Stopping Racism in its Tracks

The Challenging Racism Project combats Islamophobia through innovative multimedia tools.

A young woman in a hijab sits on a train. Three teenagers enter the carriage and aggressively ask her why she is wearing a “tea towel”.

As the abuse continues, the woman’s discomfort grows, along with that of the other passengers. The intensity of the passengers’ internal debate between stepping in or turning away is palpable.

This type of racial abuse is all too common in Australia. Many onlookers choose not to intervene and instead stand by as witnesses.

Research undertaken by the Religion and Society Research Cluster led by Professor Kevin Dunn, Dean of Western Sydney University’s School of Social Sciences and Psychology, is seeking to change that. The research team created videos using examples of positive action to show how the story could change.

In one video, a young man firmly tells the teenagers to leave her alone. Their response that they are “only having some fun” is rejected by one passenger, and then another. The surly youths exit the carriage after a dismissive “whatever”. The woman at the centre of the abuse can breathe again. She turns to the passengers, gives a smile and her heartfelt thanks.

The video campaign, which shows four scenarios of racism, is part of the cluster’s Challenging Racism Project, which seeks to understand why ‘ordinary’ people choose to intervene or remain passive in response to incidents of interpersonal or systemic racism.

Their research reveals several reasons why people don’t speak up, says Dunn. “One is they are afraid of becoming a target themselves, and another is they say they didn’t know what to say or do. We think we can help by spreading these resources.”

Statistics show this belief is well founded. The videos have been watched in excess of 10 million times, have reached 27 million people, received nearly 500,000 likes, 150,000 shares and more than 23,000 comments. 

One survey participant said, “Apart from the fact that [the video] reinforced my belief that there are plenty of peaceful Muslims here in Australia who wish to integrate into our multicultural society, the video taught me that racism is never acceptable!”

The videos have also been used for training in schools and community organisations. Dunn says their research shows the videos change behaviour, with one-third of the 10 million viewers reporting an increased intention to take anti-racism action. It’s a figure that even impresses Dunn, yet the team, which includes PhD researchers from the Challenging Racism Project, Katie Blair and Rosalie Atie, won’t stop there.

In a collaboration with the University of Melbourne and Deakin University, the research team have also produced an app called Everyday Racism that challenges players to experience a week in the life of a person from a minority group.

Through the app, participants receive a mixture of SMS and Facebook messages, tweets as well as audio and video recordings and are prompted to choose an action. This is followed by messages that challenge their assumptions and highlight the importance of speaking up against racism.

The app has been downloaded more than 28,000 times with 60 per cent of those who played it recording that they had spoken up against racism since, and almost 98 per cent saying they now saw the importance of taking anti-racist action.

Everyday Racism has been recognised globally — the app co-won the 2015 UN PEACEapp competition and was named runner-up in the 2014 Intercultural Innovation Award presented by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and the BMW Group.

The success of these and other outreach projects by the team is underpinned by a deep understanding of Australian Muslims. This is best exemplified by his team’s innovative, Australian-first survey of the Sydney Muslim community that recorded the experiences and attitudes of ordinary Muslims.

Need to know

  • Islamophobia in Australia has been under researched and under documented
  • Australians do not feel equipped to tackle racism
  • An anti-racism campaign changed the attitude of 3 million+ people

Dunn says there is a perception — fuelled by the media and some politicians — that Muslims do not integrate well into Australian society or share national values. Yet their 2015 Resilience and Ordinariness of Australian Muslims report exposed this as a myth.

They found that Muslims in Sydney had similar outlooks as non-Muslims, especially about big issues such as education and employment.

Despite the survey revealing Muslims in Sydney experience discrimination and verbal slurs at three times the rate of all other Australians, about 62 per cent of those surveyed felt relations between Muslims and non-Muslims were friendly, and 84 per cent are comfortable identifying themselves as Australian.

Like much of Dunn’s work, the survey findings have been disseminated and reported on widely, and have been used in developing policies on counter-terrorism, policing, and community outreach. For many Australians, however, it was the 2017 SBS documentary, Is Australia Racist?, that brought Dunn’s research to their attention. Dunn and Blair led a team that measured the extent and variations of racist attitudes in Australia. This SBS-commissioned survey of 6,000 residents informed the documentary, which used hidden cameras to capture the experience of racism through the eyes of those suffering it. Dunn also featured in the documentary to discuss the survey’s findings.

For Dunn, the constant standout theme is the sense of hope maintained by the Muslim community.

“They are hopeful because multiculturalism is an acclaimed goal for this country, so that generates hope,” he says. “Muslims in Australia have a reasonable expectation that they won’t always be the target because history shows the targets of antipathy change.”

Dunn believes the ill feeling toward Muslim Australians is out of kilter and amplified by “some parts of mainstream media” and politicians who use Islamophobia for their own political gain. 

Meet the Academic | Professor Kevin Dunn

 Kevin Dunn is Dean of the School and Professor in Human Geography and Urban Studies, and commenced at UWS in May 2008. He was formerly at the University of NSW (1995-2008), and the University of Newcastle (1991-1995). His areas of research include: immigration and settlement; Islam in Australia; the geographies of racism; and local government and multiculturalism. Recent books include Landscapes: Ways of Imagining the World (2003) and Introducing Human Geography: Globalisation, Difference and Inequality (2000). He is Lead Dean for Global Rankings at UWS and Provost of the Penrith campus.


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Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.