Discrimination and harassment has been a substantial part of human history, yet it is only recently that things are beginning to change. Over the last 30 years, the Commonwealth Government has introduced laws to help protect people from discrimination and harassment, however in many cases there is still substantial changes in policy, laws, our community and our mindsets that need further change to truly protect people. My own experiences as a new Australian include many cases where I was treated as less than equal or even excluded and this gave me a unique social lens on the subject, but it was my placement teacher role, while working with an Aboriginal girl where I gained enough insight to draw the conclusion that there is still much more required to truly protect people, include and value them for their diversity.
Discrimination, defined by Keene (2016) as the denial of equal rights based on prejudices and stereotypes. Conway, Ashman, and Elkins (2012) however defines harassment as “actions that might humiliate, offend, distress or intimidate” and applies this definition to students directly. The notion of diversity, equality and inclusion is popular with education and employment settings however the interpretation can change between cultural, ethical and social perspectives. There are key concepts which include social justice, diversity, equality and inclusion and these are important as we examine their application in today’s learning environment to understand how much and if there has been enough to protect people from discrimination and harassment.
Conway et al. (2012) defines social justice as a concept where all individuals and groups receive fair treatment and an impartial share of benefits of society and diversity, understanding that everyone is unique. Kaur (2012) emphasises the need for social justice to be both affirmative and transformative. In the context of education, Foreman Foreman and Arthur-Kelly (2014) describes inclusion as a philosophy where all students are provided for, regardless of their cultural, racial, ethnic or social background.
A most recent example that I found very powerful included my interactions with an Aboriginal girl during a recent placement at a private catholic school which has adopted a cross-disciplinary curriculum approach. The school accommodated students’ variety of needs and individual study plans and I was fortunate to witness the diverse approach that had been applied. During my first encounter, I was struck with my own prejudices and the student did not have books, was not engaged with the class or colleagues. Fearon (2000) described the definition of ethnic identities as mainly by rules of group membership, cultural attributes, religion, language, customs and shared myths. My enquiries determined that she was an exchange student with some literacy issues which made me feel this was contributing to her not integrating well and was not welcomed into the class. The next encounter was in Art class where most students had progressed well and the Aboriginal girl was engaged in her work and some of the teachers were showing some signs of interaction. When considering her family was far away, it also occurred to me she was lonely and disconnected from her family. By Fearon’s definition, this girls ethnic identity appeared to be far from the others in the class and little was being done to relate to her circumstances and the exclusion is a form of harassment. Lalas (2007) said that a social justice lens is evaluating the impact of race, ethnicity, class and gender when assessing the impact on the educational outcomes of students and referenced the outcomes of research indicating substantial gaps that between mainstream and minority students. This gap was clear here through this lens and that the minority student was facing discrimination from both some of the teachers and her fellow students.
Conway et al. (2012) discussed the development of American Policy, “No Child Left behind” and the Australian policy “Closing the Gap” lead to the formulation of the Discrimination Act. The Melbourne declaration is the driving force behind the national curriculum and Child Protection legislation which is an active enactment of policy of the Government Agenda.
The United Nations has held several conventions and published declarations on issues that relate to discrimination and harassment such as the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There has been even more focus on the Rights of a Child by which the Council of Australian Government endorsed Australia’s Early Years Learning Framework to ensure high quality learning for all children while respecting cultural and familial diversity (Conway et al., 2012).
It is the application of processes to deliver legislative change and well-rounded curriculums focused on addressing the issues to address UNESCO’s declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. The processes have led to many developments over the last 30 years from Conway et al. (2012) and have been compiled in Attachment 1 – Policy Development.
The continuing evolution of new policy development, new agenda’s and changes to the curriculum that are occurring across Australia give strong evidence of change for the better, in short, this is clearly working. Key changes in legislation such as the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) addressed a range of issues including education. In 2005, The Standards were passed and addressed enrolment, participation, curriculum, student support services and the elimination of harassment and victimisation and these were further reviewed in 2012. While these all appear to be well rounded legislation that addresses issues, the Australian Government still required amendments and renewed commitment to reducing disadvantages in education for Aboriginal students by 2020. It could be argued that if the changes made were effective, then this renewed focus would not have been required, however it was later in 2008 that the Australian Government finally acknowledged the Stolen Generation and formally apologised with the appointment of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008. These renewed commitments were clearly required and used the following strategies:
- Retention of indigenous students;
- Intensive literacy and numeracy programs; and
- Personalised learning plans.
With the focus on these changes, much of these strategies, curriculum and legislation apply to my example of the aboriginal child I met during my placement. The questions remain, with so much attention to change, how did the example that I observed still result in a child that was disengaged, unfocused and almost alone from the rest of her school colleagues. In fact, the example indicates that enough has not been done or has been changed. While the Australian Government has an initiative that recognises the unique needs of students for whom English is an additional language or dialect, as is the case with my Aboriginal student, then why the result that I experienced.
Witherspoon (2005) determined that students need good teachers who set high standards for every student and challenge the curriculum and that the essential elements of cultural competency value cultural diversity and manage the dynamics of differences. To achieve more, in my role as a teacher, it is important to strive for cultural competency in these circumstances and bring other students on the same journey where understanding and embracement of the diversity.
Lowe and Yunkaporta (2011) asserted that ACARA’s curriculum documents demonstrated a lack of intention to fully engage students considering the cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the basis that content concerning their cultures was largely ignored. This represented the very discrimination that the engagement of ACARA on the curriculum was trying to avoid.
In this circumstance, there is a need to examine the school culture for its practices into the acceptance of multicultural education. The cultural influence becomes the catalyst for the for a childs understanding of human differences and the need to become culturally competent by examining his or her own identity (Cimillo, 2011).
I believe that it is still an issue today, because while policy generation and development occurs, it is the practice that has been left short. White (2017) reported the events of a Melbourne school recently whereby two African students were told they could not braid their hair as it did not fit the schools image. While the school reversed their decision in the face of criticism from the Anti-Discrimination board it was widely reported as evidence that the school system does not understand or appreciate anti-discrimination legislation. The question remains, was this the fault of the board of education, or poor practice where we all as teachers need to improve.
Howard (2000) discussed the categorisation of information about people and situations before we engage memory or inferential processes. In short, our cognitive processes categorise or stereotype for reasons of ease, simplicity or personal comfort. It is this process that often leads to discrimination and is further reason for the need to break down this activity, become more empathetic and understand those around us and their cultural differences. Edgeworth (2012) discussed the concept of social justice being settled into general community values, yet if the community values are conditioned to discriminate against groups, or people like the Aboriginal student, then it is the community that needs to change.
Singer and Pezone (2017) discuss the potential for societal change to be driven by changes to mainstream education arguing that while our school system can “sort children out, leaving many uneducated”, but changes to that school system to be inclusive can drive community change. These changes can be made on national levels as much as personal ones, but more importantly as teachers we can engender that change in others and drive out discrimination and harassment. This starts with the individuals embracing change to be more inclusive and stop our own prejudices in all our daily practices and passing this on to students.
Cimillo, A. (2011). Teaching Social Justice through the Lens of Multicultural Education. (Pell Honors Thesis), Salve Regina University.
Conway, R., Ashman, A., & Elkins, J. (2012). Education for inclusion and diversity (Vol. 4th ed.). French’s Forest N.S.W.: Pearson Australia.
Edgeworth, B. (2012). From Plato to Nato: Law and Social Justice in Historical Context. UNSW Law Journal, 35(2), 417-448.
Fearon, J. D., Laitin, David D. (2000). Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity. International Organisation, 54(4), 845-877.
Foreman, P., & Arthur-Kelly, M. (2014). Inclusion in Action. South Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Cengage Learning.
Howard, J. A. (2000). Social Psychology of Identities Annu Rev Sociol. Washington: University of Washington.
Kaur, B. (2012). Equity and Social Justice in Teaching and Teacher Education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 28, 485-492.
Keene, S. (2016). Social Bias: Prejudice, Stereotyping and Discrimination. Journal of Law Enforcement, 1(3).
Lalas, J. V., Eva. (2007). Social Justice Lenses and Authentic Student Voices. Educational Leadership and Administration, 19(Fall 2007).
Lowe, K., & Yunkaporta, T. (2011). The Inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in the Australian National Curriculum: A cultural, cognitive and socio-political evaluation. Curriculum Perspectives, 33(1).
Singer, A., & Pezone, M. (2017). Education for Social Change: From Theory to Practice. Workplace, (5), 2. Retrieved from Louiseville website: http://louisville.edu/journal/workplace/issue5p2/singerpezone.html
White, M. (2017). School hair furore shows basic misunderstanding of anti-discrimination law The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/comment/school-hair-furore-shows-basic-misunderstanding-of-antidiscrimination-law-20170331-gvann3.html
Witherspoon, D. E. (2005). A World of Difference: Respecting and Valuing Diversity. Generation Ready.