12 September 2022

'You can't call a teacher racist': Former St Francis Xavier College student speaks out about her experiences of racism

| Claire Fenwicke
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Woman sitting at a table

Maka Zanga was sharing her experiences of racism in the hopes of creating change. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

Maka Zanga was in Year 9 when she experienced racism in the classroom for the first time.

“One teacher used the n-word … I called it out but he said it wasn’t aimed at anyone,” she said.

The 18-year-old studied at St Francis Xavier College from Year 9 until Year 12.

Maka said there was an instance where she had been called a racial slur by a fellow student, which the school dealt with appropriately.

However, she was disturbed by the lack of accountability that appeared to apply to teachers.

“It gives the impression [to students], if a teacher can say it, why is it a problem when I say it?” Maka said.

Maka decided to speak now as she felt actions she tried to take when she was at school were dismissed and not taken seriously.

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When a younger brother also at the school began reporting similar experiences, she wanted people to know that this was not OK.

“When I had spoken with the principal, I was told if I didn’t like being there, I should leave the school,” Maka said.

“My brother said a teacher had used the n-word in front of his friends, and when they asked why she did that, she said, ‘well, you say it to your friends, so why can’t I?'”

Maka explained while she understood the argument some people could make about why they could use such a racial slur, to her personally, it wasn’t appropriate.

“I understand both sides, the thought is if we can’t use it, then you can’t use it, but there’s a history there,” she said.

“If it’s in your everyday vocabulary, if you’re listening to that kind of music, it can slip out, but that’s very different to a school situation.”

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She said her brother had been called into a ‘multiculturalism class’, but when he arrived, there were only other black students there.

“No parents were notified … when they found out, they were mortified,” Maka said.

She had called out another teacher who claimed they couldn’t be racist because of their country of origin.

“I was called into an office and told, ‘you can’t call a teacher racist, that’s a bad word to throw around’,” Maka said.

“The next day I went to the class [with the same teacher] and I was told I couldn’t go that day because the teacher felt uncomfortable. It was really confusing for me.”

School students walking

Maka attended St Francis Xavier College from Year 9 to Year 12. Photo: St Francis Xavier College Facebook.

Maka’s father, George Zanga, is a teacher but at a different Canberra school.

He said while he understood subtle racism could happen without someone realising the impact of their actions, that didn’t excuse the effect it had on his children.

“I don’t want kids to be rude to teachers … but if they feel something is going on, you need to listen to that,” Mr Zanga said.

“Subtle discrimination can be so hard to detect, but you can feel it … if you’ve never been in the shoes of someone who has been discriminated against, if you did, you’d understand that when they speak out, you need to listen to them.”

Mr Zanga detailed his reaction when he found out his son had been called into a ‘cultural awareness’ course, only to discover it was filled with students of his own race.

“I don’t know if it was deliberate or if the school wasn’t aware, but it’s doing more harm than good,” he said.

“As an adult, I have some kind of shock absorbers to this kind of thing, but my son is there and he just feels it. He just wants to get out of there.”

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Mr Zanga described St Francis Xavier College as a “lovely” school before these issues started to arise.

“The problem is there. They need to fix this problem,” he said.

“I’m angry when they suggest finding another school … you’re responsible for addressing the culture of the school.”

Mr Zanga said a holistic approach was needed involving all cultures present at the school.

He urged all schools with students coming forward with similar complaints to “address the elephant in the room”.

“It’s a time bomb. It’s a matter of time before things get out of control,” Mr Zanga said.

“Be proactive, don’t wait until the problem comes.”

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St Francis Xavier College principal Paul Carroll said the school was a welcoming community for all people and a place where students felt safe and included.

“We are proud of the support we provide to ensure a positive learning environment and to cultivate the values of truth, courage and love of learning,” he said.

“Pastoral care of our students is of the highest priority.”

He noted the school had students with 69 different cultural backgrounds, and the school followed the BRACE model to “enable students to feel connected, welcomed and included”.

“BRACE stands for belonging, routine, attachment, capacity and emotions,” Mr Carroll said.

“If the person making these claims would bring the details to me, I will act on them immediately.”

Racism has been identified as a key issue for children and young people in the ACT.

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Children and Young People Commissioner Jodie Griffiths-Cook said her office had heard when children reported racism in Canberra, responses were often considered “inadequate”.

“We are being told by children and young people that they want adults to talk about these issues and to support them effectively when they experience racism,” she said.

“So we need to educate ourselves about the best ways to do this so we are not brushing aside their concerns, but also not compounding the harm.”

While she was not aware of the situation at St Francis Xavier College, Ms Griffiths-Cook stressed there was no occasion when using a racial slur in an educational setting was acceptable.

“It has the potential to alienate and traumatise students and make the classroom less accessible to them,” she said.

“Language is powerful … I can’t imagine there are any circumstances in which doing so is OK.”

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The Children and Young People Commission was running a survey asking young people to report their experiences of racism in the ACT to inform better responses to this issue.

“While as adults we can say all the usual things like ‘make sure you tell a teacher or parent’, or make a complaint, we have heard that when children and young people do this, they often feel their concerns are dismissed or diminished,” Ms Griffiths-Cook said.

“Part of what we hope to find out through our consultation are the things that children and young people believe need to happen to better respond to and address racism in the ACT, in ways that work for them.”

For Maka, she hoped her story would generate change.

“No student should have to move schools because of the teachers and the culture they’re creating.”

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zainab abbas2:41 pm 05 Dec 22

Proud of Maka for sharing her experience and hope the school and its teachers face the appropriate consequences

It would be so much better than using local media to trash a local school and taking advantage of the schools limited legal abilities to defend themselves through the media!

“St Francis Xavier College principal Paul Carroll said the school was a welcoming community for all people and a place where students felt safe and included.”

I adore how corporations of every kind, when confronted with a specific instance of a problem, like to respond by blandly denying that such things ever happen.

The principal of this school needs to fix the culture by educating teachers on respectful behaviour as well as putting in place a complaints mechanism where issues such as this can be raised without students being afraid of negative repercussions. Both students and teachers should be clear on legal and human rights regarding discrimination. One would expect and hope that a Christian school would protect children from harm by acting as Jesus would have, supporting and respecting them all.

Rebecca Larsen11:42 pm 12 Sep 22

Psycho – and in reverse. The teachers in this article also need to be protected against false accusations of racism. Why are students always right? Classrooms are now places where there is no space to be real because of all the things students say about teachers. Where are the teacher voices in this article?

Don’t people have any resilience ? Sounds like a really minor problem.
While at school my mother had to deal with the Great Depression, always being hungry and WW 2.

Charlotte Rauraa1:37 pm 12 Sep 22

grow up

These are children at school who should not be subjected to the ignorance and insensitivity of such behaviour from their teachers. Racist comments are an attack on personal identity, suggesting that there is something wrong with who the person is, that somehow they are less than others, or different from others in a way that is not promoted as positive.

Such comments can prevent a child from becoming resilient as well as destroying existing resilience. You may consider this minor, but they are personal attacks that you did not experience, so you really have no idea of how minor or major this problem is for those who are experiencing it. All people experience trauma, but repeated attacks on a person are scarring.

Those who have to contend with such comments over and over again begin to feel broken down by them and may become angry and even aggressive in their attempts to stand up for themselves. Creating such hurt, upset and eventually conflict is pretty damn stupid!

Sad for your mother’s experience which is not comparable.

franky22 – Does that mean you think it is ok and there were no consequences for your mother? Did she experience happiness and learning under these conditions. In those days it would have been pushed down and she probably suffered all her life. Is that what should happen, because according to what you wrote, it sounded like you think that trauma and abuse is a matter of degree. I can assure you, as I work in a neuroscience area that this behaviour leaves problems in the brain and inhibits working memory and cognitive functioning. Is that ok in an educational setting? See Martin Teicher’s work from Harvard on the effects of childhood trauma.

There is racism everywhere for goodness sake. Canberrans overall aren’t racist. In my long life I have never heard anyone use the “N” word. It is an American term that I have never heard used by any Australian – Never. I am sick to death of these news items insinuating that we are all racist. No one has done more for multiculturalism in this country than our governments, including our own local. We have a foreign born opposition leader in the ACT who uses any legitimate criticism of her govt as “racist”. I’m sick of it!

madison_mills12:34 pm 12 Sep 22

You seem very defensive like you have personally been attacked. The truth is by denying that there is a VERY racist culture in Canberra and Australia, and inappropriate terms or attitudes are often thrown around is displaying a racist persona yourself. By acknowledging that this is happening and critically reflecting your own bias (we all have one!)only then are you displaying SOME anti racist advocacy and behaviour and change may appear. Race is a social construct. We made it that way, denying this is happening isn’t going to change anything

Well said, Madison.
Jack – nowhere in this article is it insinuated that “we’re all racist”. It is only putting the spotlight on the need to acknowledge and address these key issues in our community and in our schools. Being in denial that our community (and others) are flawed only adds to the problem.

If you read this entire article and this is the comment you thought was appropriate i advise you to read it again. Everything you have said lacks relevancy to the contents of the article and you are undermining the issue in its entirety. A generalisation of all canberrans not being racist from someone so ignorant who admits to have never even witnessed it can only be harmful. This isnt about you. It is not an “american term” its a racial slur that is not bound to nationality or geography. This is a clear example of biggotry where people like you see an issue such as racism and immediatly attempt to avoid guilt by denying the issue entirely or undermining it as something that exists everywhere OR somehow both in the same paragraph. Sorry to hear that youre sick of hearing about racism, i cant imagine anything worse besides, oh idk, experiencing it. Get your head out the gutter Jack D
Sincerely – Sid

This article is about children being singled out in a negative way at school and by teachers, who should know better. Both the behaviour of the teachers and your comments are insensitive and ignorant of the harm this causes a child. It also reflects a school that is not well run, where teachers don’t know better than this.

Such comments are actually illegal behaviour and such discrimination should be taken to the Human Rights Commission so they can inform and educate the school’s principal and teachers about both legal and respectful behaviour.

I would suggest if Maka Zanga and her family have a problem with alleged racism in the school that her and her brother attended she put in a complaint with the ACT Human Rights Commission.

Maybe it’s you that should get out of the gutter Sid Ley!

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