How and why the issue of ‘race’ affected/affects my life in diverse ways

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The following text is a form of writing that I have experimented with for the first time. Its structure is far removed from the conventional form of academic writing (a form that I am most familiar with as a second year university student). My intention is to examine how and why the issue of ‘race’ affected/affects my life in diverse ways and how this links into existing ‘race’ related theories. Being a Fiji Indian woman living in Australia and completing a degree in early childhood education, the issue of ‘race’ most certainly impacts on both my personal and professional life in many ways.

You will see that this paper is written in two columns. My personal experiences and viewpoints related to the issue of ‘race’ (an element typically hidden in academic essays) will be discussed and explored in the right-hand column. In the left-hand column I will speak with an academic voice. I will outline some theoretical views dealing with the issue of ‘race. ‘ Both columns tie in and complement each other in both direct and subtle ways throughout this piece. One may choose to read one column at a time in any order or, one may choose to read it by constantly jumping across both columns to distinguish the connections made.

Ever since the British colonisation of Australia, where racialised policies were introduced that ‘conflated race and culture, notions of cultural incompatibility and racism have continued to be interwoven in our society’ (Larbalestier, 1999, p. 2). For this reason, notions of ‘whiteness’ then signals the idea of a continuing and imperative monotony of a core Australian identity. This notion however, is a mere social construction that disregards the cultural diversity of Australia’s population since 1788 (Larbalestier, 1999).

This notion also contradicts the reality of Australia’s history, as the land was first populated with Aboriginals. This social construction leads to the discourse of ‘whiteness’ signifying power and privilege. That is, ‘white’ becomes an entitlement as being a raceless identity. Being ‘white’ therefore, becomes the invisible norm in society. It is for this reason, that many ‘white’ Australians identify the ‘Australian Community’ and multiculturalism as the ‘white race’ and its ‘others’ (Larbalestier, 1999, & Sleeter, 1999).

This notion of belief makes it difficult to speak of Australia as a multicultural society, as the term ‘others’ compartmentalises the diverse range of cultures rather than orchestrating them into the society to form a new and a far more realistic identity. As explained by Robinson and Jones-Diaz (1999), those people who are located outside the dominant discourse, in this case the non-whites, will frequently ‘experience inequities, diminished power, and little or no support from the dominant culture for their ‘truths’ about the world. Consequently, one’s subjectivity and power will be constructed by the discourses that are historically and culturally available to them’ (Robinson & Jones Diaz, 1999, p. 4). Schools are directly involved in the development of ideologies in their students, including racial ideologies. Therefore, schools must be populated with teachers who bring diverse worldviews and experiences that ‘expose, challenge and deconstruct racism rather than tacitly accepting it’ (Sleeter, 1999, p. 12).

This method of education will serve the interests of diverse population and not just present the racial and social class structure. The position of privilege that many white teachers inhibit and take for granted, which they have constructed over their lifetimes is what most of them use to understand the topic of race, and therefore what they may pass on to their students. Educators of colour on the other hand, ‘are less likely to marginalize minority intellectual discourses’ (Sleeter, 1999, p. 13).

As educators of colour are in a less dominant position on the so called ‘illusory hierarchy’ of society, which automatically places ‘whiteness’ at the top of the scale, they will more likely bring life experiences and viewpoints that critique white supremacy than the white teachers. The multicultural reality of the Australian society needs to be reflected in all school and early childhood curricular, staffing and school/centre organisation. This means that multicultural education is not to be regarded as an extra subject, but as an infusion into existing programs (Henderson, 1998).

If schools are to be effective in this, they must develop and maintain non-stereotypical environments that clearly embrace the cultures represented by the students in their classrooms as well as in the wider society. It is also important for teachers to make connections to the wider community when discussing racial and multicultural issues. For example, teachers could use role models of people with different ethnic backgrounds to show them that members of their group can succeed if they try hard.

This method of making connections will strengthen feelings of solidarity with the students they teach. The development of children’s language is another issue which concerns the educators’ responsibility. Research shows that early exposure to ‘English only’ educational environments may prevent bilingual children from becoming bilingual. If educators do not provide children with sufficient support of their home language when they are exposed to the dominant English-only speaking environment, then it is likely that they will learn English at the expense of their home language.

Educators therefore, need to acknowledge children’s multiple experiences with literacy from the perspectives of a range of cultural and language groups so that children are not bound by one narrow way of ‘doing literacy’ (Jones-Diaz & Harvey, 2002). In conclusion, it can be said that accepting cultural diversity in all its complexity and multiplicity is necessary for forming a multicultural Australia (Larbalestier, 1999). The idea of ‘white’ identity in dominance must be abandoned completely so that everyone can be more accepting of cultural diversity flourishing in Australia.

This complex nature of Australia’s identity has a strong impact upon educators, as they must implement appropriate strategies to help students feel comfortable and proud of their own culture when entering into a dominant culture. As I stood at the end of the line, viewing the back everyone’s blonde, brown and red hair, I felt extremely uncomfortable, as though I did not belong. When I finally stepped into the room following everyone else, I awkwardly walked towards a table at the front of the class and took a seat away from the majority of the other students.

I sat quietly and motionless for a few moments before the teacher called out my name and introduced me to the rest of the class. At that point I felt obliged to turn and look at my fellow peers. The expression on their faces clearly read, ‘What country has this person come from? ‘ and ‘Why is she at our school? ‘ I quickly turned myself back towards the front of the class and listened to the teacher as she marked the role and read the daily notices, (not that I particularly cared about them). I was suddenly distracted by a tap on the shoulder from a person sitting behind me.

I nervously turned around to face a blonde haired, blue eyed girl with a contemptuous look on her face. I reluctantly smiled at her (hoping for a friendly conversation). Unfortunately, (but not surprisingly), the first words that came out of her mouth were, ‘Are you are wog? ‘ I looked at her unsurely because I did not know how to go about answering that question. I finally asked her what she meant by the word ‘Wog. ‘ She then asked me in an impolite tone if I was born in Australia, to which I replied ‘No. ‘ The girl then gave me an alienated look and asked me why I did not have an accent.

I explained to her that I have lived in Australia for most of life. She continued giving me a bizarre stare to which point I gave up and turned back around. This undesirable experience happened on my first day at Biloela State High School, located in a small town in the middle of Queensland. The entire school community consisted of Anglo-Australians with a few Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders as well. The general town population also represented these cultures. I was the only Indian student attending this school.

This to me explains the negative and ignorant attitudes and behaviours of the other students during my six month attendance at that school. The elements which constructed my feelings of marginalization were the perceptions and attitudes the other students held of me. It was at that point I realized that the only true difference between me and everybody else was how they chose to think of me. As I sit here now opposite the Chipping Norton Lake in Sydney, writing this piece, I am surrounded by people from a diverse range of cultures.

I hear the laughter of young children and the chatter of men and women in a variety of languages, including, Arabic, Chinese and Hindi. I look up and take a deep breath. The smell of sausages cooking on the barbeque hits my nose. I experience a flash back, much like a ‘di?? ji?? vu’ from the time when I was living in Biloela. Every weekend our Anglo-Australian neighbours had the traditional sausages on the barbeque with their families, (a smell that is virtually engraved into my brain). I wonder why the families here are not serving any of their traditional Arabic, Chinese or Indian food stuffs.

Are sausages on bread what most of these cultures eat now at home, or, do they feeling obliged to participate in this Australian tradition of having a ‘barbie’ on a Sunday afternoon? I smile at the proud manner in which adults are speaking to their children in their home language. I here the children reply to them in English which honestly saddens me a little. It is obvious here that parents are not the ones who are discouraging or preventing their children from speaking their home language. Rather, the opposite is true.

So what exactly is causing the youth of today to disregard the use of their home language? I believe the answer to this question lies within the educational context in which children attend. As a university student studying early childhood education, I have witnessed in the childcare settings that I have worked at, that educators do not value or support children’s home languages as much as they should. For this reason, I have had many parents tell me that their children do not speak their home language as much as they use to before they attended childcare.

Staff members that share the same home languages as the children is an aspect that seems to be represented the least in these contexts. As an educator, I would ensure that I implement a variety of strategies to value and support the home languages of the children in my educational setting. I would encourage children to talk and write in their home languages if they can. Songs and music that reflect children’s home language and culture will be incorporated in the program.

However, I will ensure that I communicate with parents effectively to find out about their culture and language before implementing such strategies. This will ensure that everything in the environment is consistent with the children’s real identity and that no stereotypes are depicted. The educational environment, however, is just one aspect of a child’s life. It is not the only thing happening in a child’s world. The wider society in which children live should also implement appropriate strategies to support and value the home languages of others.

For example, stores and other outlets around Sydney should not just play English songs and music, especially in suburbs that are highly multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Songs in other languages should also be played so that those people feel sense of belonging in their community. The purpose of implementing such strategies within educational settings and in society is to help people from minority cultures to not only feel secure and accepted, but also valued within the more dominant culture.

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