This week, ABC’s Mary Lloyd reported on a survey that found 91% of African-Australian respondents had experienced racism in a school context.  GIER’s Professor Leonie Rowan says that this latest report comes as no surprise to anyone who has been researching the experiences of Australia’s diverse learners for the past 20 years. This happens both in schools, and in their wider online contexts. 

Professor Rowan and Dr Aida Hurem have recently completed an ARC funded project which also demonstrates the ongoing experiences of racism in Australian Schools.    

In collaboration with colleagues at Deakin University, our GIER researchers have investigated  the experiences of International High School Students studying in Australia.  A survey conducted as part of this research—led by Dr Aida Hurem–showed that 40% of 225 surveyed students experienced racist behaviour online every week 

Dr Hurem says: 

“As found in my research in collaboration with colleagues from Griffith and Deakin Universities, racism is sadly an everyday experience for many international high school students studying in Australia. For example, we found that international high school students experience both overt and covert acts of racism on a daily and weekly basis. When asked what would make their lives in Australia happier, students responded* with:” 

‘there have no racism no bullying don’t ask us if we eat dog/cat’, indicating covert acts of racism. 

‘There was less attention on the fact that I am Asian – people aren’t racist towards me, but a lot of times there are a lot of casual remarks thrown around about Asians taking over everything, and a lot of Asian jokes being made that sometimes make me really uncomfortable but I can’t say anything about. I know they don’t intend to be racist towards me but it’s a “casual” thing that happens that makes me uncomfortable’, 


‘Local students would feel comfortable to hang out or talk to me. They shouldn’t let the difference in our ethnicity or race prevent them from having a social interaction with us, the international students.’ 

* in order to capture the true and most raw student responses, their responses were not edited.  

One student said they would feel happier “if I had new skin”. 

Dr Hurem says: 

“We have found that experiences like this significantly impact upon their sense of connectedness to schools and the wider Australian community, and that they impact upon their overall sense of belonging and social connectedness.  Schools can certainly contribute towards a change in this. However, they need to be supported. While many schools already have inclusive vision statements, they need experts to support addressing these issues candidly. It is a complex landscape when navigating educational outcomes and the development of character. And so, schools need the required tools, structures and language for inclusive dialogue.” 

“It is also worth noting that some of these racist and discriminatory behaviours can easily go undetected as they occur in online spaces that parents, teachers, trusted adults are not privy to. More can and should be done to educate families and trusted adults, because schools alone can not bring about the needed change.” 

The way forward, according to Professor Rowan, requires significant change regarding the ways teachers are supported, and further time and support for those parts of teacher preparation programs that provide teachers with skills relating to anti-racist practices. 

Professor Rowan says:

“When governments and policy makers decide that school performance needs to be raised, or that teacher education needs to be improved, the focus is almost always on adding in extra subject content (more maths, more literacy, more phonics, more science), or implementing specific testing regimes (NAPLAN, PISA etc) or responding to a crisis. This can take away much needed and incredibly valuable space within a teacher education program to help future teachers understand really crucial and foundational challenges like racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism: and how these all interconnect.”  

All of these issues run across every aspect of the school experience and appropriate and sensitive responses shouldn’t be learnt through trial and error. Those in school environments need to fully understand the complexity of the issues so that they can move beyond crisis response to constructive and active planning for genuinely inclusive environments. 

Professor Rowan goes on to say:  

“Schools CAN play a role in changing culture and many schools create wonderful environments: but this takes time and access to appropriate forms of education.

If Australia, as a society, wants to get to a position where racism is never seen as acceptable, then we need to invest in education that helps people recognise, call out, respond to processes that are overtly or covertly racist, and which allows teachers the time and space to do this important work. This will benefit all learners, but most importantly, it will allow us to actually play a role in helping create a society where all people are safe and valued in their schooling journey.”  

Project referred to – Australian Research Council Discovery Project:  International students in secondary schools (ARC DP160103181). The research team comprises Chief Investigators J. Blackmore, C. Beavis, L. Tran and L. Rowan as, Partner Investigator C. Halse, Research Fellows T. Mccandless, C. Mahoney and C. Moore and doctoral candidates T. Hoang, M. Chou-Lee and A. Hurem.