An elite private school in South Australia has apologised for not doing enough to stamp out racism after two students filmed themselves lynching a black baby doll from a tree.
While acknowledging the “racist elements” of the students’ actions, Trinity College, north of Adelaide, insisted they were not racially motivated.
In the video, two girls in uniform appear to laugh while using a hat string to hang one of two dolls used as a teaching aid as part of a Year 11 and 12 “baby simulator project”.
In response, the college said they suspended a group of students involved in the incident, but did not address the racist imagery until an African student made a formal complaint.
The student then started a petition calling on the school to take allegations of racism seriously “instead of excusing it as a learning curve” and to have staff undertake cultural sensitivity training. Nearly 3,000 people had signed the petition by Friday afternoon.
“The school is not new to racial incidents; majority of the incidents are swept under the rug and the feelings of the victims are repeatedly disregarded. Trinity has once again failed their minority groups,” the petition said.
In response, Trinity College headmaster Nick Hately sent a letter to parents late Friday afternoon apologising for failing to take stronger action on racism.
“Students involved in the initial incident wanted to reiterate that they did not act with racist intent,” the letter said. “Some further acknowledge that now, with greater education, they understand why their actions are considered racist. They understand how appalling, unthinking behaviour stemming from ignorance can be racism. Not having a racist intent does not mean the impact is not racist.
“The college apologises to any student, past or present, if we haven’t done enough to educate or stamp out subtle, perceived, systemic or overt racism.
“This incident clearly has racist elements and impacts students racially, even if it stemmed from unthinking and juvenile behaviour. The college has applied relevant sanctions for the unthinking behaviour and makes a commitment to ongoing education for the racial impact.”
The letter also says school management met with “several students, many staff and some leaders in the African and Indigenous communities”.
However, Janette Milera from SOS Black Australia, a community group that helped organise last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in South Australia, said her organisation had asked for a meeting with the school but had not yet received a response.
“We would love to be involved in their ongoing response, looking at their policies, their curriculum to look at how to embed Aboriginal culture into their curriculum, their leadership and the student body,” Milera said.
“More broadly, we’d like to see this in all public and private schools. As Aboriginal people we feel obligated to help educate the wider community and if this was in the curriculum, maybe this wouldn’t be happening in 2021.”
Meanwhile, members of the South Australian African community have expressed alarm and frustration at how the incident has been handled.
Mimona Abdalla, founder of a company that provides public speakers of multicultural backgrounds and cultural sensitivity training, said an apology was not enough.
“This apology is unacceptable. It does not actually outline what the school is going to do about the racism. They said they have spoken to community leaders and students, who have said they need adequate cultural training, but are they going to enforce it? It’s fine to be sorry, but where’s the action?” Abdalla said.
“Without action, this is just an attempt to get the issue out of the limelight.”
Anti-racism activist Flora Chol said it was hard to believe the students did not understand their actions.
“Anybody would know,” she said. “You don’t need a PhD to know hanging a black doll from a tree is a reference to African Americans.”
Chol said the incident was an example of a double standard applied to African students in schools across Australia who are punished more for their mistakes.
“Schools can do better,” Chol said. “They’re supposed to be safe spaces. First and foremost. As a parent you’re taking your child to an institution where they’re supposed to be there for eight hours a day. So much can happen.
“I don’t want my child to come home to me telling me there was a black doll hung from a tree.”
Sidique Bah, the editor of SALT magazine, said the incident seriously spoke to a total lack of understanding.
“This is something very disturbing for people from other backgrounds, people with history, who have been through some of these challenges before,” Bah said. “It is scary to see people as young as these kids thinking it is okay, thinking it is funny.”
“It brings back memories. For some of us who have been through crazy stuff ourself, we know we can get away and move on, but we start thinking about our children and start wondering what lays in store for them.”
Bah, who worked as a journalist in Sierra Leone before he left during the civil war, said even if the students who created the video did not understand the racist symbolism of what they were doing, it raised questions about why the school wasn’t teaching its students about the issue.
“It’s something worth looking into,” Bah said. “People need to understand these things shouldn’t be happening and then maybe they’ll talk to their kids.”