27 Jun, 2014 Last updated: 27 Jan, 2015

A benchmarking University of Melbourne survey funded by VicHealth as part of a trial community intervention has found that one in five primary and high school students said they were targets of racism at school on a daily basis.

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A benchmarking University of Melbourne survey funded by VicHealth as part of a trial community intervention* has found that one in five primary and high school students said they were targets of racism at school on a daily basis. 

Yet the prevalence of racism may be much higher, with far more school students reporting witnessing racism directed at someone else every day. And more than two-thirds of students said they saw another student being teased because of their cultural background at least once a month. 

Findings from the benchmarking survey of 264 young people aged eight to 17-years-old will be presented by lead researcher and child racism expert Dr Naomi Priest from The University of Melbourne and Deakin University at the Lowitja Institute racism and child health symposium in Melbourne today. 

This includes the finding that a third (33.2%) of students reported direct experiences of racism at school at least every month, mostly perpetrated by other students. This figure rose to 45 per cent if the student was born overseas. 

The most common racist experience was being told they do not belong in Australia, followed by being left out of play or group work, being spat on, pushed or hit and less commonly, being excluded by a teacher. It was far more common for primary school students to witness and experience racism than secondary students.

However, 444 school staff members who were also surveyed reported mostly positive attitudes and experiences of diversity, saying staff very rarely or never experienced racism. Most felt positive about their schools’ environments and efforts to create a pro-diversity culture.   

Dr Priest said these results strongly supported the need for effective school-based interventions to prevent race-based discrimination. 

“We found that experiences of racism at school had a consistent detrimental effect on students’ mental wellbeing. Those who directly experienced racism were the most likely to feel sad and isolated,” Dr Priest said. “We also found that students who reported more motivation to be fair to others from different cultural backgrounds reported more positive mental wellbeing.

“Interventions to promote a culture of fairness in school may have a positive impact on experiences of loneliness for all students. It would appear that school staff may not be fully aware of the discriminatory behaviour being perpetuated at school. Ongoing support is needed for school staff in order to build capacity for school-based pro-diversity interventions.  We are currently working with schools and education departments to develop and implement such interventions.” 

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter said: “Rather than avoiding the topic of cultural differences, it should be discussed by teachers at school and at home by parents, to teach children to respect and value our multicultural society.  Many school wellbeing coordinators are doing a great job in this area. 

“Also, these discussions about diversity and why it’s good to be inclusive and welcoming can and should be happening in all parts of our lives, including workplaces, sports clubs, arts activities and among friends.

“We know that racism can have a devastating impact on a young person’s health and wellbeing and their educational outcomes. However, the benefits of cultural diversity include improved productivity, creativity and improved wellbeing. 

“So it’s important to teach our kids positive attitudes towards cultural diversity, that racist remarks are never okay, and how to respond if they do experience or witness racism.

“Learning at an early age the benefits of a multicultural society is crucial for preventing racist attitudes from developing. Celebrating cultural diversity is not about ignoring our differences, it’s about discussing them. 
As a microcosm of society, school is the perfect place where we can teach respect and build a better future for all Victorians.”

For more information, see the Journal of Youth and Adolescence Experiences of Racism, Racial/Ethnic Attitudes, Motivated Fairness and Mental Health Outcomes Among Primary and Secondary School Students paper. 

* About this research

In 2007, VicHealth released its More than tolerance report, which revealed an unacceptably high level of negative attitudes towards people from diverse cultures. In response to these findings, a program to explore the extent and nature of these attitudes was developed - called Localities Embracing and Accepting Diversity (LEAD). 

LEAD was designed to trial new community interventions that address racism in two communities in Victoria. The communities were selected due to their broad ethnic mix and local government commitment, not because they were any more or less racist than other areas.

This benchmarking research was conducted in five primary schools and four secondary schools in 2011 at the beginning of the LEAD program to ascertain the level of racism and its impacts on the mental health of school students and staff in these local government areas and to explore their attitudes towards cultural diversity.

Find out more about the program www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/LEAD

To interview VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter contact John Fulcher, VicHealth – [email protected]  0412 978 263
To interview Dr Naomi Priest contact Elizabeth Banks-Anderson, University of Melbourne – [email protected] 0481 013 333