Children are by nature respectful:

So let’s stop teaching them racism.

Each year National Reconciliation Week celebrates and creates a space and time for us all to think about how we live and work together as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. At the heart of these celebrations is the call to examine the relationship between the broader Australian community and Australia’s First Nation’s peoples. For this relationship to be positive, it must be grounded in truth and strengthened through respect.

This is a time to learn more about the recent and past history of Aboriginal peoples, their cultures and achievements, and to be hopeful for a future that embraces Aboriginal heritage with respect and a profound commitment to achieving equality. It is also an opportunity for individuals to explore how we can each take action to advance the reconciliation journey.

“Diversity!!! As an indigenous, non-binary, pansexual person; I feel utterly disconnected from the community. There is a lack of education in schools on our own country’s history!!!” — young person in the Barossa, 2018

The dictionary definition of reconciliation is the process of two groups coming together following an argument and becoming friendly again; this involves agreeing on how to understand each other’s perspectives, respect each other’s differences and similarities, live in friendship, learn from history, and have respectful collaborative relationships. It’s a powerful word.

“Culture and heritage, the government and the people should start respecting our land and recognising our backgrounds and culture.” — a young person in Port Lincoln, 2017

It also means by this definition that reconciliation is not actually something that Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people can do separately. Rather it is an action we must do together, and not just for one week of the year, but all year round, forever.

When we think about the future we rightfully turn to our children and young people as the ones who will take us there, creating a world we hope is better than the one we have created now. They look to us for ways to increase respect, reduce prejudice and strengthen relationships with each other in their schools and communities including relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and indeed between all people of different cultural backgrounds.

When I explore reconciliation from a child’s perspective, I am aware of some interesting questions this raises.

· Where does reconciliation and a child’s rights intersect?

· Is it in the area of discrimination and racism, or in the area of the impact of racism on Aboriginal children and young people?

· Is it in the capacity of all children and young people to create a future based on tolerance and acceptance or is it in fact all of the above?

Many children and young people experience racism every day, most commonly at school from other students. In fact we know that the most common form of racism experienced is children telling other children that they do not belong; calling them names and teasing and leaving them out.

“Some Aboriginal students don’t feel comfortable in mainstream schools because of racism in schools.”-young person in Port Lincoln, 2017

Racism means children feel they don’t belong and that they have a lived experience of being excluded. This often makes them withdraw, which then deepens their exclusion further. Racism stops children fulfilling their ideas of what they think they are capable of and this in turn increases individual stress and self-doubt contributing to the development of low self-esteem.

So to be on the receiving end of racism is not just about having hurt feelings. Racism has a profound and ongoing impact on a child’s wellbeing, health and development.

What we also know is that children are not, by nature, racist. In other words, no-one is born a racist. Nor are we born with assumptions about people in any definable group. Children learn racism from adults.

Although the reasons behind racism are complex and solutions require an integrated and whole of community approach, I strongly believe we do have the capacity to eliminate racism from our schools.

What I’ve witnessed as a parent and as someone who has worked closely with children and young people over many years, is that our children have a keen sense of justice. They are built to protest loudly when they see or believe that someone else is being treated badly.

I don’t think we actually have to teach children respect for people of other races as they do instinctively and naturally unless this instinct is disrupted or perverted. What we need to do then is prevent this perversion to racism by safeguarding a child’s inborn sense of justice and then amplify it.

Sadly as adults we are the most powerful purveyors of racism in our children’s lives. At some point we have been guilty of demonstrating racist behaviour that our children have witnessed. This is because we learnt racism from the society in which we were raised. A society which is only just beginning to tackle racism at the systemic level. We must therefore be alert to the conditioned responses that lurk in us, and which continue to cycle racist behaviour in our children if they are not addressed.

If reconciliation is all about recognising and healing the past to enable us to connect to a better future, then it must be all about truth-telling. The most powerful action we can take as parents, families, educators, school teachers and community leaders is to acknowledge we have at some point in our lives been racist.

We then need to listen to the voices of our children and help them to speak out about their direct experiences of racism as witnesses and imitating perpetrators. We need to listen to the ideas they put forward as solutions so we can support them when racism happens and can respond appropriately, thereby calling racism out in ourselves and others.

This Reconciliation Week, as we take our next steps toward a more reconciled Australia, I challenge us to address racism in ourselves and in our family, school and communities as the only way it can be defeated. If we tell ourselves it starts with others and not with ourselves, then we will always be part of a group who push the problem to one side for someone else to resolve.


Helen Connolly, Commissioner for Children and Young People SA.
Friday 31st May 2019