Responding to Racism on Our Campus

It was just over half a year ago that I’d found myself scrubbing our campus pavements, removing messages in chalk stating ‘Australia for Australians’ and ‘Diversity Divides’. I remember hoping then that it would be the last major incident of racism our university campus experienced in my time.

However, it seems I was too optimistic.

Over the weekend, posters promoting blatant hate speech popped up around campus, bearing racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs. They alluded to an imaginary, glorified ‘white Australian’ past.

Australia is a nation of immigrants, whether you came here a year or five generations ago, as a British convict in the 1800s or as a refugee now.

I am a first generation immigrant. My family immigrated to Australia when I was five years old. I am one of the so-called ‘chinks’ these posters sought to keep out of Australia. To me, this incident just shows what a long way we still have to go in making Australia a truly multicultural society.

It’s tempting to dismiss these events as one-offs committed by ‘radical’ right-wing groups, or simply words which can be brushed off. But words can be hurtful and have the power to vilify and dehumanise people. Furthermore, as right-wing extremism becomes increasingly prevalent, we have to ensure we don’t become desensitised to racism.

If we begin to accept these extremist voices as part of normal discourse, then we’ll soon find ourselves on a slippery slope downhill.

This incident has happened as I am writing a submission regarding the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act (1975). As debates rage around freedom of speech, I am reminded that the right to freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to make others feel unsafe. Here on campus, students need to feel like they belong to the University community. More than that, that they don’t need to hide their background to be accepted. Anything that threatens that is simply unacceptable.

Combating racism is everyone’s responsibility. Being outraged about something as horrific as this is a natural reaction.

But where do we go from there? I know what we, here at UMSU, will do.

Through our newly established People of Colour Department, we will engage in campaigns against racism, run events to prompt dialogue and create avenues for speaking out about racism on campus. We will continue to provide support to students who have been victims of racial abuse. In this case, we will also work with the Queer department and relevant cultural clubs and communities on campus.

For everyone else out there, there are active steps you can take. It’s heartening to see that someone has already taken the initiative to put up posters around campus with the message ‘love trumps hate’. But it doesn’t stop there. If you see a poster proclaiming hate speech messages, alert campus security. If you see racist and offensive content online, report it. Talk to your family, friends and acquaintances and explain why this isn’t okay.

The responsibility of responding to issues like this is on everyone, not only those affected.


Yan Zhuang

UMSU President