Attorney-General George Brandis’s proposal to repeal sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act have attracted a flurry of backlash in the past week. Currently, the former makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group because of their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”, while the latter contains exemptions which protect freedom of speech. Critics have argued the proposed changes are too weak to meaningfully protect the rights of racial minorities. But then again, are statutory provisions enough to redress systemic racism?
Hard laws, though welcome measures of deterrence, are inadequate to stimulate cultural change. Minority groups should not feel secure in Australia’s public spaces solely due to statutory provisions. They should feel secure because people would not say racially offensive or hateful things in the first place.
Indigenous education is one policy area which needs progressive reform to enhance our understanding of Indigenous culture and stamp out racial prejudice. What is needed to garner societal support for diversity beyond symbolic provisions is a coordinated, federal-state education strategy which attaches equal importance to the histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other racial minorities.
In New South Wales, Aboriginal Studies and Aboriginal Languages are not mandatory courses in the state K-12 syllabus. To achieve improvements in education outcomes, Aboriginal education should be made integral to the curriculum for all students. A more comprehensive, in-depth syllabus which engages with Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum should be formulated – one that highlights the vitality of Aboriginal cultures beyond the exoticising lens, which plays on myths and stereotypes that further fuel racial prejudice.
The wider Australian society has a lot to benefit from learning about Indigenous experiences. On Aboriginal history, Dr Lorraine Towers, an expert on educational history from the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney says, “It’s not about guilt. Aboriginal history is part of our common history that is ‘shared’ but experienced so differently – it is of great value for all, not only to comprehend the tragedies and injustice but the achievements and contributions of Aboriginal people, and gives insight into the diverse realities of our contemporary society.”
Dr Towers also highlights the importance of developing the knowledge, skills, and understanding of all teachers about Aboriginal people, their histories, cultures, and experience in Australia. “It’s not just about intentions, it’s also about having well-trained teachers and staff with a sophisticated understanding of the world in which they live, with knowledge of diverse Aboriginal histories, cultures, perspectives, and who have the skills and awareness to effectively engage in learning partnerships with their Aboriginal students and local Aboriginal communities,” she says.
“The knowledge and skills that make effective teachers of Aboriginal students, make them effective teachers of all students.”
When formulating policies to uproot racism from its very core, it is not enough to police and silence. What should complement hard laws is a holistic mechanism which harnesses positive civic values such as self-respect, respect for others, and their cultures. Treating Aboriginal Studies and Languages to be just as important as English, Mathematics, and Science is one way of instilling those values.
Supporters of Brandis’s proposed changes can masquerade as vigilantes guarding the sancitity of libertarianism and the freedom of speech— and lay quiet on the issue of systemic racism.
Currently, section 18C works like gauze used to dress the wounds of racial offense and humiliation. The onus is on the government to display a serious commitment to reconciliation by working in partnership with Aboriginal communities and further cultivating the cultural competency of all teachers. It is and will undoubtedly continue to be a work in progress. However, only after we have policies and practices which include all members of Australia’s vibrant demographic in our education curricula can we prevent or ameliorate the diseases of intolerance and bigotry from eating away our society.