Professional Voice 14.1.6

Understanding racism: students must empathise with its impact and teachers must embrace discomfort

Niranjan Casinader

For people who experience racism, the pain sometimes comes as much from words as it does from actions. Indigenous people like Adam Goodes and Latrell Mitchell have spoken of the hurt they feel when they’re subject to racist slurs.

Words and actions used to demean people on the basis of race or colour can be found throughout everyday society and may even be seen as innocuous. Recent government bans on Australian citizens returning from India highlight one way non-white people can be excluded from society.

People of Indian or African heritage who were born in Australia or, as in my case, the United Kingdom, often face questions like, “Where are you from?” The answer is regularly met with some disbelief.

To be subject to the continual presumption that skin colour other than white is country-specific and non-Australian is humiliating, no matter how subtle it may be.

Changing how people act in terms of race and colour means changing their attitudes towards difference. Learning about the context in which racial words originated and why they are hurtful is crucial to achieving this.

Why the history of words matters

Education is an important strategy in the campaign against racist behaviour and language. Intercultural understanding is part of the Australian Curriculum and mandated by its “general capabilities” — which must be taught throughout all learning areas where appropriate.

The current curriculum review recommends a reinforcement of this intercultural understanding. The draft changes offer greater emphasis on First Nations perspectives of Australian history and more acknowledgement of Australia’s multicultural society.

But it’s not enough to just passively incorporate such education. Changing children’s attitudes towards race and, in particular, the idea (or irrelevance) of skin colour, can be best done if they learn by experiencing the negative feelings people of different races, and with different skin, colours can feel.

This kind of education is known as “pedagogies of discomfort”. It involves teachers deliberately placing students in situations where they feel uneasy. In this way students can critically engage with difficult topics that are often unacknowledged or silenced in the classroom.

The use of challenging scenarios in education is not new. One example that has been in place for many years is the blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment. In this scenario, students are told brown-eyed people are superior to blue-eyed people. The blue-eyed children, for a time, experience exclusion. The roles are then switched so both groups can understand how the “minority” groups feel and how quickly prejudice can form.

More widely, Holocaust education is based on presenting current generations of children with the reality of the Holocaust in images, language and human actions, no matter how graphic.

Similarly, understanding the history of words like “nigger” is important to empathise with the way they impact on people of colour.

Children need to learn that the word, which was used by slave owners, is derived from the African region of Niger from where many Africans were transported to the United States as slaves. Rather than calling African people by their names, slave owners used the word to dehumanise them. The word “nigger” is a derogatory term; in effect, it is historically interchangeable with “slave”.

The dilemma for teachers

Teachers find it difficult and troubling to use words like “nigger”, “Abo”, “negro” and “coon” in teaching about racism. Some teachers find it equally difficult to deal with words that might be less confrontational, such as “ape”. Research shows teachers of literature find discussing books with themes of racial or colour prejudice particularly difficult.

Australian research also indicates teachers are likely to only respond to student questions to such sensitive topics, rather than raising the issues themselves. This is partly because of the perceived difficulties about using troubling language.

In my experiences with student teachers, I’ve noticed many are reluctant to even have a discussion about how to employ examples of racist language in teaching about cultural understanding. Unfortunately, if teachers don’t accept the challenge of proactively educating children about racist language, young people may not understand its hurtful impact. And they may take this ignorance through into adulthood.

Teaching sensitively

Confronting topics when teaching about racism must be approached in a controlled environment. There are four main considerations to bear in mind:

1. Timing matters
The learning experience should be planned for a time in the school year when the teacher and students have built up a relationship of mutual trust. A debriefing discussion is essential.

Teaching about sensitive language is nuanced. It is more appropriate for the upper levels of primary school or in secondary school. The teacher knows their students and should be able to judge how these themes should be taught. This includes knowing if there are students in the class who may have been personally affected by the use of racist language or confronting educational scenarios.

2. Prior discussions are necessary
Teachers should discuss their plans with the appropriate school leadership so their learning intentions can be supported publicly, if necessary.

Teachers should also have prior discussions with students who have been affected by racism and their parents. They can inform the students about the nature of the forthcoming lessons and come to an agreement with them as to their participation.

3. Teachers need personal and professional expertise
Research suggests teachers who have learned from personal and professional experiences involving “cultural displacement” are more likely to have developed the kind of expertise required to manage “pedagogies of discomfort” in cultural education. Including cultural pedagogies of discomfort in teacher education can significantly help prepare teachers to engage proactively with racist behaviours as part of their work.

Teaching kids about racism is rarely comfortable, but neither is being exposed to racial abuse. Kids need to face discomfort to truly empathise with how it feels.

This article was first published online in The Conversation May 10 2021 and slightly modified by the author for publication in Professional Voice.



Niranjan Casinader is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Education at Monash University and an Educational Consultant. Originally trained as a geographer, he worked as a teacher and educational leader in secondary schools and international education for 33 years before moving into academia, where he taught and researched across postgraduate and graduate courses in curriculum, assessment, pedagogy and Humanities education. He continues to research, publish and consult for schools on teacher knowledge and expertise in cultural education, geographical education, inquiry teaching & learning, as well as curriculum design and leadership.

This article appears in Professional Voice 14.1 Assessment, technology and the impact of social concerns.