Last Wednesday, the Students’ Representative Council passed a motion to recognise the autonomy and existence of the recently established Ethno-cultural and People of Colour (EPOC) collective. The motion, moved by Queer Officer Fahad Ali, provoked intense debate between Ali and allies from the EPOC collective and members of the long-standing, non-autonomous Anti-Racism Collective (ARC).
The EPOC collective was granted formal recognition by the SRC as “the autonomous, activist body of students that identify as people of colour of from an ethno-cultural background.” The collective emerges in a year where campus has been inundated by race-related controversies.
The lack of consultation between the University of Sydney Union and the Indigenous student community; the ‘hipsterpropriation’ and sale of Native American headdresses at Union stalls: and the USU’s plans to hold a “Day of the Dead” return-to-semester party sparked concerns this year that student organisations have a poor understanding of race-based and cultural awareness.
However, frictions have arisen between the two collectives. One key clash regards the pre-selection of the SRC’s Ethnic Affairs Officers.
Currently, the two Ethnic Affairs Officers are constitutionally obliged to merely “identify as being from non-English speaking backgrounds.” In 2011, this led to the appointment of a Dutch-born Ethnic Affairs Officer. The EPOC collective has taken issue with this method of pre-selection. “It curtails the group’s ability to meaningfully, and autonomously, nominate its own representatives,” Ali asserts. “White people, as current benefactors of racial oppression, should fundamentally not be privy to this process,” Ali adds.
Marijke Hoving, an active member of the ARC since 2011, disagrees. “People from oppressed groups have every right to challenge their oppression by any means necessary,” she said. “Politically I disagree with EPOC’s argument that it is ‘white culture’ that creates racism, and that all white people benefit from racism,” she added.
“Rather we recognise the source of racism is those at the top of society,” she said.
The ARC’s focus on federal issues, specifically the government’s asylum seeker policies, reflects this core belief. The ARC has been heavily involved in refugee advocacy over the last year. “I personally don’t think that it is only those that experience oppression that can fight that oppression,” she noted.
Clo Schofield, a long-term member of the ARC, offers a potential compromise. “The Ethnic Affairs Office can be split in two, or another office can be created, and the SRC can fund both groups. Activist groups such as these are the lifeblood of the student social justice campaign and should be fostered,” she said.
Ali describes the EPOC collective as “an assertion of identity” for people of colour. By contrast, he perceives the ARC as “problematic” and contends it possesses a “flawed understanding of racial oppression.”
Ali’s ill feelings towards the ARC are shared by fellow members of the EPOC collective. “I personally think the ARC should be deferent and supportive to this collective,” Shiran Illanperuma commented.
“I don’t know that I want much at all to do with a group that believes racism affects white people in the same way it affects non-white people, and because of this, doesn’t believe in the right of people of colour or those marked out by white supremacy to determine their own movement,” Oscar Monaghan added.
Due to their core differences in ideology, it is unclear whether the ARC and the EPOC collective will soon settle their differences. Indeed, Ali bluntly opines it is unlikely that “the two groups will ever interact harmoniously, but they may very well exist together in silent resentment.”
Justin Pen is a member of the EPOC collective.