Govt not serious about racism - Aus teacher

2014-10-17 09:49
Dr Adam Heaton. (Supplied)

Dr Adam Heaton. (Supplied)

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Cape Town - Aboriginal people would be a lot better off today if government was serious about stopping discrimination against them, an Australian teacher Dr Adam Heaton has said.

The teacher who recently did his thesis on Aboriginals for his PhD spoke to News24 and revealed the discrimination that existed towards aboriginal people living in Australia.

Heaton's thesis is entitled: "I stopped to think" – Aboriginal anti-racism pedagogy in middle schools.

Aborigins, who have occupied Australia for 50 000 years but who number less than 500 000 of a total population of 23 million, are the most disadvantaged Australians.

They are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement two centuries ago.

News24:  How would you describe Aboriginal Australians?

Heaton: I personally see Aboriginal people as brilliant and resilient amidst the oppression they continue to experience. But, like any people group or nation, each individual person is different.

News24:   In general what is the situation with Aboriginal people in Australia?

Heaton:  The Aboriginal population of Australia face a situation similar to people in "developing' nations. Compared to other Australians, they face much lower life outcomes in education, employment, health and housing.

Proportionately, levels of incarceration (imprisonment) are nearly 10 times higher than other Australians and their age expectancy is 20 years lower. On top of all this, most Aboriginal people report that they continue to be the recipients of racial prejudice and discrimination on a regular basis. It is not a pretty situation.

News24: Why a thesis on them?

Heaton: I wanted students in my classes to see Aboriginal people like I do—positively! White (and other) children all too often grow up with stories, nursery rhymes and films that depict white people as better than non-whites. While whites are portrayed as the kings, queens and intelligent and good looking heroes, non-whites (often blacks) are represented as the second fiddle, joker or criminal.

These messages, which are often also perpetuated in conversations at school, home and other social settings, have often shaped children’s perspectives and attitudes towards Aboriginal people.

I wanted to shake things up a little, and facilitate learning opportunities in which students can take charge and question Australian society and their own personal views of Aboriginal people. I found all the students in my classes held negative thinking and feelings towards Aboriginal people, and I understand that it is from our thoughts and feelings that our behaviour is shaped. I wanted to nip racism in the bud—for both the students’ and Aboriginal Australians’ social well-being.

News24: As a teacher what are some of the difficulties you have encountered in trying to make your students or even your colleagues understand that Aboriginals are also human just like them?

Heaton: I was fired from one school for making positive representations about Aboriginal people to students! At the school where my PhD research was based the principal and middle school co-ordinator initially approved the study, but their support waned as some parents complained.

One parent argued with me that Aboriginal parents are abusive and I should not be teaching that it was unfair that their children be forcibly removed from them by the government. One colleague waved his finger in my face as he told me I was tarnishing my reputation in the school community by peddling a political agenda.

My supervisor demonstrated racist perspectives himself and did not support me in response to the opposition from parents and colleagues. He told me that there had been many complaints about my curriculum, but did not elaborate.

I was left feeling isolated and uncertain about my future employment at the school. Anti-racism education is not for the faint hearted, and requires the support of the school community (starting with school leaders). Unfortunately, all too often that support is not there.

All the while, the students themselves enjoyed and were challenged by the learning experience, and changed many of their perspectives of Aboriginal people (from negative to positive). Perhaps these outcomes were why some parents and colleagues opposed the curriculum—perhaps they felt embarrassed, ashamed or guilty about their own prejudices and that their children were developing new understandings.

News24: Where do you hope to take the issue of Aboriginal Australians as an activist fighting for their rights?

Heaton: Now that I have finished the PhD I am writing up its theoretical underpinnings and practical steps to help get schools on board in implementing the programme of learning I developed.

I hope to make the book (and other Learn-2-Love books—Learn-2-Love is an organisation I am currently developing) free of charge for schools to access online. I am writing it for an international audience too—to get schools and teachers in other countries to think about and become active in how they can get their students to challenge and change perspectives they might hold about a people group who face oppression in their society—a group who students perhaps have prejudices towards.

After all, prejudices towards groups of people perceived as different and often inferior exist in every country. Achieving anti-prejudice outcomes are really what it’s about—students in my anti-racism programme not only started to perceive Aboriginal people in a new positive light but also learnt that it is not OK to judge anyone or any group.

I have also started to make complaints to media about unfair news reporting about Aboriginal people and to organisations (health care, police etc).

News24: Do you see any efforts by the Australian government to deal with their plight?

Heaton: Yes, but not nearly enough. Aboriginal people would be a lot better off today if we were really serious and active about stopping discrimination and disadvantage. It is a social as well as a government problem. If justice and equality for Aboriginal people were important to Australians in general the government would invest more wisely and proportionately in alleviating Aboriginal oppression.  

News24: You are white yourself, what does their situation tell the whole world about colonialism and the impact it had on black people.

It speaks of the intergenerational problem that colonialism was and is. Some people feel shame and guilt about the past atrocities (forcible removal of Indigenous people from land, genocide) and so put the blame of ongoing disadvantage on Aboriginal people (such as by saying they don’t want to work).

In Australia colonisation was particularly bad—the British made no treaty and there was not even a war. There was just an assumption (which persists today—even by Australia’s current Prime Minister Tony Abbott) that Australia was unsettled before the British arrived.

Genocide of Aboriginal people and the removal from good land continues to have a dire impact on Aboriginal communities, and so too does the forcible removal of children. In 2007 the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a national apology, but since then the numbers of Aboriginal children taken from their parents and put into foster care has sky-rocketed! Colonisation remains very tangible today.

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