On Thursday the 6th of August, 2020, UTS Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs sought to address the year’s resurfaced racial tensions. Sent out to each member of the UTS community, the email titled ‘Racism asks for your silence. Anti-racism asks for your voice’ launched Attila’s anti-racism campaign of the same name. However, it has been several months since the statement’s publication, and we at the UTS Ethnocultural Collective have had the time to wonder: What does Attila’s statement mean for students? And what has his campaign done towards anti-racism so far? Today, we breakdown the statement and pose open questions towards the state of racism in this turbulent era.
The full message by Vice Chancellor Attila Brungs can be found on the UTS website, titled ‘Zero tolerance for racism at UTS’, published on the 5th of August 2020.
1. UTS is no exception to the increase of racist attitudes in our society
Unfortunately, one of the reactions to COVID-19 has been an increase in racist attitudes and behaviours in our society — UTS is no exception. However, it is our responsibility as a proudly diverse public institution to take action to combat this. Whether overt or subtle, done knowingly or unknowingly, racism, along with all forms of prejudice and discrimination, is not welcome or accepted at UTS.
It is not difficult to see that racism has had a pervasive impact on society. Not only throughout history, but in this current era of COVID-19 induced anti-Asian attitudes. In this, we can agree with the Vice-Chancellor in that UTS is no exception to these racist attitudes and behaviours. With 50% of UTS students born outside of Australia, 50% with a language background other than English, and 1% Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, it is undeniable that UTS is a community that values cultural diversity and inclusion.1 However, we would be remiss to skip over 2020’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The unjust killing of George Floyd in the United States, reminded the Australian public of the ongoing horrors of British colonisation and genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, bringing the Australian Black Lives Matter Movement to the public forefront.
Though there are some existing articles on the UTS website, they are buried by other content and lack broader circulation.2 Additionally, we recognise the efforts of the UTS Society of Communications to generate conversation on campus with their 2016- 2017 campaign, ‘Racism. It stops at UTS’. However, this campaign was a collaboration between ActivateUTS, UTSoC, and UTS Equity & Diversity and predates the resurgent events of 2020.
Considering the contextual timeframe of Attila’s statement, we wonder, why no mention of the Black Lives Matter movement?
2. Collective responsibility to call out racism and how to be proactively racist
Therefore, it is our collective responsibility to call out racism when we encounter it, and importantly, to go a step further and be proactively anti-racist.
Our society’s structure maintains itself through main-stream, white, hegemonic dominance.3 We are not taught the skills to combat these structures or to ‘call out racism when we encounter it’ in primary or secondary education, and these skills are rarely addressed in the workplace. As students coming to tertiary institutions, we expect to be equipped with the necessary skills to flourish in our respective fields. However, students should also be equipped with the knowledge and confidence to recognise what racism is, what racism looks like, and how we can engage with others in meaningful and productively anti-racist conversations.
While some curricular and elective subjects are built around the acquisition of these anti-racism skills, the knowledge needed to create an anti-racist environment should not only be limited to the students who may take it as an optional elective. Additionally, this unspoken responsibility should not only be delegated to the teaching staff. Those in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences — already feeling the worsening impacts of university job losses, increased casualisation, and voluntary redundancies — are often the only ones to have the accessible tools to integrate these skills into their courses.
Similar to the mandatory UTS Consent Matters module that began in the wake of the #MeToo movement in 2018, the creation of a similar, streamlined module would be an attainable and accessible way for students to effectively engage with anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, UNSW’s ‘Be A Better Human’ initiative offers students a multitude of avenues that address key issues such as racism, discrimination and harrasment.4 In particular, they offered the SBS Inclusion Program to students in order to develop the skills and knowledge to create a safe and respectful environment.5
Our university Vice-Chancellor encourages us to become pro-actively anti-racist, but when it comes to it, how can we ‘call out’ racism without being given the skills to do so?
3. Societal and institutional racism, versus interpersonal racism
“On a societal and institutional level, there are bigger conversations that we need to have about how systems and policies contribute to inequity. On an individual level, I am calling on you, our students, and the wider UTS community, to take a stand.”
While Attila’s call to action places the responsibility on the individual, it is important to acknowledge the power that institutions such as the university, as well as society as a whole, have in the dismantling and reformation of racist structures. These structures influence the everyday lives of those whose cultures and individual identities are placed at a disadvantage.6 In addition to the inter-personal efforts that we as students make to create a safe and respectful community, it is easy to forget that change, in this way, must come from all facets of society. Be it educational institutions or the governing forces in our country that have vowed to serve us, it’s a collaboration between individual efforts and larger organisations that will ultimately make a lasting difference.
How does the university, and society as a whole, intend to reconcile the colonial structures in which all tertiary institutions were founded in?
What UTS already does:
Through our numerous questions and suggestions of UTS’ anti-racism campaigns, we acknowledge the efforts UTS has already taken in uniting equity with diversity. For example, we understand the influential and wide-ranging contributions of UTS, from policies and training, to anti-racism initiatives. Additionally, UTS celebrates cultural and religious days of significance and offers equity-related advice for both students and staff.7 Especially so, we regard and respect the UTS Jumbunna Institute as necessary in the empowerment of Indigenous Australians in academia. It’s important to balance both the wins and progress at UTS with the questions of improvement we have for the institution, as the UTS community strives for betterment.
As students of colour, we, the UTS Ethnocultural Collective, have a lived experience of the complex ways in which racism and colonialism has impacted our daily lives. While we do commend the efforts of the University Executive to address racism in all its forms, we at the same time pose open questions towards this anti-racism statement. Critical thinking is crucial to the development of ways forward, progress and social change. As students and therefore consumers of the university, we have the right to care and concern ourselves with the directions our leaders take us. After all, racism asks for your silence; anti-racism asks for your voice.
This letter was written by Melodie Grafton & Elijah Hollero of the UTS Ethnocultural Collective