Education is the key to stamping out racism

31 May 2013

Professor Shane Houston: "The casual undercurrent of racism in Australia, where it exists, thrives on ignorance."
Professor Shane Houston: "The casual undercurrent of racism in Australia, where it exists, thrives on ignorance."

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire's now infamous suggestion that Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes be used to promote the musical King Kong was intolerable. So, too, was his excuse that it was only a ''slip of the tongue''.

It would be easy to pick on McGuire here, but this is bigger than just one individual. While he may be today's face of ignorance due to his public profile, there are many equally offensive and equally inexcusable things said by less high-profile people every day. Some are intentional. Some ''slips of the tongue'', as McGuire would say, are made out of ignorance. All must stop.

While there is no doubting that McGuire is apologetic, what is alarming is that someone of his calibre and public position made the remarks. Also alarming is that through social media, many people have expressed bewilderment that what he said was deemed offensive.

The casual undercurrent of racism in Australia, where it exists, thrives on ignorance. Our education system must accept that we could and should have done more. Many reports, including the recent Behrendt review of Aboriginal higher education, have highlighted the role that universities should play in responding to the need for greater cultural competence.

Failing to deal with cultural competency leaves people such as McGuire saying something offensive that he perhaps subconsciously thought was acceptable or funny because of the informal racism that exists socially. He then pays a high professional and personal price.

Apparently he is now to go through the AFL's racial vilification counselling program. I bet he wishes he had been ''better educated'' before it got to this.

Wouldn't it be better to teach children what casual racism is, and stamp it out early, rather than try to clean up the mess afterwards?

Ideally, cultural competency needs to be addressed at all levels of our education system. That needs to begin at universities because we teach the teachers who will influence curriculum and students Australia-wide. We also produce the parliamentarians, the business leaders and the organisational leaders of the future, so we can have the most immediate impact on ensuring that the next generation of leadership won't display the unfortunate ignorance we too often see.

The University of Sydney is making a start committing to cultural competency. We are proud to say that we will be the first university in the world to address cultural competency at a whole of university level, not just in one or two programs or faculties. Our program will include staff and students and cultural competency will be embedded throughout our curricula.

Cultural competency could have helped McGuire. Cultural competency would have provided the tools for self-assessment and the knowledge for awareness. He would have understood the implications of doing what he did before and would, I hope, have thought better of it. Cultural competency gives us the tools to be respectful of difference and work in ways that respect others. This is important in a multicultural society.

This week's incident was offensive not just to Goodes and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but to all who hope for a more inclusive society. That is why our programs will extend beyond Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander understanding to all cultures.

We have more than 130 cultures in our university community. Sport is also one of the most multicultural communities in our society.

It is in everyone's interest to become more culturally competent. This is a journey for all Australians, and our renowned institutions need to lead the way.

Professor Shane Houston is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) at the University of Sydney.

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