Sydney Uni anti-racism debate: We need a united fight

The formation of the autonomous Ethno-Cultural and People of Colour Collective (EPOC) at Sydney University has raised an important debate about fighting racism.

EPOC is based on the idea that only those experiencing a particular form of oppression can define and fight against it. EPOC is autonomous, meaning only self-identifying people of colour can join. It is conceived of as a “safe space” for people oppressed by the “dominant white culture” in Australia.

EPOC regards those who are not part of the oppressed group, not only as part as the problem, but also as having a stake in perpetuating oppression. So instead of focusing their anger on racist politicians and policies, some EPOC members have declared that Sydney Uni’s established and open campaign group, the Anti-Racism Collective (ARC), to be “racist” and paternalistic.

They have argued that only their group should be able to elect the Ethnic Affairs officer-bearer rather than students democratically elected to the SRC.

Students are debating anti-racism

Anti-Racism Collective members have held the Ethnic Affairs position for many years, on the basis of consistent campaigning against racism, for refugee rights and against the NT Intervention on campus.

In a clear win for the ARC’s political arguments and student democracy, ARC member Gabrielle Pei Tia Tia won the vote against EPOC candidates in the contest for the Ethnic Affairs officer position in early November.

Identity politics

EPOC’s ideas, based on identity politics, are not capable of building the anti-racist fight that’s needed.

Since its election, the Coalition has ramped up racist attacks on refugees and asylum seekers with the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and the expansion of offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island.

But instead of targeting the policies and structures that perpetuate racism, EPOC has focused on a form of consciousness-raising through reading groups about critical race theory and discussing issues like cultural appropriation amongst themselves. This attitude is informed by white privilege theory.

Influential (white) US author and privilege theorist Frances Kendall argues that, “any of us that has race privilege is by definition racist”.

Others, such as academic Tim Wise, describe racism as so entrenched in the white working class that they largely reproduce racism as if on “autopilot”.

Since a generalised “white culture” is seen as the source of oppression, there is a very internally-focused attitude and emphasis on the behaviour of individuals.

Racism from above

Focusing on personal behaviour and creating a false equivalence between all manifestations of racism confuses instances of racist behaviour with the root causes of oppression.

No one is born racist; it’s a socially-conditioned behaviour, enforced by society’s most powerful and influential institutions.

We live in a society characterised by gross and systemic inequality of wealth and power.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that in 2012-13, 20 per cent of households held 60.8 per cent of the net worth. Racism tries to normalise this inequality by directing anger at the victims of  government policies. It is used as a divide and rule tactic.

Racism is not in the interests of white workers and students; they are worse off when they accept racist ideas. Individual instances of racism on campus or anywhere else can be challenged and racist ideas can be changed.

The Liberals are already trying to misdirect the anger at government cuts and anxiety over job security onto the wrong target. This was crudely on display when the now Liberal Member for Parramatta, Fiona Scott, openly blamed asylum seekers for traffic jams and public hospital overcrowding in Sydney.

The government’s anti-refugee hysteria fosters a general, anti-migrant sentiment in the community. Reports of racist harassment have increased because of that. Monash University’s Social Cohesion report released in October, records a 59 per cent increase in incidents of racial vilification in 2012-13 compared to the previous year.

Similarly, the Islamophobia of recent decades has been consciously pushed to provide justification for imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and race-hate attacks on Muslims and Arabs have increased.

What’s needed is a political fight against the structures that generate these racist attitudes.

Building a movement

Brilliant movements against racism in Australian history have united black, white and Asian workers and students to confront government racism: from the campaign against apartheid in South Africa; to the fight for Aboriginal land rights; to the demonstrations that shut down Pauline Hanson and opposed the Cronulla riots.

If these movements had accepted the logic of identity politics, they wouldn’t have had the force they did. This is why it’s important to challenge the idea promoted by EPOC that white anti-racists are the problem and that we shouldn’t unite and fight together to challenge racism.

EPOC’s anti-racism should be directed against Abbott and everything he represents—not the people who are fighting him.

By Adam Adelpour


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  1. I am a 2nd generation Australian and a 1965 Sydney University graduate.
    As a young child growing up in Northern Queensland, I had daily fights with kids calling me a “dago”. After a couple of rumbles some became my friends. What you call “racist vilification” continued into high school and even Sydney University. However, it was practised only by a small minority and it was skin deep. The Australian ethic, if migrants are willing to adopt it, does not allow the deep seated racism one finds in other countries.

    When I was an undergraduate at Sydney University I encountered a different set of extreme ideas, “free thinking” ideas. These bred the famous “Push”-a free thinking, big drinking, hot bed of intellectual activity. For me they were a bunch of sleazy older lecturers. However, even with the minor contact I had with them, they made an impact. I had to learn to think, to challenge their thoughts and my own thought processes. This certainly changed the way I thought, I have to say, for the better.

    There is an underlying moral to these stories, Mr Adelpour and it is this.
    Universities from time immemorial have thrived on freedom of expression. It is their life blood. Even those who expound extreme ideas should be listened to. If these ideas are gross, these people stand condemned by their own mouths. It is good for groups such as “EPOC” to state their thoughts. However, when such groups seek to force a university to adopt its own particular viewpoint, the group itself becomes quasi racist.
    So let the “racists” have their say, freely. But listen to them also. The act of listening, rationally analysing, then accepting or rejecting what they say is what a university teaches us and this tradition goes right back to Plato’s Academy, 400BC. If the EPOC group can learn this lesson, we have a wonderful basis for community harmony when they become leaders of their communities in the future.


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