What to do if you're dealing with a racist teacher at school

Image of two young brown-skinned First Nations girls, looking away from the camera.

By Meissa Mason, proud Wiradjuri, Gomeroi, Awabakal woman. Meissa, 22 (the second-eldest in a family of 11 children) is a content creator and arts/law student.

If you have experienced racism at school from your teachers or other staff, you’re not alone. Racism in school is usually the first place where Black kids encounter systemic racism, as I know from my own and my family’s experience. Below are some tips, from one Blackfulla to another, on what you can do if you are in this situation and some guidance on how to support yourself and your mental wellbeing.

Racism at school

For Indigenous young people, racism at school can look like lots of different things. It might include:

  • a slur being used against you or your mob

  • being stereotyped

  • being treated unfairly (e.g. tougher marking or having less opportunities in extracurricular activities)

  • physical threats

  • a lack of respect for cultural practices

  • casual racism or microaggressions (e.g. when someone uses a hurtful term but thinks they’re just having a bit of fun).

My siblings and I have experienced these situations and similar at school and it’s really tough. I know that some people may see a racially motivated situation between a teacher and a student as a misunderstanding or as ‘no big deal’, racism is never okay and you should never have to put up with it, even from a teacher. Systemic racism in schools should always be treated as a serious issue.

Systemic racism sounds complicated, but you probably already know about it. It’s 'policies and practices that are upheld by an institution, or a society as a whole, that result in and support a continued unfair advantage and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race’. This basically means that racism doesn’t always have to look like a particular incident or comment; it can be built into how your teacher treats you overall.

If your teacher grades your work more harshly than other students, or makes assumptions about your abilities and personality based on race, that’s an example of systemic racism. When teachers discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, they are both harming us and contributing to an unfair system.

What to do when you experience racism from a teacher

Talk to someone for support

If you’ve had a racist experience with a teacher, talk to someone who can offer support. I always reach out to my parents, my aunties and uncles, and my grandparents when I need some support, or even just to have a yarn. It’s empowering to hear stories from our mob and families about their resilience and strength, and about things they’ve overcome in their lives.

Reaching out to someone can help take the weight off your shoulders, make you feel heard and give you a support person who’ll ensure you’re alright. There is a big difference in the power dynamic between a student and a teacher, so it can be scary addressing something like this. It's easier when you don’t try to deal with it alone and have people to help you process everything.

Look after your wellbeing

When you experience racism, you might feel sad, angry, stressed, anxious and/or frustrated, so it’s important to look after yourself in other ways, too. Do things that make you feel good, such as playing sport or video games, getting creative with arts and crafts, doing journalling or meditation, practising mindfulness, connecting with nature and Country, eating (or cooking) your favourite meals – or anything else that you think might help.

Looking after yourself will help you to cope, and set you up for any chats you feel you need or reporting you might decide to do.

How to report a racist teacher

I strongly suggest that you report any racist incident involving a teacher. In this way, you can stand up against racism in schools and help to bring about change.

But I know from personal experience that reporting a teacher can feel scary and overwhelming. If you’re unsure about what you want to do, have a yarn with your family and friends and take some time to consider what’s best for you. Think about the positives and negatives of reporting, and about what you might need in order to feel supported if you go ahead with it.

Keep a record of the incidents

Racist incidents, especially microaggressions, can often be overlooked by your non-Indigenous classmates, friends, teachers and other staff. They may not understand how serious the situation is or how hurtful some comments can be.

By keeping a record of any racist incidents, especially if they are regular occurrences, you’ll be well armed if you decide to make a report to the school.

Have a yarn with your school’s Aboriginal Liaison Officer

It’s a good idea to have a yarn to, and to make an official report with, the Aboriginal Liaison Officer (ALO) at your school. They’ll understand how racism is impacting you and could also offer other forms of practical support, such as a place to come if you ever need time to yourself.

Your school will most likely have a procedure for handling incident reports, but making a report to the ALO should kick off the process and they can support you during this period.

If your school doesn’t have an ALO, chat to a school counsellor, the Anti-Racism Contact Officer (ARCO), house leader or another trusted teacher. They may be able to offer you official support and help to guide you through the reporting process.

Create a wellbeing plan

By making a wellbeing plan before you start the official reporting process, you’ll have identified things you can do that will help you to feel better. This can make a big difference when you’re in the midst of it.

There’s lots you could do, but here are some things that have worked for my family and me:

  • Tell the people you trust what you’re going through and let them know you might need some extra support.

  • Organise someone to check in with you after reporting meetings.

  • Talk to your family about taking a mental health day off school if you need it.

  • Check in regularly with your ALO, ARCO or school counsellor.

  • Spend time on your favourite hobbies and activities, such as playing sport or video games, painting, etc.

  • Keep up your regular routines as much as possible.

Meet with your principal

The next step is to have a meeting with your principal to address the teacher’s behaviour. I would suggest including some family members, as well as the ALO and ARCO (if the ARCO is someone other than your principal) to ensure you have support and people to advocate on your behalf.

At the meeting, you can report to your principal/ARCO that a racist teacher is targeting you. Bring all your previous reports and written records to show it’s an ongoing issue.

If you have a good school and an understanding principal, the teacher should be dealt with from that point on. You could also ask the ALO/ARCO to suggest that the racist teacher be given cultural sensitivity training.

Hopefully, after you’ve reported the incidents and made clear the impact they’ve had, there’ll be no further issues. However, sometimes racism isn’t taken seriously in schools and no one will be held accountable. My siblings and I experienced this recently.

If this happens to you and you want to take it further, you can report it to your state/territory Department of Education and they should open an investigation. In other words, if your school’s principal isn’t going to take racism seriously, then you can go above them. You deserve to be supported, taken seriously and taken care of.

What if I don’t want to report my teacher?

If you decide that reporting your teacher isn’t right for you, that’s okay. There are still a number of things you can do to feel better and make school a safer place for you.

  • Request to change classes. For classes like home/tutor group or popular subjects, your school should be able to move you within a term or so.

  • Limit your interactions with the racist teacher. This could look like changing where you sit in the classroom, asking peers or other teachers for help with your work, or avoiding areas in the school where you’re likely to encounter the teacher.

  • Change schools. This one is big, but it might be your best chance at starting over. My family did this and we’re much happier now. It takes a lot of effort, so make sure you have a yarn with your family and friends about it.

  • Focus on your own wellbeing. There’s things in life that are outside of your control sometimes, but focusing on doing things that make you feel happy and supported can be a great way to cope.

It can feel hopeless and overwhelming to have to navigate racism when it’s having a big impact on your life but you aren’t being taken seriously and there seems to be no solution. At times like this, it’s important to focus on getting community support and doing things that make you feel better.

Systemic racism is an issue everywhere, but unfortunately school can be the main perpetrator. Sometimes there isn't a fair solution, but knowing your rights as a student and having a strong support system in place will go a long way in equipping you to deal with a racist teacher.

Stay Black and deadly, you mob. You’re wonderful, you’re loved, and you’re not the problem.

What can I do now?