“If you’re a mix … you don’t necessarily belong anywhere”

Marc Fennell's new ABC series explores racism at an early age, in the hope of reducing it in later life.

“When when I first started SBS, I remember logging on to the SBS forums and reading ‘Who is that black guy on TV?'” Marc Fennell recalls.

“That was 2004. That’s the really blatant racism that lots of people will know and recognise.”

Fennell, who is Australian born, cites Indian, Irish and Singaporean heritage.

Having attended several schools in suburban Sydney, he knows what it’s like to not fit into cliques which are based along ethnic lines.

“I never belonged to any one of them… the Indian kids, the Asian kids, the white kids. If you’re a mix of things, you don’t necessarily belong anywhere. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t stop people from hurling abuse at you… even if it’s not being said. It eats away at you.”

Fennell is now presenter of a new 3 part ABC series The School That Tried to End Racism.

Filmed in a Western Sydney primary school the show, based on a BAFTA-winning UK format, explores a ground-breaking pilot program designed to reduce racism. The multicultural class of 9 to 11-year-olds will first take a test that identifies levels of racial bias. Experts believe that addressing racism at an early age may help fix racial inequality in adulthood.

Fennell says while blatant racism is obvious the show also explores stereotyping, prejudice and levels of racism.

“There’s a whole other realm we call casual racism or incidental racism. That’s more complicated, because it’s harder to unpick. And then you get into this really fuzzy concept of systemic racism, which is a really hard thing to identify.

“Racism is a ‘grenade.’ If you call somebody a racist, suddenly, it’s a big deal. What I like about the show is it takes it away from being an accusation, something explosive, and it breaks it down into its elements and works out (that) we all have prejudices and biases… how do they develop?”

Leading the program is Professor Fiona White and three teachers, but the students also meet comedian Nazeem Hussain,  Sports Reporter Tony Armstrong, Olympian Bendere Oboya, Editor and Founder of Ascension Sasha Sarago, Associate Professor Anna Clark, and Uncle Michael Welsh and Uncle Richard Campbell.

Half of the footage will take place inside the classroom, the other half  will unfold outside of the classroom. The students will participate in excursions and activities. Cameras also follow the students back to their homes,.

The overall makeup of the class represents a large proportion of the Australian population with students from the following backgrounds: Anglo-Celtic, Indigenous, European, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Filipino, South African, Pakistani, Bangladeshi Indian, Lebanese, Turkish and Croatian.

Fennell says the show also addresses racism within sub-cultures.

“The picture of Australia is multicultural and there’s all those little dynamics within it of how different cultures relate to each other. Certainly there is racism between non-whites and back again. It would be completely misleading to not factor that into the show,” he explains.

“But I think it’s important to understand the power structures that sit behind that, and the show deals with that as well.

“It’s pretty even handed in how it deals with it.”

The School That Tried to End Racism screens 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.

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