Mohamed Semra talks about systemic racism

Mohamed is a speaker, activist and young leader who is no stranger to sharing his stories and experiences of racism. He has been a CMY Shout Out speaker for the past year and works tirelessly to shatter stereotypes surrounding young Africans like him.

Mohamed Semra, CMY Shout Out speaker, activist and young leader

A Sudanese refugee raised in Melbourne, Mohamed has been through the Australian education system and says, “it’s not built for me.”

“I experience situations of racism and discrimination every day, but I have never experienced it quite like in school. If you face it from teachers, you’re confronted by it every day, which makes me think the system is against me and I can’t trust that the system is working in my benefit.”

“I might not be good at many things but I’m an avid reader, but every year in school I was always placed in the ‘lowest level reading group’ by the teacher. This started in Grade 2 or 3, where I had to work extra hard to get to the top level reading group. But even though I was at the top at the end of the year, every year I was placed in the lowest level although I am really good,” he shared.

Mohamed admits that incidents like this slowly wore him down and eventually affected his confidence levels and drive to do well at school. He says he felt immense pressure to prove himself at a young age, “I always have to do things at a higher standard that everyone else just to be recognised.”

Another example was the reactions he often got from his English teacher when he handed in essays.

“There were always two reactions: ‘Wow is this your work?’ or ‘Are you sure this is your work?’ It was a surprise for her when I did something good or she would assume that it wasn’t mine. They brought out all these assumptions that I’m not capable and that really turned me off from school.”

Mohamed also faced casual racism from other students and would occasionally be confronted by racial slurs but he was surprised when teachers would join in. “There were always little racist jokes like, if I was early to class, the teachers will say things like ‘where are your partners in crime?’ referring to the other African boys in my class.”

“There was a wide spectrum of casual racism, but it was the school system itself that I had issues with. It’s one of the biggest barriers to success young African boys and girls face.”

Mohamed felt that the main issue was that teachers were not culturally aware. “The school did not put in place measures for teachers to be more culturally aware and they tend to bring in their own views and their own cultural expectations to deal with problems.”

Mohamed also points out the systemic racism within the police force and says “it’s not just an American problem, in Australia too, there is a mistrust going on.”

“My friend and I ate at a café and went to the petrol station. I saw a police car drive by and they were staring at me. They got out of the car and without asking me anything, they told me to get on the floor. I was like, what did I do? They were yelling and swearing and apparently, there was an incident in the area. I asked them if the people were ‘black’ and they said they didn’t know. We were handcuffed on the floor for 20 minutes – I was 19,” Mohamed recalls of the injustice he faced, and the fear he felt as a young adult who had just gotten his driving license.

It is incidents like these and the negative narrative the media spins about African youth that have isolated young African men like Mohamed.

“Emotionally, it is a lot. As young African boys, we are taught to find strength within ourselves but there’s a bit of solidarity because we all experience this as a community.”

When asked about how he managed to persevere through the adversity, Mohamed says he is lucky to have an older brother who is a role model to him. “If it wasn’t for my older brother for being who he is, I don’t think I would have accomplished a lot. A lot of people don’t have that.”

Ways forward

Mohamed recommends that cultural awareness should be fundamental for teachers and should be taught as a subject in their degree. “Teachers need to be encouraged to have open discussions to build better relationships with the African community in the schools. They shouldn’t be afraid to talk about racism. If teachers can sympathise and understand where the African students are coming from, they will feel like they can trust them.”

“If you are trained in cultural awareness and you’re in a situation, you’re going to try to better understand the situation from someone else’s eyes.”

Here are some other ways you can help: