Change to 18C out of tune on Harmony Day

Amber Flohm
Multicultural Officer/Organiser

Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane and Federation Multicultural Officer Amber Flohm at an official event for International Day for the Elimination of Racism Discrimination (Harmony Day)

As children in public schools across NSW celebrated Harmony Day, the federal Liberal/National Coalition government decided to introduce changes to the Racial Discrimination Act at Section 18C.

The March 21 commemoration was born of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 in apartheid-era South Africa, a military response to a civil rights movement.

That date has been acknowledged as the day on which the ability to live free from racial discrimination is maintained as a human right.

Section 18C makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity. Sections 18C and 18D were introduced to the Racial Discrimination Act in 1995 in response to recommendations of major inquiries including the National Inquiry into Racist Violence, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Multiculturalism and the Law report.

Any attempt to change Section 18C to allow offending, insulting, humiliating or intimidating a person on grounds of race or cultural background to be lawful acts, must be opposed at every turn.

Apart from the huge impact on individuals, changing 18C would lead to the decimation of social cohesion and inclusion in our society, values that public school teachers, students and their communities hold dear.

Members are urged to email their opposition to changes to 18C to their local Coalition members of parliament.

Recently, a teacher colleague described the issue in these terms: she is Lebanese and was born here in Australia. In the community in which she lives, she has never experienced the racism seen on social media like being attacked on a train, although she recognises it exists. She has not experienced racism on the street although she grew up in Sydney wearing a scarf.

What she has felt in the last few years is different and as she voiced her concerns she grew extremely distressed. She told me how one of her brothers — one is a dentist and one a lawyer — had an employer at interview suggest that he change his name from Mohammed and shave his beard.

She then talked excitedly about how her four daughters at the local public school were excelling in an environment that was warm and inclusive.

Sadness returned when she described how she lay awake at night worrying that her daughters would experience terrible racism — not at school, she clarified, but in the wider community — if they began to wear a scarf. Keeping up the tradition is important to her but she is torn. “I just know they will be the target of race hate on the street and I don’t want that for my girls,” she said.

It was a heartbreaking exchange but all too common for many of our teachers, students and communities. This is not freedom, nor is it social inclusion.

The Australian Human Rights Commission found in a survey of 2380 young people aged 13–17 that 87 per cent had either experienced or witnessed racism, such experiences most commonly occurring at school (43 per cent) or online (33 per cent).

Federation members are reminded of their responsibility as educators to organise, act and educate against racism in all its forms.

Federation’s Anti-Racism Policy applies to all Federation members and employees. Through its decisions and policies, Federation will heed the voices of its members and students who are subjected to racial abuse, discrimination or vilification.

For copies of the Anti-Racism Policy, Charter, campaign resources such as posters, information about racism, good practice case studies as well as professional readings, click here or email Amber Flohm, Federation’s Multicultural Officer/Organiser.

There are also resources to assist members to address racism in their classrooms and workplaces, as well as in their wider community.

These include the Human Rights Commission’s campaign, “Racism. It Stops with Me”, that Federation proudly supports, and “What you say matters”, which particularly targets a youth audience. The UN also provides a plethora of resources on racial discrimination.