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Don’t be a bystander – help eradicate racism from campus

After the Spurr email saga academics banded together to stop racism on campus. AAP

In recent weeks we have been reminded that our university campuses, like everywhere else, are not racism-free spaces. The controversy surrounding poetry professor Barry Spurr serves to remind us that universities cannot be complacent when it comes to racism, and that building inclusive, diverse campuses should be an active and ongoing process.

Academics have written an open letter to vice-chancellors asking that complaints of racist harassment, bullying and vilification be taken seriously, to avoid more victims and more silence.

University campuses are not safe from the Islamaphobia that is swirling in the world around us. Muslim students have reported vilification and other forms of racist incivility, particularly while in transit to campus. Fortunately, there are citizens who speak out and challenge the proponents of racism when they attempt to injure and exclude through their aggressive rants.

Teach bystanders to be active

While there are many ways to tackle racism, international research says that tackling bystander inaction is one of the most effective ways to combat racism in an institution like a university.

Bystander anti-racism is action by “ordinary” people in response to interpersonal or systemic racism that they witness. Research has found that while many people are uncomfortable when they see racism, for a variety of reasons (fear of becoming a target, and lack of knowledge of what can be done) they do not always respond.

There are many forms of anti-racism. This bystander training complements some of the more familiar community relations initiatives that most universities run, such as diversity celebrations and culturally specific events.

Research has shown it is possible to build a culture of active bystanders within organisations, specifically large workplaces and academic settings. However, researchers have found very few examples of bystander programs that have been undertaken in Australia. The work on bystander anti-racism by the Challenging Racism Project, led from UWS, emphasises the need to develop evidenced based bystander anti-racism programs in Australia.

Bystander anti-racism programs have to build people’s knowledge and skills, address the social conditions that can lead to race-based discrimination and intolerance, and establish a climate where there is strong visible support for constructive bystander action.

Doing something about racism

The University of Western Sydney is one of the most culturally diverse university campuses in Australia. Its student body is made up of students from more than 100 different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. As a result, UWS has undertaken an anti-racism project called Do Something About Racism.

The project comprises three elements that aim to address racism on campus. The first consists of a series of bystander anti-racism workshops for staff and students, that explore racial identity and racism in Australia; look at who is responsible for challenging racism; and provide learners with opportunities to role-play being an active anti-racism bystander in the face of an incident involving racism. So far, eight workshops have been conducted with professional staff, academic staff and students.

The second element is a communications campaign using artwork developed by fourth-year UWS design students, which aims to send a strong message to the entire UWS community that we all need to do something about racism.

The final element of the project provides an opportunity for cross-cultural contact between the UWS community and three of the largest culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Western Sydney, namely Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian, over dinner. The dinners were developed in consultation with the communities and create a space where people of diverse cultural backgrounds can work together to host and enjoy the events.

UWS is using this project as an opportunity to obtain research data on the effectiveness of bystander anti-racism interventions. Once we have analysed the data to look at how effective the program has been, research findings will assist UWS and other universities to develop effective strategies to combat racism and other forms of discrimination.

All university staff and students should speak up and speak out when they witness racism. Taking action does work. People just need to know what sorts of action they can take, and how to do so safely and with effect.

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