Skip to main content

Inclusion, citizenship and race

Race Race Discrimination

Speech given to Australian Education Union Victoria Principals Conference, Melbourne

Check against delivery


What is inclusion, and how do we achieve it? These are live questions, not only for teachers and educators, but for all of us who believe in a good society.

I must confess I have arrived at the terminology of inclusion relatively late. Part of this reflects my background in political philosophy. This is a field in which debates can rage for years – decades, centuries, if not millennia – over the meaning of a word. Some 2400 years since Plato wrote The Republic, philosophers still argue over the meaning of justice.

As someone trained as a political philosopher, I tend to approach words with a measure of scepticism. These days fashion can trump rigour. Some of us don’t value precision as much as the vibe. I’ve heard far too many people refer to ‘thought leadership’, ‘agility’ and ‘disruption’ without giving a second thought to what these words mean and what, if anything, they add to our understanding.

To see what I mean, just think of the following statement: ‘We have yet to fully unpack the learnings of our strategic review. In line with our objectives and values, we will engage our stakeholders in order to maximise sustainable outcomes.’ These are sentences I have made up. But they could have come out of many a corporate or organisational statement.

Unfortunately, such vagueness can infect many discussions about ‘diversity and inclusion’. This has come to be the language which many organisations today use when talking about questions relating to gender, race, disability and sexuality. Yet, very often, the conversations we have about such issues can have about them an elusive nature.

I say this only as a note of qualification, as I do believe the language of inclusion can serve an important purpose. Namely, it reminds us that we should aim to have a society – it could also be a community or company, an association or organisation – whose members feel that they belong. This is the basic idea of inclusion: to ensure that people are brought into the fold.

This morning, I’d like to reflect upon this task in a multicultural society. Today’s Australia is a diverse one. Our people come from many racial and cultural backgrounds. Amid our differences, how is it that people come to belong to Australian society? How must we go about ensuring that people aren’t left outside the fold? And what does leadership on multiculturalism and racial equality look like?

The law and institutions

The American philosopher John Rawls, in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice, famously said: ‘Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.’1  If we are interested in finding out whether ours is an inclusive society, it is to our laws and institutions that we must first turn.

For a long time, of course, Australian society was far from inclusive on matters of race. The history of modern Australia – that is, Australia from the arrival of the British – was founded on a certain intellectual and political act of racial exclusion. British settlement was justified on the idea of terra nullius, namely, that Australia counted as ‘no-one’s land’. It was an idea based on the view that the Indigenous population that occupied Australia was not of an order that could be regarded as civilised according to white, European standards.

Consider, then, the dispossession of Aboriginal people during the colonial period, and subsequent policies of protection and assimilation. Consider the immigration restriction laws that were the first to be passed by the new federal parliament in 1901, which gave expression to the ideal of a White Australia. And consider as well the Australian Constitution, which includes among the heads of power for the Commonwealth government, a race power – a power to make laws regarding any race of people, whether for their benefit or detriment.2

In historical terms, much of Australian laws and institutions were remote from any kind of racial justice. The past five decades, however, have seen a redress of this history. The White Australia policy was gradually dismantled during the 1960s and 70s, with a non-discriminatory immigration policy taking its place.

And from a society which regarded itself as emphatically white and British, Australia has become a triumphantly multicultural society. Almost half of our population was born overseas or has a parent who was born overseas. The national identity is now expressed as one that includes people from all racial and cultural backgrounds.

Our multiculturalism exists as our society’s statement of inclusion. It says that everyone in Australian society should have a right to express their cultural heritage and identity. It says that we can leave room for multiple expressions of Australianness. Provided one accepts one’s responsibilities as a citizen, your race or ancestry won’t exclude you from claiming membership of the Australian national family.

This goes well beyond just official statements about Australian national identity. It is in fact something that enjoys strong public support and endorsement.

For a number of years now, the Scanlon Foundation as published an annual study of attitudes concerning social cohesion. Last year, the study found that 83 per cent of respondents agreed that multiculturalism is good for the country. It was 86 per cent in 2015 and 85 per cent in 2014. In addition, there has been stable and robust support for immigration. According to the Scanlon Foundation, about two-thirds of Australians believe that the number of migrants we take in is currently about right or is, in fact, too little.3

A multicultural Australia is also supported in law. Since 1975, the Racial Discrimination Act has served effectively as a legislative expression of multiculturalism at the federal level. The law prohibits racial discrimination in Australia and guarantees equality before the law regardless of race. It has acted as a civil protection for all Australians against racial discrimination and racial hatred.

During the past four years, we have had significant debate about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. This is the section which makes it unlawful to do an act that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates someone because of their race.

As many of you would know, the Parliament recently debated proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act. The Government had proposed, among other things, to remove the words ‘offend’, ‘insult’, and ‘intimidate’ from section 18C, and replace them with ‘harass’. These amendments were blocked by the Senate late last month.

It has been my view and that of the Australian Human Rights Commission that Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act strikes an appropriate balance between freedom of speech and freedom from racial vilification. Over the past twenty years or so, courts have consistently interpreted section 18C to apply only to acts that have serious and profound effects, which aren’t to be likened to mere slights. Based on the judicial interpretation of the Act, the mere claim of having been racially offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated isn’t determinative of a breach of section 18C occurring; rather, a court must consider whether the reasonable person of a target racial group would have found it to be racially offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating. Finally, and most crucially, since its incorporation into the Act, section 18C has been accompanied by section 18D. This section exempts anything from breaching section 18C if it is artistic work, any statement or discussion done for any genuine academic, scientific or other genuine purpose in the public interest, and any fair comment or fair reporting – provided they were done reasonably and in good faith.

The changes proposed by the Government would have involved a weakening of the Racial Discrimination Act. Had it been enacted, the proposed amendment to section 18C would have left Australians who had experienced racially offensive, insulting and humiliating acts of a serious kind without a legal remedy. There was a significant risk that a change to the law would have signalled that it would be acceptable to racially offend, insult or humiliate others.

This underlines one point about the role of racial discrimination legislation in a multicultural society: it exists to set a standard for public conduct. It exists to send a message about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. If we are a society that is committed to multiculturalism, it is only appropriate that we have laws that express that commitment; laws that set a standard for tolerance, civility and respect.

Leadership and citizenship

We can express some of this slightly differently. If you want an inclusive society, you have to set the right tone. Having the right laws and the right institutions goes a long way to doing this. But there is also a need for leadership, in particular political leadership. The state of our multicultural society is shaped by many things: the economy, the media, the state of international affairs. It is also profoundly shaped by the way political leaders conduct the business of government and public debate.

Leadership has been one essential reason for Australia’s historical success as a nation of immigration. Since the post-war immigration program began in the late 1940s, there has been, for the most part, enlightened political leadership on matters concerning immigration. Leaders have universally viewed immigration as an exercise in nation-building. And when the demise of the White Australia policy came, there was bipartisan support for non-discrimination in immigration.

The underlying principle was this: there is an essential connection between immigration and citizenship. Those who arrived in Australia were expected to become, in time, citizens – and were encouraged to do so. Citizenship was something granted to all those who wanted to become full members of Australian society, without any discrimination on the grounds of race, religion or background. It was a strength of Australian society that it was, in this way, inclusive. Whereas other countries may have erected obstacles to immigrants naturalising as citizens, Australia for many decades has not.

Over the past fortnight, we have had significant debate about two new government policy announcements on Australian immigration.

The first concerns the abolition of the 457 visa scheme, which for the past two decades has brought skilled foreign workers to Australia on temporary visas. The government has announced two new temporary work schemes to replace the 457 scheme: one, a two-year stream, and the other, a four-year stream. The occupation lists for skilled visas have also been narrowed.

The second concerns a range of measures reforming processes and requirements relating to Australian citizenship. Most notably, the citizenship test currently administered to immigrants would have a new emphasis on ‘Australian values’. The period of required permanent residency in Australia before an immigrant may be eligible for citizenship has been increased from one year of permanent residency to four years. Would-be citizens will now also be required to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency before being granted citizenship.

I’d like to reflect, in particular, on the flagged changes to the Australian citizenship regime. If citizenship has been so integral to Australian multiculturalism, as I’ve suggested, clearly any change to the citizenship regime has the potential to have a significant effect on the future prospects of our multiculturalism.

In the first place, we should be clear that there is a place for a citizenship test. Ever since one was introduced in Australia in 2007, some have said that the test exists as an imposition of a dominant cultural identity on immigrants. This criticism is misplaced.

There is nothing in a citizenship test, properly conceived, that is incompatible with cultural diversity and multiculturalism. The purpose of a test is not to remove a new citizen’s cultural affiliations or identity, but rather to allow the would-be citizen to demonstrate their civic fluency and civic loyalty. There is also a place for testing values within a citizenship test. If new citizens are being admitted into a political community that is committed to certain values, it is only reasonable that new citizens can demonstrate they understand what those values are.4

However, what have been labelled ‘Australian values’ can lend themselves to a degree of misunderstanding. Do Australian values refer more to things such as national character traits? Things such as a larrikin streak? A reluctance to accept authority? A readiness to have a go? Or do they refer to something else?

Clarity is at a premium here. The kind of shared values that can be examined in a citizenship test should be the values or standards that dictate how we as citizens, under a common law and government, and belonging to a national community, must conduct our life together. In the Australian sense, we might say these include democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law, freedom of speech and tolerance. Many, of course, point out that there is nothing exclusively Australian about such values. In fact, all other liberal democracies in the world would endorse these values and also claim them as their own.

To say that such things are ‘Australian values’ is not to claim them exclusively as ours; it is only to make the point that they are built into a distinctive history of our own. That is what gives them a particular national accent. The civic values I’ve mentioned will remain generic, cold and remote values until they are suffused with the subtleties of national experience. Hence, representative democracy in Australia means something different to what it means in Germany, much like free speech in the USA has a different quality from free speech here. Each context gives a different flavour to the universal.5

Having said all this, the proposed changes to the citizenship cannot be understood divorced from social and political context. There is no question today that xenophobia and populist nationalism are on the rise. We can’t forget that citizenship tests also help to set the tone for membership in Australian society. While we must never flinch from insisting that multiculturalism must abide by liberal democratic values, we must always take care to prevent citizenship being understood as a device for exclusion. One of the reasons for Australia’s success as a multicultural society is that we’ve sought to include immigrants as citizens, rather than exclude them as permanent foreigners.

And if, as a society, we are genuinely interested in strengthening our citizenship, this shouldn’t be confined to immigrants. There is considerable scope for improving the civic literacy of Australian-born citizens. As regular research surveys have indicated, there is a rather poor average level of knowledge that citizens have about the operation of the political system.6  The Australian Election Study began testing political knowledge in 1996, and up to this decade found that a majority of respondents could only accurately answer one out of six ‘true or false’ questions relating to Australia’s political system and political history. Yet it seems anomalous to hold naturalised citizens to a standard that is significantly more stringent than the standard we expect of natural born Australian citizens.

It is perhaps not the question of Australian values, however, where the most profound changes to our citizenship regime may occur. Rather, it concerns the more stringent requirements of English proficiency in the proposed changes.

Under the current citizenship regime, aspiring citizens are required to possess a level of ‘basic’ English to meet the requirements for citizenship. The new proposal is for aspiring citizens to be required to achieve a minimum level of English competency equivalent to an International English Language Testing System Level 6. To put this in perspective, undergraduate academic admission to the University of Melbourne requires an overall band score of 6.5 or more; Swinburne requires a score of 6; and Victoria University requires a score of 5.5.

The impact of this change would likely be considerable. According to ANU researcher Henry Sherrell, who conducted an analysis of immigrants in the Adult Migrant English Program, anywhere between 30,000 and 40,000 new migrants each year are highly unlikely to meet the proposed English proficiency level for Australian citizenship in their first decade of settlement.7  Those on humanitarian visas may be disproportionately affected.

This is a concerning prospect. One potential danger is that such a cohort of immigrants could find it difficult to become Australian citizens within a reasonable time. If there’s anything we should learn from the experience in Europe, particularly those countries that have had historically had guest worker schemes for immigrants, it is that we must avoid anything that may lock out a section of the community from citizenship. We shouldn’t erect unnecessary barriers to immigrants becoming citizens. We mustn’t have a two-tiered society of citizens and outsiders.

Still, we should be clear about one thing. English proficiency is something we should aim for immigrants to have; those who come as immigrants themselves are the first to understand this. But it is as much the potential that people for acquiring English as it is the actual possession of English proficiency at any given time that matters. Our citizenship policy should recognise that integration can take time, that integration has always been a generational process. The real measure of immigrants becoming part of Australian society might not be entirely known until their children begin to make their mark on Australian life. There are countless second-generation Australians whose parents, despite being in Australia for decades and being citizens for decades, may still speak heavily accented and grammatically imperfect English. The fact that these Australians may not boast a level of English fit for university education says nothing about the contribution they and their families have made, or are making, to this country. Indeed, very many Australian-born citizens would struggle to boast such command of English.

Inclusion in the classroom

Let me now turn to inclusion in the classroom, and the role of teachers in educating students about race. It is easy to think that this is simply about a message of inclusion and diversity: to affirm that everyone has their place, and that everyone’s cultural background shouldn’t get in the way of them belonging. Few would argue against this – as I’ve highlighted, we are proud of being a multicultural society. We instinctively agree that an implicit message that ‘we’re all friends’ or that ‘we’re all Australians’ is a worthy one to convey to our students. But is this enough?

Aspiring to inclusion and diversity can involve too low a bar, if it means a soft form of tolerance. By this, I mean stopping at principles about everyone being equal, or ideas about how everyone is the same under their skin.

One problem with ending things here is that these ideas often then get rehearsed as a form of colour-blindness. We end up talking about inclusion and diversity but don’t do it in a way that points out differences in any real sense. Because it’s one thing to talk about differences if that means talking about different foods; it’s another thing to talk about racial differences and about attitudes towards race. While we can all subscribe to the idea that everyone should be treated equal, this means little if we are unable to talk about why some people aren’t treated equal.

In their book of 2009, Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman highlighted how a colour-blind approach can impede racial equality rather than enable it.8  They cited one study conducted by Brigitte Vittrup, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin.

In Vittrup’s study, about a hundred families, all of whom were Caucasian with a child five to seven years old, were recruited for a study about racial attitudes. The first step involved giving the children a survey which asked questions about their attitudes towards different groups. The second step involved the researcher assigning families with certain tasks.

One third of the families were asked to watch multiculturally themed videos for a week. The second third of families were asked not only to watch the multiculturally themed videos but also to discuss interracial friendship. The final third of families were given no videos, but were asked to discuss racial equality on their own, every night for five nights.

The researcher was confronted, at this point, by a problem. Within the last group – the families who were asked to talk about race – five families abruptly quit the study. A number said they didn’t want to have conversations about race with their child, or that they didn’t want to point out skin colour to their child.

Vittrup, the researcher, encountered a second problem. The families in the study were invited to return to her lab for retesting, having watched the multiculturally themed videos. Yet the retesting found, to Vittrup’s amazement, that the three groups of children failed to exhibit any change in their racial attitudes. It became quickly apparent why the children, as a group, hadn’t budged. Looking through the diaries of the parents involved in the study, Vittrup found that the majority of the parents failed to follow through in talking about race with their children.

The researcher would later say that many of the participating parents admitted to her after the study that they didn’t know what to say to their children, and didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Parents didn’t talk about race, because they were afraid they would make things worse.

For the minority of parents who did follow through, however, the result was the very opposite. The research exercise found there was a dramatic improvement in racial attitudes in a single week among those families that managed to talk openly about interracial friendship as prescribed.

Such a response to talking about race doesn’t appear all that isolated. In 2015, there was some extended coverage of a decision taken by a number of liberal, progressive private schools in New York City to incorporate into their curriculum teaching about racism and privilege.9

For example, Fieldston Lower School introduced racial awareness workshops for its elementary school students. Once a week, third, fourth and fifth graders were divided into small groups according to their racial affinity groups. In 45-minute sessions, children would talk about what it was like to be a member of their race and discuss what they had in common with each other and how they were different. Once the smaller race groups had broken up, the children would gather in a mixed-race setting to discuss what they had learned.

At other New York City schools at both elementary and secondary levels – schools with names like Friends Seminary, Dalton School, Calhoun School, Brooklyn Friends – there are similar dedicated classes and conversations about racial equity and privilege.

Much like the University of Texas, Austin example, not all parents have been comfortable with these exercises. Many were worried that such exercises would sort their children by race, something that amounted to a form of segregation. There were also concerns that schools was, in effect, compelling children to define themselves in racial terms so early – at a time when, surely, children were too young even to understand themselves in racial terms. Anxieties grew, with parents fearful that introducing race as a problem would create new tensions between children who were being taught in otherwise harmonious schools.

One article in New York Magazine summed up parental concerns, particularly the concerns of some white parents, in the following way:

White parents who objected to the program felt discomfited, fearful that if they voiced their concerns, they would be tagged as racists. They wanted their kids to talk about race, they insisted. But, as with most white liberals, they seemed to prefer to conduct the conversation on an intellectual level, considering it as a problem of history, policy, or justice – the kind of conversation unfolding already in Fieldston’s mandatory ethics classes.10

Such an approach has its clear limitations:

The much more intimate, idiosyncratic, lived experience of race – that is a harder discussion to have, especially when it probes reflexive reactions to difference (fear, disgust, mistrust, anxiety, curiosity, eagerness, attraction, admiration_ that are sometimes heated, irrational, and not always pleasant. These are feelings the average white Fieldston parent was raised not to mention. This same parent who sends her children to Lower because she values diversity tends not to dwell on the fact that she has few close fiends of color; that her neighborhood is almost entirely white; that her nanny or housecleaner or doorman has brown skin. The program at Lower was designed, and is supported in large part, by people who have spent their lives on the other side of that well-meaning silence and can testify that it’s no way to thrive.11

By contrast to these parents, many parents from other racial backgrounds have welcomed the exercise. Most refute the notion that racial identity is a self-built thing. Rather, racial categories matter. As many black or African-American parents explain, it matters when you’re black and others see you as black when you walk down the street. It is almost universal for parents of such backgrounds to talk to their children about discrimination – for black parents to give their children, especially boys, ‘the talk’.

In Nurture Shock, Bronson and Merryman also highlighted this discrepancy. They cited an academic study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family that founds that out of 17,000 families with kindergarteners, non-white parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents. Among white parents, 75 per cent never, or almost never, talk about race.

Bronson and Merryman challenge the colour-blind view of race. For decades, many have assumed that children see race only when parents or society points it out to them. Yet the research now appears to suggest the opposite. Children are developmentally prone to in-group favouritism. They understand their world by putting things and people into categories. They notice skin colour and racial differences, even if they may be too young to make value judgments about skin colour and racial differences.

But when parents and society remain silent about race, they can communicate to children that race is not something that can be spoken about. Racial differences can exist in a vacuum, and stereotypes can fill the void. Children can absorb biases and lessons about in-groups and out-groups they learn from their parents, schools, media and society.

This is one reason, of course, why many parents today are more consciously talking to their children about gender, and are countering stereotypes about boys and girls. Just as many today doing this on gender, so they should also do so with race. Because, by not talking about race at all, people can end up allowing racial stereotypes and inequities to remain unchallenged. Colour-blind silence on race doesn’t create the justice and inclusion and justice that many intend it to do. Instead, colour-blind silence can end up reinforcing inequities and creating exclusion.


It is clear that much of the work of inclusion must happen outside the classroom. If parents have conversations about race with their children, a large part of the inclusion puzzle would be solved even before children set foot in the classroom. It is only right that we challenge some parents to think about talking about race. Not least, because too often we demand too much from teachers and educators. Like Atlas bearing the weight of the world, teachers and educators can be asked sometimes to carry the burden of moral and social progress.

Admittedly, talking about race and difference isn’t always easy. Parents and educators alike may need guidance. That is one reason why the Australian Human Rights Commission last year released a resource for early childhood educators called Building Belonging, which is designed to help adults to think through how they can talk to children about differences.12

Schools, though, have a special responsibility on this. It goes to the moral and civic purposes of education. We expect education to mould children into free-thinking individuals and responsible citizens. We want them to grow up to see the world clearly, and to be prepared to step into the shoes of others. The product of a good education, in a good society, is someone who possesses reason, perception and empathy.

Citizenship in a liberal democracy has always been a demanding ideal, at least if we understand citizenship to involve something more than the passive possession of legal and political rights. In a multicultural society, the good citizen understands that the responsibilities they owe must be understood to involve both the head and the heart. This is because racism, far from being merely the product of hatred and malice, can also be the product of ignorance and indifference, and of apathy and arrogance.

1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Harvard University Press, 6th ed, 2003), 3.

2. Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900 (Cth), s 51(xxvi)

3Professor Andrew Markus, Mapping Social Cohesion 2016: National Report, The Scanlon Foundation, 37.

4Tim Soutphommasane, The Virtuous Citizen, (Cambridge University Press, 1st ed, 2012), Chapter 8.

5Tim Soutphommasane, Reclaiming Patriotism, (Cambridge University Press, 1st ed, 2009), 44-46.

6Ian McAllister, The Australian Voter, (UNSW Press, 1st ed, 2011), 68.

7Henry Sherrell, A new class of migrants: The never-to-be-citizens, (27 April 2017), Inside Story. At (viewed 28 April 2017). 

8Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Nurture Shock, (Hachette Book Group, 1st ed, 2009).

9Kyle Spencer, ‘At New York Private Schools, Challenging White Privilege from the Inside’, New York Times (online), 20 February 2015. At (viewed 27 April 2017) and Bobby Doherty, ‘Can racism be stopped in the Third Grade?’, New York Magazine (online), 19 May 2015. At (viewed 27 April 2017).

10Bobby Doherty, ‘Can racism be stopped in the Third Grade?’, New York Magazine (online), 19 May 2015. At (viewed 27 April 2017).

11Bobby Doherty, ‘Can racism be stopped in the Third Grade?’, New York Magazine (online), 19 May 2015. At (viewed 27 April 2017).

12Building belonging: A toolkit for early childhood educators on cultural diversity and responding to prejudice, (2016), Australian Human Rights Commission. At (viewed 27 April 2017).

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner