Aaron Teo

Racism: how to stop the chokehold

Ample research has shown the benefits of teacher workforce diversity reflecting Australia’s increasingly diverse student population. Minority teachers can bring their own understanding of relevant cultural contexts, while also acting as academic role models for students from non-dominant backgrounds. 

They may also enhance broader cultural awareness and simultaneously raise expectations and tackle negative minority student stereotypes.

But what happens when the minority teachers in question resent their own culture and/or cultural group and preference white cultural norms instead? That’s internalised racism.

What is internalised racism?

Internalised racism is a racial minority’s implicit acceptance of deficit understandings or negative stereotypes of their own racial group. It is part of a larger system of racism that not only functions at everyday levels, but also remains ingrained in institutions and systems.

(Internalised) racism’s impacts

Minority teacher internalised racism is an issue which is concerningly prevalent yet rarely talked about. 

On one hand, racism continues to  endure because it is a social construct constantly adapting to changing contexts and embedding itself across individual experiences, the community, and media. On the other, racism’s systemic nature allows it to both reproduce – and conceal –  the harmful ideologies, attitudes, and behaviours we seek to eradicate in the name of racial justice. Because of this, racism can be hard to define and understand, allowing it to operate to reproduce white-centric racial hierarchies.

What happens then? Racially subordinated minorities consciously or subconsciously internalise these hierarchies and their associated negative stereotypes. They become complicit in their own oppression. When this happens, there are dire consequences including – but not limited to – a loss of cultural identity, adverse impacts on mental health, as well as harms to psychosocial wellbeing.

Asian Australian schoolteacher (internalised) racism

Within the Australian school context, my research on Asian Australian schoolteachers adds to a broader conversation on Australian racism. It sheds light on the ways in which racism and internalised racism operate to the detriment of individual Asian Australian schoolteachers and their communities. 

While this might not be immediately obvious, there have been many occasions where I have personally been reminded of my perpetual foreignness. For instance, on my first day as a high school teacher, I was asked by a teaching colleague whether I knew kung fu. In different settings, I have also received countless ‘well-meaning’ comments on the proficiency of my spoken English, while simultaneously being queried as to where I’m ‘really’ from.

The racism inherent in Australian schools

Building on this and existing research which shows how Asian Australian schoolteachers face race-related barriers to hiring and promotion, name-calling, and accent ridicule, marginality in workplace relations, and isolation, my research interrogates the racism inherent in Australian schools. Specifically, it reveals the negative impacts of Asian Australian schoolteachers being positioned as a racial ‘Other’, and the enduring internalised sense of exclusion arising from this.

Importantly, my work uncovers the way that racism is often misunderstood, along with the way that internalised racism fractures communities from within. This can be seen from the following spectrum of Asian Australian schoolteacher responses to discussions of school-based racism:

  • Agreeing that racism exists, but not knowing what to do about it
  • Agreeing that racism exists and that something should be done, but relying only on flawed, face-value action (e.g., increased interracial interaction) instead of more substantive, structural change
  • Denying racism exists and attributing experiences of marginalisation to cultural incompatibility instead 
  • Denying racism exists and distancing themselves from other Asian Australian teachers, while upholding and reinforcing harmful stereotypes of their communities

Of course, it is important to note that while (internalised) racism manifests in individual attitudes and behaviours, it is not produced by them. In this case, such harmful attitudes and behaviours are precipitated and contingently shaped by a uniquely Australian form of anti-Asian racism, originating during the Gold Rush, continued through the White Australia Policy, and sustained even to today. The most recent articulation of this racism was illuminated during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a groundswell of overt and covert forms of anti-Asian sentiment and behaviour across Australian society, and by extension, schools.

The intersection

This intersection of racism and internalised racism thus has significant mental health and wellbeing harms for individual Asian Australian schoolteachers as well as their communities. Equally worryingly, when marginalised Asian Australian schoolteachers place their own roles and identities in a subjugated position, they end up upholding white cultural norms, which has further-reaching impacts in perpetuating racial marginalisation for Asian Australian and other racial minority students. Some examples of this perpetuation include:

  • Not questioning problematic deficit stereotypes based on supposedly homogenous ‘cultural’ characteristics of certain minority groups (i.e., assumed low aptitude with English, teachers expecting student disparities in certain disciplines etc)
  • Making assumptions based on race (i.e., assumed racial achievement gaps, differential expectations and feedback, racial microaggressions towards students etc)

What to do about it all

For Asian Australian schoolteachers who have internalised racism, a necessary first step is to recognise the wider chokehold of racism and white supremacy. This involves questioning the ways it has impacted us, as well as unlearning its associated attitudes and behaviours. It involves foregrounding First Nations sovereignty and adopting a willingness to tackle white cultural norms and its ingrained racial hierarchy that stratifies and oppresses all racial minorities.

It also involves engaging deeply with race, racism, and other structural factors, and in so doing, taking up an anti-racist stance. This encompasses getting to know minority students and appreciating the rich cultural heritage they bring, and talking openly about – and even speaking up against – racism, even when it feels uncomfortable. It also encompasses engaging with minority communities and being mindful of our language and word choices, as well as the teaching resources, content and modes we draw on. Fundamentally, it involves positioning ourselves as learners alongside our students.

And of course, this responsibility doesn’t just fall on Asian Australian or other minority educators. In addition to the aforementioned steps, white educators can likewise be allies in the fight against racism by educating themselves about all forms of racism, understanding their privilege, and listening non-defensively with empathy.

Racism affects students and teachers alike, and it’s high time that we thought/taught about it differently.

Aaron Teo is a lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at the University of Southern Queensland’s School of Education. He is convenor for the Australian Association for Research in Education Social Justice Special Interest Group. His research focusses on the raced and gendered subjectivities of migrant teachers from “Asian” backgrounds in the Australian context, as well as critical pedagogies in white Australian (university and school) classroom spaces.