Learning about Racism in Australia

Disclaimer: My education experiences are not necessarily representative of Australia as a whole, or even what things might be like now. I went to high school between 1996-2000, with a predominantly white population. That’s the background I’ll be referencing.

When I last wrote about some race related issues, a friend of mine commented to me that she found it interesting that I didn’t mention Australian Aboriginals in the entry. I didn’t think it was relevant to the topic I was writing at the time, but it did get me thinking about how we treat discussing race in Australia.

The thing is, I haven’t lived in Australia in over four years. I feel like a bit of an outsider now, and as such, what I learn about Australia tends to coincide more with international media attention, or at the very least whatever ends up being shared on Facebook as newsworthy amongst my Australian friends. From my perspective, as an Australian who no longer lives there, it feels like Australia has become more racist now than it was when I was growing up. That may not actually be true, and may just be based on personal experiences I’ve had.

I don’t claim to know how to fix the problem of racism in Australia, but I can offer some thoughts. It seems like a lot of the national dialogue is that the media likes to drum up the attention of “stopping the boat people,” like refugees are a bad thing. They seem to ignore the fact that a lot more illegal immigrants enter Australia by plane. The thing is, we’re not really educated on what it means to be a refugee, and we rely too much on what the media tells us about them. Let’s face it, as far as I’m concerned, Australia does a poor job educating us about other races, full stop.

Here is what I learned about race related issues within Australia’s borders in my entire 5 years of social studies/TEE history:
1. The Japanese bombed Darwin during WWII.
2. White people killed a lot of Aboriginals when they started colonising the country.
3. A lot of Chinese people came out in the 1800s during the gold rushes.

That’s it. And we barely spent any time on those subjects as it was. Most race issues were taught to us more from a distance. In year 11, it was specifically Nazi Germany, and Apartheid South Africa (which was only studied because that’s what my class voted for). In fact, I don’t think there really was any other focus on racism throughout the rest of my high school education, as far as I can recall. It wasn’t until I was in university and saw the film Rabbit-Proof Fence that I learned about the stolen generation. That’s a similar time-frame for when it was starting to be discussed in the media that the government should apologise for it. You might be surprised to learn I didn’t even hear about Australia’s former White Australia Policy until I’d moved to Malaysia.

I want to write a little about World War II now, because it was one of the subjects we covered the most in high school history, and yet… there is so much that was omitted from our education. Since moving to Malaysia, I learned a lot more about the war in the Asia-Pacific region, with Japan working its way down as far as Malaysia and Singapore for its occupation. I’ve learned about it in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Hawaii. Why was this something I never learned about in school? It was happening practically in Australia’s backyard, and all we learned about was, “Oh yeah and by the way, the Japanese bombed Darwin, but it’s okay because the Americans were around and then nothing else really happened on our shores”? We learned about our allies fighting in Europe, we learned about why the war started, and the evils the enemies committed, but we didn’t learn anything of our own evils. History is written by those who win. And winners don’t like confessing to their misdeeds. It’s so much easier to paint the losers that way.

What kinds of misdeeds am I referring to? On Saturday night, I watched this short film set in Western Australia during WWII, based on true events. Italian men in Australia were taken away from their families just because we were at war in Europe, and Italy was on the enemy side. Why is this the first I’ve learned of that? (Okay, admittedly I do vaguely recall some brief mention of Australia treating its German population that way during my education). The US did similar with its Japanese population, but at least they got to redeem themselves and help win the war for America in the end. Oh, I didn’t learn about that in school either. I learned about that in museums in Hawaii. (Side note: It inspired part of my short story, Siren, which is being published in Fae Fatales).

I kind of feel that if we want to change the national dialogue, if Australia wants to actually embody the all inclusive “everyone deserves a fair go” attitude it purports to have, a lot could be done about educating kids about the region they live in. The Vietnamese in the 1970s were the first “boat people” we let in, but only because we didn’t have a choice. And that’s sad, considering Australia was involved in the Vietnam War. Oh, yeah, that’s another thing I didn’t learn about in school. My awareness of that war came from movies that didn’t really interest me, until I went to Vietnam myself, and learned about it from their perspective. Now that was full on. If that was a subject taught in schools, we might even have a bit more respect for refugees, and understand better why Australia should accommodate them. I also think I would have been infinitely more interested in learning about WWII in the region I lived in than what happened in Europe. Don’t get me wrong – I think the lessons of Nazi Germany are great, and I do value what that taught me… but I barely remember the rest of it.

I grew up with the idea that Australia was a multi-cultural country, but didn’t really have a great understanding of what that meant. I don’t know if that’s the fault of where I lived, where nearly everyone was white, or if there was more to it than that. I’ve joked though that Australia isn’t really all that multi-cultural – not compared to Malaysia. Malaysia is a country that has public holidays specific for the Muslims, and for the Chinese, and even some Indian holidays. Australia only has Christian and non-denominational holidays. There is little opportunity to learn about other cultures, which makes it easier to fear them. In some ways it’s getting better – the Australian kid’s show Bananas in Pajamas did have a special Chinese New Year episode – but in other ways I think it’s getting worse. Especially when the media likes to hype up the fear aspect.

I think it’s time for Australia to acknowledge more of their own poor behaviour, rather than putting it all on other nations as behaving badly. It can be easier to ignore if you don’t think it affects you. The problem with only acknowledging that white people killed Aboriginals when they first moved in is that it ignores how poorly Aboriginals can still be treated now. Hell, sometimes it’s like we ignore that they even exist in our society. Their history is part of Australia’s, too. Let’s not continue to whitewash the history and learn only of the colonial influence on society. It’s no wonder that my default is to think about white people in Australia when that’s the education I had.

How do your own experiences with studying race and history compare? What have you been surprised to learn about your country or region, after your secondary education?

5 thoughts on “Learning about Racism in Australia

  1. Good blog Dom! It will be interesting to see what the kids learn about Australia & its inhabitants as they go through school here. Our book club has just read ‘Secret River’ by Kate Grenville – a very good, but disturbing book on white/Aboriginal interaction.


  2. I would say that education in high schools has improved somewhat in the years since you were at school, but it’s not to say that racism doesn’t still exist. Far from it. I guess the thing that is perhaps ‘better’, if I could put it that way, is that people are more aware of it. For example, there have been a few incidents recently of people going on racist rants on public transport, and they’ve been recorded on the mobiles of other passengers. One woman was recently charged due to that — and I think, you know, a while back, the other passengers would just have turned a blind eye. Or they might have not thought it was any of their business. But now, I think people are a bit more attuned to it.

    On the other hand, I’m still quite shocked at some attitudes towards race — we ran into an old work colleague of M’s a while ago and when we mentioned M was looking for work, and discussing living on welfare, he told us he worked with some refugees from Sudan (there are quite a few in our area) and said something along the lines of, ‘You know, if you were a refugee, you’d get loads of stuff for free, this one guy I was talking to, he got a free iPhone and an iPad…’ and I said, ‘Uh, hmm, yes, and also, lived through civil war and was in a prison camp for months! I don’t really feel bad that he has a free iPhone and we don’t!’ And the guy was like, ‘Oh, well, yeah.’

    I mean, really? These people have lived through HELL. Can we even imagine what it must be like to have to leave everything you’ve grown up with, including some of your family and pretty much all of your friends, and move to a whole new place where everything is different, from the food to the language? I find it so sad that there’s so little empathy there.

    And as far as racism and indigenous Australians… I saw this article


    reblogged on a WordPress blog recently, and I was saddened and really disappointed that this kind of thing would happen at the uni I went to. I can’t understand how people would find it amusing — I mean, Prosh always stretched boundaries, but when I was there, I don’t remember it being racist. What a shame. I hope at least some of the students have learnt a lesson. Apparently UWA will be taking action against the editors of the paper, and there’s been such a lot of negative publicity about it, you would hope that it’s not ever going to be repeated.


    1. See, I made your long comment show up! 😀 I suspect it was the link in it that made WordPress think it was spam.

      I’d like to hope education has improved since I was in school. I remember reading something about Julia Gillard encouraging us to learn about neighbouring Asian countries due to all the trade that goes on, and thinking it might have an impact on the education system in Australia. I was hopeful. I’d love to see Mandarin studied more in Australia, for example. But at least I got to learn Indonesian in school?

      I’ve seen a couple of those bus videos as they were shared on Facebook, and considered mentioning them specifically also. I guess it’s possible that we might not be any more racist as a country, but we’re exposed to the racism more due to social media because of things like that. I do feel like social media has allowed us to have more of a dialogue about it. I’ve seen some very thoughtful posts on Facebook from friends over there on the refugee situation.

      Yeah… wow. o.O That guy sounds quite bitter. I think I’d pass up on living in a war situation, even if it did mean I got free stuff in the end. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to live like that.


    1. Thanks for the link. I missed that piece when people were talking about Eddie Maguire’s racist comment. I am glad that these things seem to be getting talked about more and more now though, and that there are people who do want change. I do think it’s interesting that I see more of the positive dialogue from Australian comedians though (such as your linked Charlie Pickering article, and the article he linked to by Meshel Laurie). I follow a bunch of comedians on Facebook, too, and they seem to be the ones most commonly talking about rights of non-white people, and in particular refugees who arrive in Australia by boat. They’re the ones who link articles like this one you shared.


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