"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
Race relations is one of the five integral and interrelated dimensions of reconciliation in Australia. That is, the race relations dimension calls for all Australians to understand and value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous cultures, rights and experiences, which results in stronger relationships based on trust and respect and that are free of racism.
Australia is a vibrant, multicultural country. 3% of the population identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. Almost half of our population was born overseas or has a parent who was born overseas. One in five of us speak a language other than English at home (ABS, 2013).
This rich cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths and is central to our national identity. Research shows that 86% of Australians believe that multiculturalism is a positive factor in maintaining social cohesion (Markus and Dharmalingam, 2015). While cultural diversity is a celebrated part of our national identity, the unfortunate reality is that many individuals and communities in Australia still experience prejudice, discrimination and racism on a regular basis.
Racism can be broadly defined as behaviours, practices, beliefs and prejudices that underlie avoidable and unfair inequalities across groups in society based on 'race,' ethnicity, culture or religion (Berman and Paradies, 2010).
Racism can have serious consequences for the people who experience it. It can disempower people by devaluing their identity and can result in poor physical and mental health, reduced productivity and reduced life expectancy.
Evidence shows that children see ‘race’, ethnic and cultural diversity, and racism from an early age. Evidence also shows it is important to discuss racism and diversity with children from a young age, as ‘colour blindness’ and not talking about these issues only risks increasing bias and its harms. It is important, however, to do this in a way that is appropriate to children’s developmental skills, as well-intentioned but poorly thought through strategies can do more harm than good.
Schools and early learning services play a major role in influencing the formation of students’ and children’s attitudes and world views, as well as those of the wider communities. Educating communities can therefore counter racist attitudes and their negative effects by assisting students to develop an understanding and respect for cultural differences.