Brenna Bernardino

How to stop racism in class: burn it off

“You’re like the token black kid in the class”: the continued need for Indigenisation of curriculum to support Indigenous student university completion rates and stop racism

It is our hope that in 2023 The Voice referendum will bring change. We hope change will include adopting the many recommendations of national reports to improve higher education access, participation and completions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Many Indigenous scholars and their non-Indigenous allies feel enormous frustration. Their voices are not heard. They are rendered silent by inaction to implement national recommendations. For example, the Universities Australia Indigenous Strategy outlined what universities should do. They should commit to having “processes that ensure all students will encounter and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural content as integral parts of their course of study, by 2020”. Important work is occurring in universities to embed Indigenous content within university courses but it has yet to be implemented strongly across all universities.


Indigenous Studies and Courageous Conversations

Symposium co-hosted by UQ and the Australia Academy of the Humanities. September 28 and 29, 2023.

What the Accord Interim Report says

The recent Accord Interim Report notes Indigenous students continue to be marginalised in universities and there is an urgent need to increase the numbers of Indigenous students undertaking university study. The Accord Interim Report also reported that Go8 universities were lagging behind in terms of Indigenous student enrolments. But high enrolment numbers of Indigenous students do not necessarily equate to completion of university studies. The national data indicates that, the nine-year completion rates for Indigenous students are 50 per cent — significantly below the 71 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

Stop racism in university classrooms

The impact of racism on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student university experiences and completion rates can not be underestimated. 

Our research has found that racism and the lack of Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum are key barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students completing their degrees.

Many of the Indigenous graduates from five universities interviewed in our study reflected on their experiences in classrooms and their experiences of being asked by academics to speak on behalf of Indigenous people:

“It was mostly experiences like being called out in class as to speak to a universal Indigenous experience or being called out to act as a representative of a cultural ideal” (Bachelor of Arts graduate)

Graduates also spoke about experiences of racism from peers and staff:

“There is racism in classes … I had students go, ‘Oh, you must have got scholarships for coming here’ when they worked out that I was Indigenous, or ‘Oh, did you take a bridging pathway?’ ‘No, I actually got here the same way that a lot of people in this room got here’…” (Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts graduate)

“I guess the racism at a university like [this one] that is full of people with white fragility and white privilege, has always hung over my thinking around what I actually received from [this university]… People being blatantly racist and really showing their white fragility in the way they operated towards me” (Bachelor of International Relations graduate).

Why there is a need for further Indigenisation of curriculum to stop racism

Indigenisation of curriculum is one way to address racism. The Universities Australia Indigenous Strategy 2017–2020 acknowledged the inherent value of Aboriginal peoples’ unique knowledge systems. Important work has been undertaken by universities to develop frameworks and design principles to guide Indigenisation of curriculum (e.g., Al-Natour and Fredericks, 2016; Bunda, 2022; Howlett et al., 2013). 

The process of Indigenising curriculum is complex, and numerous researchers have noted the institutional support required, the challenges of poorly taught curriculum that can reinforce stereotypes and resistance from students particularly from mandatory curriculum.

Many of the graduates we interviewed noted that much more work needs to be done within the universities they studied at to focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content and knowledges and draw further on Indigenous perspectives within the curriculum and content.

Where to from here?

Universities are still not necessarily a safe places for Indigenous students. Danger and a lack of cultural safety can be found in classrooms when Indigenous students are called out as “experts”, when peers question their identity and ask culturally insensitive questions, and when lecturers do not include “meaningful, appropriately developed and appropriately resourced” Indigenous content in curricula so that Indigenous students can see themselves in the curriculum.

Universities must continue to focus efforts towards educating academic staff and students to be more culturally competent through the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives within curriculum. Indigenisation of curriculum requires institutional support, and it also requires critical self-reflection by non-Indigenous educators. This is the only way to stop racism


As part of our larger research project, recommendations were developed for universities and include:

  • University academic staff should ensure their classrooms are strongly anti-racist and address any issues of racism within the classroom.
  • University leadership needs to ensure more cultural competency training opportunities for academic staff, professional staff, and students.
  • University faculties and academics should work collaboratively with Indigenous centre/unit staff and Indigenous academics to ensure Indigenous perspectives are strongly embedded in course curricula.

It is important to note that these recommendations are not particularly new and they echo previous recommendations. There is enormous frustration felt by many Indigenous scholars and their non-Indigenous allies whose voices are not heard. They are rendered silent by this inaction to implement national recommendations.

Collins-Gearing and Smith use the metaphor of the need to “burn off” the disciplines to Indigenise curriculum in order to “clean up the landscape so that new, transformative possibilities may grow”. Burning off continues to need to occur in universities to stamp out racism and clear the smoke to allow Indigenous students to see themselves within the curriculum.

From left to right: Bronwyn Fredericks is a professor and DVC Indigenous Engagement, University of Queensland. She tweets at @bronfredericks. Katelyn Barney, PhD, is a senior lecturer in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit and the School of Music, University of Queensland. She tweets at @drkatelynbarney. Tracey Bunda is Professor of Indigenous Education, University of Queensland. Kirsten Hausia is Strategic Project and Engagement Coordinator, Murrup Barak, Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development, University of Melbourne. Anne Martin is Director of Tjabal Centre, Australian National University. She tweets at @MartinAnne139. Jacinta Elston is affiliated with Monash University. She tweets at @JacintaElston. Brenna Bernardino is a research associate at LPC Consulting Associates and was a Research Assistant on the project. She tweets at @brennabernardino.

Patience, persistence and persuasion: the how-to of Indigenous curriculum practice by Susan Page

Be brave: how to Indigenise the curriculum by Alanna Kamp