Race Activism At USYD

Bridget Harilaou reflects on her experiences of racism in student politics.

university of sydney quad in black and white

Racism at the University of Sydney (USYD) is one of the most neglected issues on campus and within the Student Representative Council. The Wom*n’s Collective and Queer Collective have been funded by the SRC for years, but until 2013 there was no autonomous collective for those who experience racism. The Indigenous Collective has only been SRC-funded for three years, although it existed for many years before that. This is indicative of USYD’s hostility toward thinking critically about race, see: St Paul’s College British Raj party.

As a Group of Eight university with notoriously high entry marks, and a long history of elitist college culture, this isn’t surprising. In September 2013, the Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR) was formed, and since then, it has been patronised, pushed around and dictated to, by every political faction that has an interest in the SRC.

The Anti-Racism Collective at USYD (dominated by a Socialist political faction named ‘Solidarity’) has consistently maintained that ACAR as a collective is the “wrong strategy” to address racism. The Wom*n’s Collective can exist as a wom*n only Collective (as it should), but ACAR? How “divisive” to exclude White people!

Additionally, ACAR has always had to fight to get the same respect in choosing our own office bearers. In fact, a coalition of Labor factions (‘Labor Unity’ and ‘Sydney Labor Students’) was responsible for denying ACAR the Ethnic Affairs Office in 2013. Every other collective on campus is allowed to choose its own leaders, but not ACAR.

Denying People of Colour autonomy and claiming we need a “united fight” is a fundamentally White supremacist model. It excludes those directly affected by racism from having a voice. It is patronising to be dictated to by White people about race, period.

Autonomy, and allowing oppressed people to lead their own liberation movements, is not a complicated concept. However, many students at USYD seem to have immense difficulty comprehending this.

In 2014, ACAR was subject to an ‘infiltration’ by a group of Labor Party members (from ‘Sydney Labor Students’ and ‘National Labor Students’). Jason Kwok, Arien Amarindra, Nina Mao and Sam Kwon all nominated to be office bearers, attempted to add numerous friends, and run for election without ever having participated as members of ACAR. Kwon never even joined the Facebook group before nominating himself to lead the collective. To all the activists who had helped build the group, this was an incredible betrayal.

These people should be ashamed for disrespecting ACAR with this kind of political careerism. Grassroots (a leftist student activist group) has also proved to be complicit in racism. Grassroots won the presidency at USYD in 2014 and as a member, I had never experienced issues of racism until the end of 2014.

A group of people within Grassroots organised for a Solidarity member named Caitlin Doyle to become the 2015 Education Officer. Solidarity are the faction who disagree with ACAR’s existence and the fundamental ideology of People of Colour leading our own movement. To have these people be supported by Grassroots members, reveals the insidious disrespect of People of Colour rife within the activist community.

Arguing that education activism is ‘separate’ from racism ignores the fact that only White people can leave race at the door of these conversations, and referring to Grassroots’ past deals with racist factions only shows a refusal to progress.

Quoting from a ‘letter of dissent’published by this group of Grassroots members, “Discussing the issue in a hostile and name-calling way (e.g. branding people ‘racists’)… incites fear and intimidation… Shaming people as racists or the ‘white bloc’… invisibilises people of colour who dissent or are unsure.”

Of those who signed this letter, a definitive majority were White, but god forbid we point out racial power dynamics for fear of… actually I still don’t quite understand. None of these factions or people have apologised, and the majority leave it to be forgotten. It’s all just irrelevant ‘student politics’, right?

However in 2015, race activism is being restricted on a higher institutional level. Recently the University of Sydney issued an investigation into pro-Palestinian activists who peacefully protested a lecture being given by Richard Kemp. Kemp is a known genocide apologist, who sees the occupation of Palestine and second-class citizenship for Palestinians as the “Israeli Defence Force” safeguarding “the rights of civilians.”

Despite photographic evidence and witnesses showing attendees of the lecture assaulting protesters by throwing objects at them, it was the protesters who were investigated for allegations of racism (anti-Semitism). Freedom of speech and racism are so often manipulated to defend those who have more power in any given context. Depending on whether it is Charlie Hebdo or pro-Palestine rhetoric being discussed, freedom of speech and racism swing one way or the other. It is particularly telling that there have been zero formal investigations into Islamaphobia on campus despite clear reportings of harassment and abuse.

It is unquestionable that Richard Kemp, a retired British Colonel, and Israel, as a militarised state backed by US imperial interests, have more power to wield in a geopolitical sense. It is also clear that Muslim Palestinian refugees who are People of Colour, do not have the social and economic capital that middle class 1st/2nd/3rd/4th generation Jewish Australians have in modern race relations.

In this way, it’s clear to see where USYD’s priorities lie: defending the powerful.

As the president of the Student For Justice in Palestine Society, Fahad Ali, wrote, “This is not about a difference in opinion. This is about human rights. You wouldn’t have a debate on whether or not apartheid South Africa was a great place … What’s the difference here?”

The difference is that the University of Sydney and the majority of its White, elitist student population are not interested in discussing race or the structural, institutional and cultural power dynamics of racism.

It is great to see that the 2015 USYD Union Board elections showed much more racial diversity — unlike last year where there was literally one Person of Colour … and they were a joke campaign.

Accountability and transparency aren’t just buzzwords, they require action. So here’s to the hope that this year’s Board candidates will give People of Colour the representation they need for race activism to flourish. Let’s open up a dialogue about racism within activist groups and at universities, because in the last three years it honestly hasn’t been good enough.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

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