White privilege in Australian education

Essay Question: Racism appears to be a critical discussion incurrent society. Given Australia is a far more multicultural country than a generation ago is there sufficient community education to ensure all citizens appreciate the implications of racist comments and behaviours?

“All whites are racist…because we benefit from systemic white privilege.” (Wildman & Davis, 1995, p. 897)

Australian legislation makes it “unlawful” for anyone to act in a way that uses race, colour or origin to impede another’s rights or freedoms by virtue of s. 9(1) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Australia). Racism is generally construed as deliberate, individual discriminatory acts that disadvantage others (Wildman& Davis, 1995, p. 897), but in Australian society it is more commonly seen in the advantages that society bestows on white people. White privilege is described by Penny McIntosh (2005) as “an invisible package of unearned assets”, an apt description as this privilege is essentially that having white skin means being considered the norm which allows the privileged group to regard any influence it has on their lives as normal. Despite an increasingly multicultural population, most white Australians fail to recognise or understand racist behaviours and comments as they are unaware of the nature of their racism.

The privilege to remain unaware of privilege is constantly exercised by Australians because it is ignored by the authorities they look to for education: schools, where administrators fail to educate themselves and allow white culture to be treated as the norm (Aveling, 2007); in teaching resources that focus on white culture and offer inadequate non-white representation (Ingram & O’Donnell, 2006); and the media, which shows unbalanced representation of white and non-white people as well as presenting a biased assortment of stories (Philips, 2011). In addition to the behaviours addressed by the Racial Discrimination Act, the Racism. No Way! project provides information and support for schools Australia wide to address racism (The Racism. No Way!project, n.d.) but these means are failing to be accessed or implemented by school administrators. Launched in 2000, the project recognises the constantly changing nature of racism and even begins to address white privilege as systematic racism that results in advantages being given to an ethnic group whose “cultural assumptions” are adopted as the societal norm (About Racism, n.d.), concurring with the assertion that privilege is a problem with the whole of society rather than individual beliefs (Wildman and Davis, 1995). However a study of Western Australian principals from various schooling institutions found that racism was most commonly considered to race based bullying by individuals and was rarely an issue (Aveling, 2007). Though Aveling acknowledges the study is not representative of all schools in Australia, the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities, which manages Racism. No Way!, suggests that this definition of racism is prevalent throughout the Australian education system, leading to racism persisting in the form of privilege on all levels of education. The project also identifies racism being exercised by the normalisation of white culture, usually through strong focuson white culture with only token education about other cultures and languages (Aveling, 2007). The emphasis on white culture leaves non-white students and teachers feeling that their cultures and racial identities were ignored or misunderstood (Understanding racism, n.d.) without any of the individual racial attacks that white people consider to be racism. Through their privilege, white administrators, teachers and students are able to accept benefits such as abundant racial representation and the visibility of their culture while being able to remain ignorant of any imbalance in treatment. Despite efforts by legislation makers to raise awareness of privilege within schools and society, Australian school administrators fail to educate themselves and provide sufficient education about the nature of racism and its existence as white privilege in school communities.

Teachers and school administrators are entrusted with the education of young Australians on racism, however the resources available to them fail to address the issue of privilege, leading to continued ignorance and a failure to educate students at best and at worse, reinforcing the ideas and behaviours normalised by privilege. One of the benefits white privilege provides white Australians is the opportunity to always be able to see representation of their skin colour and to feel that they are the norm. “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race” is a privilege identified by Penny McIntosh (2005) and common Australian teaching resources cater to this privilege. Widespread humanities education resource, R.I.C Publications’ Society and Environment workbooks all feature a combination of black and white photos and cartoon images but out of a total of 141 images including people, non-white people feature in 52, with 18 images relying on different hair and facial features to demonstrate different races while the skin is left white (R.I.C. Publications, 2000).  A recent Australian history resource released for teachers looks at iconic figures and events throughout Australian history but offers only a short paragraph in the introduction acknowledging “Australia’s first inhabitants” (Ingram & O’Donnell, 2006). In addition, the resource features only one non-white person, Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira. With these resources being some of the most commonly used by Australian teachers, the racist practises of white privilege is not only going untaught but also being reinforced within classrooms.

Media in all forms has a powerful influence on the social and cultural views of any society and holds great sway over public opinion (Muhammad, 2013), however instead of using its educational power to reject racism, Australian media strengthens the privileged idea of white people as the standard in society. A collection of studies conducted in 2005, 2007 and 2009 found that Australian current affairs programs dedicated 31% of their content to non-white groups and that non-white content was highest in negative accounts, with 40% of stories being about non-whites while 35% looked at white crimes (Phillips, 2011). Phillips also notes that despite the discrepancy between white and non-white representation in current affairs programs, the gap is far less than in news programs, where only 12% of content involved non-white people, yet they made up 57% of negative news as opposed to the 30% involving whites. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to media portrayals of violence, sexual content, and behaviours such as smoking and alcohol consumption increase the likelihood of children and adolescents engaging such behaviours (Council on Communications and Media, 2010). By failing to display balanced representation and treatment of white and non-white people Australian media uses its influence to inform viewers that white people are the civilised standard while non-whites are the criminal other, normalising privileged ideas that their audience can then apply to their lives.

There is insufficient community education to ensure Australians are conscious of racist behaviours that they engage in. Whether intentionally or not, all white people continue to engage in racist behaviours by passively receiving advantages based on their skin colour. White Australians take advantage of their privilege to remain unaware that they are privileged and take its benefits for granted, from having their culture constantly acknowledged and treated as the norm to easy access to extensive racial representation in the media. Though there is some awareness in educational institutions about the existence of white privilege in Australian life, most of those responsible for educating Australians also remain ignorant and far from raising awareness of the systemic racism rooted in Australian culture, they enable the status quo to be maintained.

Word count: 1197

Reference List:

Council on Communication and Media. (2010). Media education. Paediatrics, 126(5), 1012-1017. Doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-1636

Dyer, R. (1997). White. New York, NY:Routledge.

Ingram, A., & O’Donnell P. (2006).30 Australian Legends & Icons. North Sydney, New South Wales: Random House Australia

McIntosh, P. (2005). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In P. Rothenberg, V. Raymond & M.Comaskey. White privilege: essential readings on the other side of racism (109-113) New York: Worth Publishers.

Muhammad, N. (2013). Role of media in a developed society. Interdisciplinary journal of contemporaryresearch in business. 5(2), 407-415. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com

Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Australia)

Society and Environment, Workbook E. (2000). Greenwood, Western Australia: R.I.C. Publications.

Society and Environment, Workbook F. (2000). Greenwood, Western Australia: R.I.C. Publications.

Society and Environment, Workbook G. (2000). Greenwood, Western Australia: R.I.C. Publications.

The extent of racism in Australianschools. (n.d.) Retrieved from the Racism? No Way! Website:http://www.racismnoway.com.au/about-racism/understanding/schools.html

The Racism? No Way! Project. (n.d.)Retrieved from the Racism? No Way! Website:http://www.racismnoway.com.au/site/about.html

What is racism. (n.d.) Retrieved from the Racism. No Way! Website:http://www.racismnoway.com.au/about-racism/understanding/index-what.html

Wildman, S., & Davis, A. (1995). Language and silence: makingsystems of privilege visible. Santa ClaraLaw Review. 35(4), 881-906.Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu


About frenzysista

Hannah has often been informed that she is intelligent and has the potential to achieve great things. She generally agrees that the potential could be there but is also a terrible procrastinator and lazy to boot. She currently resides in Victoria and lavishes about 38% of her attention on studying the mystical thing that is the creative arts. The other 62% of her time is divided unevenly between celebrating her fandoms online, sleeping, learning how not to talk to people and saving the world. Oh, and writing. Definitely that thing. In other words, you're reading the thoughts of one highly opinionated, entirely sleep deprived fangirl-y adult
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