On Wednesday, May 4, members of ANU’s Social Sciences faculty held a panel on tackling racism and bigotry within the social sciences at Burton and Garran Hall. This panel and the upcoming series of similar events are motivated by the 2021 Racism Report carried out by the ANU Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) department.

The Racism Report found that amongst racist incidents on campus, 54.4 percent were perpetuated by students, 15.8 percent were perpetuated by ANU staff members. Of these incidents reported, 19.3 percent occurred in teaching settings, while 17.5 percent occurred within student residences. 

This was the first event in a series taking place across all ANU residences and open to all staff and students, primarily driven by Dr Karo Moret, an Afro-Cuban historian, academic researcher and lecturer at the ANU. 

The conversation series seeks to focus how the social sciences can assist students, teaching staff and the broader ANU public in addressing the issues of racism and bigotry on a systemic and individual level. 

Dr Tania Colwell explained that the aim of this series was to enhance the understanding of people’s experiences from across ANU’s global community and create goals and strategies to combat prejudice within the ANU and beyond. 

The event started with an acknowledgement of land and introduction of the panel members. Dr Karo Moret hosted the discussion, introducing Professor Karima Laachir, PhD student Fatema Mansuri and undergraduate student Gia Mehdi. To ensure a safe space for people to share their experiences, this series will not be broadcast online. 

Can the Social Sciences do something about racism and bigotry on campus? 

Dr Laachir explained that racism and bigotry is a systemic issue that has its roots in white privilege and settler colonialism. She believes that the social sciences is the discipline that can drive the fight against racism and bigotry at the ANU, as the leading national university in Australia. 

As a professor in the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Dr Laachir stated that there is an adoption of critical pedagogy whereby students and staff engage, evaluate and challenge each other in conversations. 

A key measure in tackling racism and bigotry is shifting the onus of responsibility and representation away from the minority and placing it on the majority community to educate themselves to understand other cultures, races and religions. 

Dr Laachir also discussed the issue of COVID-19 and the impacts that have arisen from it through the stereotyping of Asian Australian and Western Sydney communities. 

Undergraduate student Gia Mehdi reiterated the importance of fighting bigotry and racism through the social sciences by placing responsibility on non-BIPOC academic staff members, instead of putting it on BIPOC staff and students, risking their burnout.

To Mehdi, these conversations are important as they allow non-BIPOC individuals to garner an understanding of the experiences that people of colour have at the ANU. 

PhD student Fatema Mansuri shared that the social sciences is important in developing an understanding of students’ identities. Mansuri believes that racism, bigotry and gender are inherently linked and envisioning the future through social sciences is essential in the fight against all these intersections of oppression. 

Dr Laachir also invited Ms Mary Williams, the Sub Dean of Indigenous Studies, a descendant of the Darkinjung People. Ms Williams advises methods to decolonising the curriculum in CASS, where there is a lot of willingness from staff members but an absence of method to carry out the process. 

As a result, non-Indigenous staff turn to Indigenous staff members to establish the method, which places a burden of responsibility and representation on Indigenous peoples. Ms Williams stated that this is because there is no structural mechanism in place which ensures Indigenous representation within courses and curriculums. 

The Panel then opened the floor to questions from the attendees who enquired about the future ANU for BIPOC students. 

Do academics address strategies on decolonising curriculum and course content? 

Dr Laachir emphasised that the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies staff members design course content through a decolonial and decentralised lens by determining course aims. Recently, the Centre introduced a new Honours course to provide a foundational understanding of the region by de-essentialising the Middle East. 

On a broader level, Dr Lacchir stressed that  addressing bigotry and racism on campus is a key priority and part of ANU vision 2025 and she urged students to use their agency to shape this ANU strategy for change by using all channels of communication possible.  

How as a BIPOC student can you address racism in the classroom when you do not feel safe? 

Dr Moret encouraged the students to exercise their right in asking what they want and need to learn to course conveyors. 

Dr Laachir stated that cultural and ethical training is required amongst staff members to raise awareness of the nuances of cross-cultural communication, and emphasised the importance ethical and cultural sensitivity have when academics create course curriculums and content. 

Furthermore, Dr Laachir acknowledged how unlearning privilege was a critical step that staff members must take to ensure that their teaching spaces are culturally sensitive and aware. 

What would decolonising the ANU look like? 

Mansuri highlighted the importance of challenging the modes in which knowledge is shared and transported amongst academics and students. She believed that decolonisation can begin to occur when information moves away from Western standards of knowledge transportation and moves across cultures through visual learning and changes in classroom dynamics and settings. 

The BIPOC Department commented on the event stating that “there are few opportunities for non-BIPOC people on campus to be facilitated with an open discussion about racism and what it looks like at university.” When the event participants “volunteered to help facilitate this kind of discussion, a lot of interest as well as curiosity was felt by both BIPOC and non-BIPOC students and staff across ANU.” 

If you’re an ANU student interested in attending further upcoming panel discussions, the staff and students conversation series will take place at ANU colleges this year, with a hope to expand to the broader ANU community in the following years.