perhaps the realisation of privilege and discrimination was best done when the kids actually spoke to each other. The cut out cardboard friends created communication, dialogue and ultimately new friendships. The ability to talk about being bullied and called all different types of racial names and learning to process those experiences as a group was again a productive activity that helped everyone better understand how someone feels when being at the receiving end of racial abuse. Going out into the community and interviewing community members of different backgrounds again broadened the experience beyond the school gates and made the kids realise the real-life problems some adults deal with in terms of race. I could see that these activities took the heat off one particular group for being ‘perpetrators’ but also allowed the ‘recipients’ (yes Ms Albrechtsen I’m careful not to use ‘victims’) to express themselves to the point of showing raw emotion. The outpouring of how someone feels is surely enough to elicit empathy, with the inability to empathise based in my opinion in an underlying neurological/psychological issue.
Marc Fennell took on this project perhaps as a personal journey with first hand experiences of racism growing up here in Australia and I completely understand his feelings, his experiences and his perspective. This was a hugely brave topic to address due to the complex and sometimes nebulous nature of racism. I take my hat off to him for living up to the Aussie value of least ‘having a go’ at tackling that icky issue of racism here in Australia which is more than any public figure, politician or celebrity has bothered to successfully do.