How will hearing the coranderrk resistance story shift racist attitudes? a crowdsourcing history project


Joanna Cruickshank writes:

Every day, one in five Australian children experience racism at school. Research overwhelmingly indicates these experiences have negative effects on children and teenagers, particularly in relation to mental health. Studies focused directly on young Indigenous people show that experiences of racism at school have negative impacts on both their school attendance and on their long-term educational outcomes. 

In response to such findings, scholars and policy-makers have noted the strategic importance of schools as a site for anti-racist initiatives. Among other recommendations, the National Anti-Racist Strategy Consultation Report urged the increased teaching of history, specifically ‘to increase knowledge of the past treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the White Australia policy as well as the consequence of these policies’. 

Such recommendations implicitly acknowledge that racism is historical: it takes much of its shape and power from history and the solutions to it must involve a better understanding of its history.  Yet as Yassir Morsi has recently noted, the understanding of racism reflected in anti-racist initiatives is often more accurately described as ‘colourism’ – discrimination based on the colour of a person’s skin and the attributes historically associated with it. 

In more sophisticated accounts, this ‘colourist’ view of racism focuses almost entirely on racist abuse and bullying, paying little attention to the structural operation of racism. At its most simplistic, in the view I sometimes encounter among my undergraduate students, all people may be victims of racism and the historical formation of racism is largely ignored.

There is some evidence that a better understanding of the historical treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people does decrease racist attitudes among non-Indigenous Australians. More broadly, scholars have theorized the ways in which historical learning where ‘others’ from outside the dominant culture ‘enter the historical narrative as agents with voices of their own’ might decentre and relativise the dominant culture.  Yet we have very limited knowledge of what kinds of historical narratives might be effective in significantly decreasing racist attitudes among young people and even less on how an awareness of the historical formation of racist policy might lead to a more sophisticated critique of structural racism.

My current research project, in collaboration with a team of anti-racism scholars and education researchers, seeks to more clearly identify how history can be used in anti-racist initiatives in schools. Our pilot project involves the verbatim theatre performance, Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, which reenacts an 1881 Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve. The Inquiry was unique in nineteenth-century Australia, in that Aboriginal people were called as witnesses, reflecting the sustained activism of Aboriginal residents at Coranderrk. 

The performance, drawn verbatim from the minutes of the Inquiry, brings to life the structural racism that so constrained Aboriginal people’s lives, showing the racial determinism that shaped policy in the colonial state. It points to Aboriginal people’s resistance to this injustice, as evidence of the long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander political activism. It also provides positive examples of historical alliances between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, fighting for justice together.

Our pilot project will study the impact of this performance on around 225 high school students, using observation and interviews. The students, who are involved in a program Deakin University runs with local schools, are from a diversity of cultural backgrounds, including a significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cohort. The performance will be embedded within a five week curriculum, in which students are given context for understanding the performance and provided with opportunities to discuss their responses to it.

Our research will examine how students engage with the evidence of historical racism and how they relate this to their own experiences and understandings of racism. We are interested in how students interpret the evidence of Aboriginal resistance to colonization, particularly the focus on rights to land, resources and self-determination that dominated Aboriginal testimony to the Inquiry. We want to examine whether awareness of the historical production of racist policies can lead to reflection on the structural nature of racism. 

To fund this pilot project, in addition to applying for a number of grants both externally and within Deakin, I am running a crowdfunding campaign called History For Change. This campaign is supported by Deakin, as part of their crowdfunding program, Research My World. 

While crowdfunding is unlikely to (and to my mind should not) ever compete with existing systems of research grants available to academics from internal and external sources, it seemed appropriate to this pilot project. Though the Coranderrk performance was originally developed in the context of an ARC Linkage project, on which I was a Chief Investigator, this current proposal does not fit neatly within many small academic grant schemes, which tend to be focused on the costs of fieldwork and conference attendance. Crowdfunding provides a more direct (if labour-intensive) means of raising money to fund the performances necessary for our research. 

Crowdfunding also allows me to connect with the community about the project and its aims, which is important to me in a project so directly concerned with social and cultural change. The opportunity to speak to public audiences about the project and its aims – through news media, social media and other channels – is in itself an opportunity to promote historical knowledge about racism, an aspect which I hope will be an ongoing part of this project.