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UNSW is changing its Anti-Racism Policy for the first time in 26 years

by Kat Wong

The UNSW Anti-Racism Policy was first devised almost three decades ago and remained largely disregarded for much of that time. In 2021, the policy underwent its first complete revision. 

UNSW first published its Anti-Racism Policy in 1996, and while the University made minor adjustments to it in 2005, it has not received a full revision until now. The new Anti-Racism Policy is open to comment and input from UNSW staff and students until Friday 9th July.   

“The Anti-Racism Policy draft is a critical document for all students at UNSW to contribute to. It is important that we amplify student voices to ensure that you feel safe on your campus and are protected by policies that suit your requests to maximise your safety,” says Nayonika Bhattacharya, General Secretary at the UNSW SRC. 

The previous version of the policy was barely longer than a page and outlined little more than UNSW’s legal requirement to protect staff and students from racial discrimination. Its understanding of racism focused on overt forms of discrimination and vilification, such as “public act[s] that encourages or incites others to hate…”. Its references to complaints procedures were vague and difficult to follow and made little mention of UNSW’s responsibilities in such processes. Its definitions were scant and contained dated, or in some cases, strange language, including a description of the basis of racial discrimination as a person’s “real (or supposed) race”. 

UNSW established its Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) division in 2017. And in 2019, the division took ownership of the Anti-Racism Policy before beginning the review process in 2020. 

“At the time we took over [the policy], we were quite conscious that it needed a full, comprehensive review – that, whatever we needed to do, it needed to be done quite carefully and thoroughly with students and staff,” said Farhana Laffernis, Senior Diversity and Inclusion Officer at UNSW EDI. 

The 2021 draft policy is significantly more in-depth than its 1996 counterpart and is in line with modern understandings of anti-racism. 

It explicitly recognises the First Nations land on which UNSW campuses stand and encourages staff to foster “culturally safe” course content and teaching strategies that are respectful and inclusive of Indigenous perspectives.  

It also clearly outlines complaint procedures and explicitly stipulates that the University must support students and staff who report acts of racism. While the policy does not engage with the specifics of these processes, it aims to increase awareness of anonymous complaints mechanisms and hopes to prevent the under-reporting of racist acts at the University.  

“One of the things that became clear through the consultation and this review process was that UNSW’s complaints processes are robust and cover a lot of things. But students didn’t necessarily know that you could use these procedures to report things like racism and, that’s one of the things we are trying to address with this policy,” stated Ms. Laffernis. 

The policy also takes an actively anti-racist stance rather than one that is simply ‘not racist’. It states: “UNSW is committed to actively challenging racism, irrespective of how it is expressed” and outlines examples of racism that students and staff at the University must challenge. These include “direct and indirect discrimination, racial vilification, race-based harassment, hostile work or learning environments, lateral violence and casual comments (e.g., microaggressions or ‘jokes’).” 

Ms. Laffernis has said that the current draft and EDI’s anti-racism priorities are the product of wide consultation. The division’s consultation processes incorporated perspectives from a variety of UNSW community members, including those from the Indigenous, Ethno-Cultural and International student collectives, the Division of EDI’s Student Lived Experience Advisory Group, and staff with lived experience.  

Representatives from the UNSW Indigenous Collective have stated that they felt respected and heard during this consultation process.

“We have an incredibly diverse student body and an incredibly diverse staff, and we hope this policy sends a really clear and unambiguous message that racism is not tolerated at UNSW and that there are consequences.” 

The SRC, in particular, have been working to “expand the terms of reference [in this policy] and address the complex nature of how students, staff and members of UNSW may be affected by racism – offline and online” as “ensuring high safety of student experiences through online, offline, academic and co-curricular interactions through contributions to this policy holds perpetrators accountable.” 

However, the policy does not clearly state how it could be enforced or promoted. While there is a tacit agreement between UNSW and its students and staff that they must agree to abide by the University’s policies and codes of conduct if they wish to attend the institution, this lack of awareness is an issue that Ms. Laffernis recognises.  

“Although some people might see the policy as something without impact, by having this document, what we are saying to students and staff is that we don’t tolerate this kind of behaviour. Ultimately, a policy is just one piece of the puzzle. When combined with all the work being carried out by EDI and across the university, it reinforces the policy and our commitment to ensuring a safe environment for people of colour at UNSW.”  

The current consultation draft of the anti-racism policy can be viewed here.  

If you wish to contribute or raise concerns about the policy in its current form, you can do so by emailing your feedback to Farhana Laffernis (edi@unsw.edu.au) before Friday, 9th July. 

If you want to make a suggestion related to issues of equity, diversity, or inclusion, you can submit a comment to the suggestion box here. Comments can also be made anonymously. 

If you would like to report a racist incident at UNSW or any other form of discrimination you may have witnessed on campus, you can access the complaints form here. This can also be done anonymously.