The study presented in this paper investigated the perspectives and experiences of Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth regarding their relationships with schoolteachers. Within Australia, it has been reported that many young people from Sudanese and South Sudanese refugee backgrounds are educationally successful (Santoro & Wilkinson, 2016; Wilkinson et al., 2017). However, it has also previously been reported that many young people from Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese communities face a variety of educational barriers which may impede future social and economic prosperity (Brown et al., 2006; Sellars & Murphy, 2018). There is concern regarding the prevalence of racism and discrimination experienced by Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth at school (Baak, 2019; Benier et al., 2018; Edgeworth, 2015). In recent times, perpetuated by racialised media and political discourse, Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth have been receiving ongoing and intensifying negative public and political attention (Benier et al., 2018; Macaulay & Deppeler, 2020). Subsequently, it has been argued that young people from these communities have experienced increasing instances of everyday racism (Macaulay & Deppeler, 2020), and for many young people, schools are the primary sites where these experiences can occur (Mansouri et al., 2009; Uptin et al., 2013).

Previous research has argued that within Australia, against the backdrop of the nation’s colonial past and history of racialised immigration policies, ‘whiteness’ has been constructed as the hegemonic norm (Baak, 2016a; Macaulay & Deppeler, 2020). Therefore, deviations from this norm are categorised as ‘other’, which may result in experiences of socio-cultural and political marginalisation. As with Australian society more broadly, this contention can be argued to be applicable to Australian schools. As stated by Mansouri and Jenkins (2010, p. 96), “within the Australian school system, where the majority of teachers are ‘white’, whiteness can be seen as the ‘norm’ and non-white skin colour as ‘other’”.

Bodkin-Andrews and Carlson (2016) have indicated that historical education policies in Australia underpin an education system that has produced a legacy of racism that is still prevalent today. This contention is supported by findings from the recent large scale Speak Out Against Racism (SOAR) student and staff survey, conducted by the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods (Priest et al., 2019). A key finding from SOAR was that within Australian schools, “compared with students from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, students from all other backgrounds (except European) were twice as likely to experience some form of discrimination” (Priest et al., 2019, p. 4). In schools in the city of Adelaide, such discriminatory experiences were reported by Baak (2019) to substantially undermine Australian South Sudanese students from refugee backgrounds’ educational inclusion. In an earlier similar study conducted in an Australian rural education context, Edgeworth (2015, p. 351) argued that these ‘black’ students were “highly visible and… discursively cast as ‘out of place’”, which resulted in high instances of experiences of racism.

To better understand the positioning of ‘blackness’ in ‘white’ school spaces, ross (2020, p. 8) argues that it is important to understand the “ontological position” of ‘blackness’ in society. Speaking to this ontological positioning, Woodson (2020) states that a core premise of this position “is that slavery, colonialism and apartheid have permanently altered the material, cultural and spiritual lives of Black people… [as well as] everyone who inhabits the world with Black people”. For Afro-pessimism scholars (predominately working in the USA), they articulate this positioning as a form of ‘social death’ (see for example, Wilderson, 2020). As presented by Patterson (1982), ‘social death’ is underpinned by “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonoured persons” (p. 9). As such, ‘social death’ serves to exclude and overlook the individual’s social participation and recognition as human (Henry & Powell, 2020). While Afro-pessimism theorisation is primarily focussed on the US context, links can be drawn to Australia. For example, in his research exploring the African male experience in Australia, Majavu (2017, p. 6) argues that there is an ongoing “colonial objective to make Australia a white country and for white people”. As such, to be an Australian in Australia, and to subsequently socially participate as an Australian authentically, is to be ‘white’. As sites of social reinforcement and reproduction, schools in Australia can operate as powerful institutions within this colonial objective, whereby ‘non-white’ students are overlooked and excluded from authentic inclusion, rendering a form of ‘social death’.

Within these ‘white’ normative school settings, students who are ‘other’ to these norms can experience the implications of both implicit and explicit racial bias from teachers (Yared et al., 2020). In their scoping review of literature on racial issues in Australian schools, Yared et al. (2020) indicate that examples of this bias can influence teachers’ academic expectations of certain students, as well as lead to increased instances of severe disciplinary measures (e.g., expulsions and suspension). In their study of students from refugee backgrounds’ experiences of marginalisation in Australian secondary schools, Miller et al., (2021, p. 7) described such negative experiences for these students as “unavoidable”, highlighting the systemic gravity of the issue. In tackling these issues of inclusion for refugee background students, Pugh et al. (2012) argue that whole school macro approaches are essential. Yet, within these macro structural approaches it has been identified that some teachers feel underprepared to be responsive educators within the increasingly diversifying Australian classroom (Yared et al., 2020). As such, it has been argued that pre-service teachers need to be equipped with a better understanding of their own socio-cultural experiences, as well as those of their students (Naidoo & D'warte, 2017). This is important, as school settings as places of social and institutional interactions can significantly influence social success in the post-school years (Lamb et al., 2015).

Schools as places of social interaction are central in the formation of young people’s identities (Mansouri & Jenkins, 2010) and their sense of belonging (Allen et al., 2016). Notions of belonging and identity have previously been argued to be contentious concepts (Kannabiran et al., 2016), therefore, the way in which these concepts framed this study are now outlined. This study adopted a framework proposed by Yuval-Davis (2006, 2010) in which identity is defined as the “narratives, stories that people tell themselves about who they are, who they are not, as well as who and how they would like to/should be” (Yuval-Davis, 2010, p. 266). Whereas belonging is defined as “emotional attachments” and feeling “at home” (Yuval-Davis, 2006, p. 197). Yuval-Davis (2006, 2010) argues that while social locations (e.g., ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc.) do not inherently influence the relationship between identity and belonging, when social locations are politicised, they can sizably influence this relationship. This “politics of belonging”, where individuals’ belonging relative to their social locations are contextually questioned, is often in relation to political agendas (Yuval-Davis, 2006, p. 206). In the Australian context of negative racialised social and political discourse concerning Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth, this provides these young people with a social context that may lead to them questioning their overall belonging (Macaulay & Deppeler, 2020).

The aim of the study presented in this paper was to better understand the perspectives and experiences of Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth regarding their relationships with schoolteachers. As highlighted by Baak (2016b), positive student/teacher relationships are an important component of refugee background students’ overall educational experiences. Further, Naidoo et al. (2018) identified that teachers of students from refugee backgrounds are in positions to substantially support these students in a variety of ways (e.g., as advocates and mentors). As emphasised earlier, traditionally, Australian schools and the staff therein, have represented culturally homogeneous sites (Edgeworth, 2015; Mansouri & Jenkins, 2010). Therefore, with increased cultural diversity amongst student cohorts in Australia, it is of key importance that teachers possess high levels of intercultural competencies within their teaching practices and student relationships (Baak, 2016b; Mansouri & Jenkins, 2010; Sellars & Murphy, 2018). Yet, as highlighted previously, some teachers feel ill equipped to actualise this.

Previous research has indicated that positive social and familial relationships are a key component in the overall development of Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese young people in their youth, relative to their collective worldviews (Macaulay, 2021; Macaulay & Deppeler, 2022). As such, this paper makes an important contribution to the literature by offering a better understanding of Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youths’ perspectives on their relationships with schoolteachers, who, given the importance of educational experiences for Australian youth, are prominent individuals relative to these young people’s overall lived experiences and future social and economic prosperity. This contribution demonstrates the importance of better understanding the relational components of students’ voices, as well as highlighting the urgent need to address the racialised experiences of some students in their education. It is argued in this paper that these racialised experiences are influenced by the hegemonic ‘white’ norms underpinning the Australian school system, as well as in Australian society more broadly. Following this introduction, the design and methodology of the study are detailed, after which the findings of the study are presented. Rounding out the article is a discussion on the implications of the research findings as well as highlighting areas for future research arising from these findings.



Prior to participant recruitment, university Human Research Ethics approval was obtained for the study. Utilising a multi-site case design (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007), participants were recruited from two not-for-profit community organisations based in Melbourne, Australia. Both organisations offer a variety of services and programmes, including youth programmes. Site 1 (S.1) is an organisation that works with Australian Sudanese communities from Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, and Site 2 (S.2) is an organisation that works with Australian South Sudanese communities from the Greater Upper Nile States. The youth that S.1 work with are primarily in their final years of secondary education and the youth that S.2 work with are primarily in their initial post-school years. S.1 is run and led by individuals from Jewish-Australian backgrounds, whereas S.2 is run and led by individuals from Australian South Sudanese backgrounds.

Two participant groups were recruited into the study, which were youth participants and community organisation representative participants. The inclusion criteria for youth participants were current or recent involvement in a youth programme offered by S.1 or S.2.Footnote 1 Twelve participants were recruited into this group (seven female and five male). The inclusion criteria for community organisation representative participants were that they worked in a youth programme offered by S.1 or S.2 and had over 1 year’s experience working in that programme. Six participants were recruited into this group (three female and three male). Four of the six participants recruited into this group had over 5 years’ experience working with Australian Sudanese/South Sudanese youth in a youth programme offered by their organisation. The rationale for the inclusion of community organisation representative participants into the study was that as a result of their experiences working closely with youth participants, it was thought that their insights would further enrich and contextualise data gathered from youth participants.

Data collection and analysis

Individual interviews of approximately 40–60 minutes were conducted with 18 participants. These interviews were conducted between late 2017 and early 2018. This is significant, as this time aligns with a period when Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth were experiencing significant negative racialised public and political attention, catalysed by racialised media reporting in response to criminal activity that allegedly involved youth from Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese backgrounds. As Majavu (2020) indicates, the media reporting throughout late 2017 to early 2018 is indicative of the types of racist tropes that are commonplace in Australia. While the focus of interviews was not explicitly on this reporting or its consequences, it is important to note that the influence of this reporting on lived experiences during this time may have influenced participants’ responses. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. Interview transcripts were analysed using voice-centred relational methodology (VCRM) strategies (Brown & Gilligan, 1991). VCRM approaches to analysis focus on the voices of participants and how these voices are in relation to the self, others, and macro systems and structures (Brown & Gilligan, 1991; Gilligan et al., 2003). VCRM approaches have previously been demonstrated as being useful when working with participants whose voices may be relatively silent and marginalised within their society (Gilligan et al., 2003). As such, the VCRM approach was appropriate for the demographic and socio-political histories of this study’s participants. In addition, identity, understood through the construction of narratives (Yuval-Davis, 2006, 2010) is consistent with the VCRM approach. Interview transcripts were analysed from the perspective of the following VCRM analytical prompts proposed by Brown and Gilligan (1991): (1) The story of who is speaking? (2) In what body? (3) Telling what story about relationships? (4) In which societal and cultural framework?

As with previous VCRM research, it was assumed that the voices of participants would be multi-layered. Building on the perspectives of analysis, to better understand the multiple relational components of how participants used their voices, pronoun poems were constructed. Three different uses of pronouns were the focus when constructing these poems, which were as follows:

  • Speaking about personal experiences in a first-person voice (e.g., “I feel x at school”).

  • Speaking about personal experiences in a collective second-person voice (e.g., “you feel x at school”).

  • Using quotes and/or mimicry to convey a personal experience (e.g., “my teachers are always saying… you always seem to be feeling…”).

It is important to note that cultural ontologies and epistemologies can influence the use of pronouns in speech (Baak, 2016a; Krog et al., 2009). As such, through engaging with community leaders, certain African philosophies (e.g., cieng) were considered when constructing and analysing pronoun poems. Pronoun poems were constructed by underscoring pronouns in transcripts and placing these on their own line with surrounding verbs and/or other important words to create stanzas. See example below:

Kuar Muon: People say a bad word to them and when they respond, when they report it to the teacher, the teacher will keep quiet. And then when this person repeats it again, again, and again, the response from them will be like fighting, like hitting someone, and that is when they get in trouble.

Pronoun poemFootnote 2

People say a bad word to them

They respond

They report it to the teacher

The teacher will keep quiet

When this person repeats it again, again, and again

The response from them will be fighting

Hitting someone

That is when they get in trouble

Participants were given the opportunity to review their pronoun poems and to suggest changes to these poems. A selection of de-identified pronoun poems was reviewed by community leaders for cultural accuracy relative to identified themes.

Findings in this chapter are presented thematically. Thematic analysis was approached through conducting open coding (Bazeley, 2013) of the VCRM constructed pronoun poems, which were clustered into identified themes. The rationale for using the pronoun poems for the analysis was that the poems placed the relational voices of participants at the centre of their narratives, a key component in the interpretation of findings. Pseudonyms nominated by the participants are used throughout.


Participants in this study indicated that relationships with their teachers were, for the most part, negative. This was articulated with specific reference to teachers’ expectations impeding the student/teacher relationship as experienced by Australian Sudanese/South Sudanese youth. These expectations were categorised via two identified themes: academic expectations and disciplinary expectations. It was highlighted that teachers often held lower academic expectations of Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese students compared with the wider student body and held Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese students to higher levels of disciplinary accountability. Experiences of these expectations appeared to negatively affect student/teacher relationships.

Academic expectations

The prevalence of negative racialised media attention was perceived by some participants to have negatively influenced their teachers’ views and expectations of them as students; see for example Mohamed’s pronoun poem:


Bad Light:

You know how the media paints bad light

That negative perception can affect our teachers at school

Our teachers will look at us one way

There was this teacher called [name redacted]

I feel

She just saw me — she didn’t teach me

She saw me only one way

Johnny echoed Mohamed’s view, framing this as a form of racism, which should not have a place in education:


Free from Racism:

They have a lower expectation for the black people

It involves what they have seen on the news

It involves what they know about the country background

For all, school is an institution that needs to be free from racism

In these poems, both young men drew a direct link between media representations and teacher expectations. These expectations were reported to directly affect the ways in which teachers educated certain students. This is a prime example of Afro-pessimism ‘social death’, whereby teachers’ perceptions of Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth, as influenced by racialised media reporting, results in these youth being academically overlooked in the classroom (Henry & Powell, 2020). For example, as Mohamed highlighted in reference to a particular teacher, “she just saw me — she didn’t teach me … she just saw me only one way”. Additionally, Johnny simply stated, “they have a lower expectation for the black people”. Within Mohamed’s poem he primarily used a first-person voice and placed himself in the centre of his experiences. While Johnny adopted a relatively ambiguous voice in terms of his positionality regarding personal experiences, he did appear to situate teachers as being a relational other, something that seemed to be implicitly linked to race. Johnny argued that as a consequence of racialised media representations and perceptions regarding students’ countries of origin, teachers expect less of ‘black’ students, which Johnny presented as a form of institutional racism. Johnny’s contention highlights how the “politics of belonging” (Yuval-Davis, 2006, p. 204) of Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth, perpetuated by the public and political discourse at the time, could substantially influence everyday relational interactions with individuals (e.g., teachers) and institutions more broadly (e.g., schools). Consequently, these interactions may undermine an overall sense of belonging influencing the narratives young people construct regarding their identity.

While not explicitly mentioning the media, Yasmin also drew attention to race in her relationships with teachers and her teachers’ overall academic expectations of her; see for example Yasmin’s following pronoun poem:


Race Comes In:

I don't want to say — race comes in

I feel

People don't think — some people, especially teachers

Don't believe that I’m capable because of who I am

This poem reads as being highly personal with Yasmin placing herself directly in the centre of her narrative via the use of a first-person voice. Yasmin indicated that because of her racial identity, her teachers questioned her capability. She suggested that this could make planning for the future in terms of education difficult. Yasmin stated, “they indicate to you that what you want to achieve might not be for you”. This racialised questioning of academic capability experienced by students was reported by some to have a substantial negative impact on academic engagement and trajectories into post-school education. Kuar Muon, an Australian South Sudanese community organisation representative participant working with Australian South Sudanese youth, indicated that many students educationally disengage as a result of this discrimination experienced in student/teacher relationships. In reference to this discrimination, Kuar Muon stated, “they manifest it in through internalising the oppressions”.

In consideration of the ways in which Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth were being represented in public and political discourse, and the subsequent implications of these, it was reported by participants that these representations provided a single narrative regarding their educational capabilities. Consequently, this could influence both teachers’ perspectives of certain students’ identities, and students’ own perspectives of their identities. Mohamed implied in the following pronoun poem that it was up to him and his fellow students to change these negative views:


We’ve Got This:

If there’s only one way of seeing us

Let’s say a teacher — “oh these kids, because they’re Sudanese they’re going to end up this way, they’re not going to go to school”

But there’s not enough children proving to the teachers

We’ve got this

We can do this

This poem indicates Mohamed emphasising the importance of challenging the narratives constructed about his community, which is an important component of constructing a narrative of his own identity regarding who he would like to be (Yuval-Davis, 2010). Similarly, previous research has identified that for ‘black’ students within ‘white’ school spaces in Australia, there is tendency to feel a pressure to try harder in schools compared with other students (Uptin, 2021). Within this poem, Mohamed positioned himself and those within his collective ‘we’ in opposition to teachers and took a defiant tone regarding academic capability. At the same time, Mohamed acknowledged insufficient students were providing examples that could counter negative narratives and change public views. Mohamed went on to provide an example of a positive role model:


Role Model:

Just recently a girl got a 94

She’s a really big role model for me

She’s Ethiopian

She speaks Arabic

Her dad owns a shop down here somewhere

The 94 Mohamed was referring to in this poem was this student’s Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) score at the end of her secondary education. A score of 94 is high, and thus, this student would have had a plethora of choices regarding entrance into post-school education. Worthy of note in this poem are some of the key points Mohamed made explicitly clear about this individual. For example, she is Ethiopian, she speaks Arabic, and her father is a small business owner in Mohamed’s neighbourhood. While Mohamed comes from a Sudanese background, these are social locations and cultural characteristics to which he can relate; more importantly, this young woman possesses these and was extremely educationally successful. For Mohamed, this young woman represented a counter narrative relative to how he believed he was educationally perceived within his schooling environment, which offered hope and defiance relative to his own educational pathway and his perceived negative relationships with teachers.

A key issue argued by some participants that could arise when teachers’ understandings and expectations of students were based on singular or limited narratives, was that teachers would not form a clear picture of the lived experiences and needs of students. This was highlighted by Annie, a community organisation representative participant. Annie has over 15 years’ experience working with Australian Sudanese youth (and their families) throughout these students’ secondary education years; see for example Annie’s following pronoun poem:


Whole Being:

They go to school and don’t get the help that they need

Culturally it’s not understood what their life is like

What their community expectations are like

Their whole being is not understood at school

They are not given the right and necessary support

In a solely first-person voice, Annie highlighted some of the tensions that could occur in relationships between teachers and Australian Sudanese/South Sudanese youth at school. As highlighted by Annie, and some youth participants, in addition to time at school, home life and external environments also have a contributing impact on the lived experiences of youth. While school is a large and important component of youths’ lived experiences in Australia, it was argued that other aspects of young people’s lives also need to be understood, particularly when these may be culturally different from aspects of teachers’ experiences and perceived norms.Footnote 3 For example, within Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese households it has been identified that it is often a cultural norm for youth to contribute within the family home in significant ways, such as with domestic duties and/or contributing to the family income (Deng, 2015; Macaulay, 2021). Such duties may, in some instances, influence one’s academic performance.

Ally highlighted the influence that duties outside of school could have on her overall engagement at school; see for example her following pronoun poem:



Teachers don’t understand if you don’t do your homework

They think you just looked at your homework and left it

They can’t understand you’ve got other things to do

They feel like homework is the only thing you have to do

Within this poem, Ally adopted a first-person voice when positioning herself relationally with teachers but adopted a collective second-person voice when speaking of her own positionality. This can most likely be accounted for as Ally generalising these experiences to be applicable beyond her own and being similarly applicable to others. Ally reported that a consequence of her teachers not understanding her life outside the classroom was that it felt as if they did not care about her. Elaborating further on the points made in her pronoun poem, Ally said: “they don’t care about me … then why should I care about doing homework?”. Such statements highlight some of the tensions and difficulties between Ally and her teachers as they negotiated their relationship.

Disciplinary expectations

While not articulated with the level of depth as discussions regarding academic expectation, it was identified by some participants that the student/teacher relationship is put under strain as Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth are held to higher levels of disciplinary accountability by teachers than is the case for other students. This was described causing distress for students and influencing experiences of educational belonging and subsequent disengagement. This disproportionate disciplinary accountability experienced by Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth was argued by some participants to be linked with racial and cultural identity. For example, Johnny stated, “it is easy for teachers to punish African children … But it is hard for them to punish white children, and that is the reality”. Johnny further elaborated on this and some of its consequences in the following pronoun poem:



They need a lot of training

Teacher training

Teachers need to be trained that they are not just teachers for the white children

They are teachers for the multicultural country

For people who come from different backgrounds, the punishment needs to be equal

Imagine if a child did something bad at a school and she or he is suspended

Then tomorrow the other child did the same thing, and that child is not given a punishment

How will that child feel?

He will feel neglected and ignored

He will not have a passion to be part of that school

That child could be just like a toy in the class, because your teacher is not treating you equally to other children

Within this poem, Johnny highlighted the disciplinary inequalities certain students experience in the classroom compared with ‘white’ students. As a direct result of this inequality, Johnny explicitly highlighted the impacts of this on students’ sense of belonging in class and at school. Johnny linked this inequality to teacher training and called for more in-depth teacher training in terms of multi-cultural education in Australia. Johnny highlighted the implications of disciplinary inequalities as resulting in students feeling undervalued, causing them to educationally disengage. An interesting turn of phrase used by Johnny to highlight this was, “that child will just be like a toy in the class”. Here, Johnny implied that for some students their inclusion in the classroom was not authentic and they were treated as such, catalysing a form of ‘social death’; therefore, it may be implied that teachers value their relationships with these students less. Johnny varied his use of a first-person and collective second-person voice in this poem, as such, it is difficult to clearly interpret where Johnny positioned his voice in this narrative. As with other participants in this study, Johnny situated teachers and ‘white’ students as relational others, and when discussing the Australian South Sudanese student experience the use of a collective second-person voice is interpreted as being employed to generalise these experiences more broadly. Therefore, Johnny implied this to be a common issue experienced by young people within his community.

Further, it was identified that in instances where Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth experienced forms of bullying from other students, these instances were not taken seriously by teachers. This bullying was presented as being linked to forms of racism, and as such, teachers’ passiveness, and disinclination to treat these instances seriously could be argued to contribute to systems of institutional racism within schools (Baak, 2019; Mansouri & Jenkins, 2010). A negative consequence of teacher indifference to instances of racially motivated bullying is that the victims of this bullying take matters into their own hands, usually through forms of physical violence, and are subsequently punished for doing so. As such, the roles of victim and perpetrator in the initial instance of bullying are reversed when the victim reacts with violence. Kuar Muon, an Australian South Sudanese community organisation representative participant, highlighted this issue in the following pronoun poem:

Kuar Muon

Hitting Back:

People say a bad word to them

They respond

They report it to the teacher

The teacher will keep quiet

When this person repeats it again, again, and again

The response from them will be fighting

Hitting someone

That is when they get in trouble

Within this poem, Kuar Muon was clear in highlighting that in some instances violence was not the first response. Kuar Muon emphasised the first response was to report the instance to a teacher. However, when the teacher does not respond appropriately and thus facilitates a culture where such instances are likely to re-occur, students respond with violence. As Kuar Muon stated, “the teacher will keep quiet … then when this person repeats it again, again, and again … the response from them will be fighting”. Instances such as these could create ongoing social and educational issues for Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese students. It was reported that the punishments that students receive in such instances are often swift and severe, usually resulting in being removed from the school temporarily or permanently (e.g., receiving a suspension or expulsion). As such, their relationships with teachers and overall educational experiences could be greatly affected. Subsequently, there is concern regarding how these experiences may have influenced students’ educational engagement and the implications of this for future social and economic prosperity in the adult years (Abur & Spaaij, 2016).

Discussion and concluding remarks

The findings of this study suggest that participants’ perspectives on the relationships between Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youth and schoolteachers have the capacity to adversely impact these young peoples’ sense of educational belonging. The findings that these relationships are underpinned by stereotyped academic expectations and disproportionate disciplinary accountability were reported by participants to be influenced by the racialisation of their identities within the ‘white’ spaces of Australian schools. As argued by Mapedzahama and Kwansah-Aidoo (2017), the presence and expression of ‘blackness’ in ‘white’ spaces has traditionally been ‘othered’ and positioned as being a disturbance to these spaces. Mapedzahama and Kwansah-Aidoo (2017) further articulate that ‘black’ experiences within these ‘white’ spaces is burdensome. This contention appears to be supported by participants in this study and is articulated as being produced, or at the very least, reinforced by student/teacher relationships in Australian schools.

The above contention is well aligned with Afro-pessimism theorisation (particularly the concept of ‘social death’), which has the potential to be an extremely important lens to understand these experiences. As indicated in this study, students felt overlooked by their teachers, rendering a form of ‘social death’, and disrupting their authentic education and social participation as Australians in Australia. Subsequently, this may have adverse implications for their future social and economic prosperity, as well as their overall sense of identity. This considered, significant theoretical work needs to be done to advance the field of Afro-pessimism regarding its application to the Australian context. For example, the seminal work of Wilderson (2020) has been criticised by some for its explicit lack of applicability to the experiences of Indigenous people (see for example Cunningham, 2020). While Wilderson has acknowledged the ‘black’ nomenclature for First Nations people in Australia, he has gone on record to argue the lack of applicability of Afro-pessimism theorisation regarding Indigenous experiences in Australia (Grozdanic, 2020). This is problematic. It has previously been argued that the racialisation of African communities in Australia needs to be presently, as well as historically, contextualised relative to colonisation (Baak, 2019; Due, 2008). Racialised policies underpinning a legacy of racism within the Australian education system are inherently linked to colonisation (Bodkin-Andrews & Carlson, 2016; Gerrard et al., 2021). For example, it is worth noting that the findings of this study are not dissimilar to findings regarding teachers’ attitudes towards, and relationships with, Indigenous students within Australian schools (see for example Dandy et al., 2015; Moodie et al., 2019; Riley & Pidgeon, 2019). Therefore, in order to advance the field of Afro-pessimism theorisation in Australia, future research must consider context specificity and the intersections of the African Australian and Indigenous experience and belonging within ‘white’ hegemonic school spaces.

This research is contextualised within a time when the belonging of the identities of young people from these communities had been under significant scrutiny in Australian media and political discourse (Macaulay & Deppeler, 2020; Majavu, 2020). Subsequently, the “politics of belonging” (Yuval-Davis, 2006, p. 204) regarding the social locations of Australian Sudanese/South Sudanese youth appear to have influence over their relationships with their teachers and their subsequent overall educational experiences. Of consequential concern, is the potential for the educational disengagement of these young people, which may affect post-school opportunities. Specifically, of concern are the implications of educational disengagement regarding gaining meaningful employment (Abur & Spaaij, 2016), as meaningful employment has been identified as a key component of Australian Sudanese and South Sudanese youths’ positive sense of identity (Macaulay & Deppeler, 2022). Therefore, for these young people, the “narratives, stories that… [they] tell themselves about who they are, who they are not, as well as who and how they would like to/should be” (Yuval-Davis, 2010, p. 266), can be significantly influenced by their experiences and perceptions of their educational belonging relative to their relationships with teachers.

Taking into consideration these findings regarding youth participants’ perspectives on their relationships with schoolteachers, it is essential that improvements are made in this domain to better support Australian Sudanese/South Sudanese youth within their education experiences. Teachers’ feelings of under preparedness to be responsive educators within Australia’s diverse classrooms (Yared et al., 2020), is a crucial area for improvement within teacher education and professional development. As stated by Yared et al. (2020), “egalitarian and colour-blind approaches to discussing race… may lead to greater implicit and explicit racial bias” (p. 1511). As such, teachers’ development of nuanced understandings of how racialised systems and structures operate in Australia, and how the social locations of students interact and intersect with teachers’ social locations is crucial.

From a practice perspective, Culturally Responsive Pedagogies (CRP) could serve as a useful approach to better support students in the increasingly diversifying Australian classrooms. Gay (2000) defines CRP as the process of using “the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning more relevant to and effective… it teaches to and through strengths of these students” (p. 29). As previously highlighted, it has been reported that teachers feel underprepared to be culturally responsive educators in diverse classrooms (Yared et al., 2020). This contention is supported in the CRP literature, where the importance of imbedding CRP approaches in pre-service teacher training and professional development is championed (see for example Fickel, et al., 2017; Heineke et al., 2018; Jiang et al., 2016; Salazar, 2018). A lack of teacher preparedness to engage in CRP approaches can result in poorer student outcomes and educational disengagement (Heineke et al., 2018). Therefore, it is crucial for teachers to possess the skill sets and confidence to engage the cultural strengths and needs of their students. In doing so, teachers must possess the skills and willingness to engage in critical self-reflexivity to challenge how their own cultural biases may influence their teaching and the development of positive relationships with their students. This latter point is crucial regarding the finding of this study, as the practice of CRP approaches in the classroom is linked to facilitating trust within the student/teacher relationship, which can further influence the positive effects of such approaches (Jiang et al., 2016).

Further, it is important to develop (as well as leverage) policy to better support students relative to their overall social and cultural lived experiences in Australia and how these can influence education experiences. For example, in the state of Victoria where this study was conducted, eligible schools as determined by English as an Additional Language Index Funding may employ multicultural education aides (MEAs) (Department of Education and Training, DET, 2019). While many of the roles of MEAs focus on language, which may not be applicable for youth participants in this study, a key role of MEAs is to “assist teachers to understand the home cultures and the expectations families have of the school and of education in general” (DET, 2019, p. 5). Therefore, the wider implementation of MEAs, and broader eligibility requirements for funding to employ MEAs, may assist teachers in better understanding the intercultural challenges faced by some Australian Sudanese/South Sudanese youth. This may challenge some teachers’ biases and the expectations they have of these students. Further, within the student/teacher relationship there appears to be a significant power imbalance. Therefore, in implementing strategies to improve student/teacher relationships, particularly in terms of expectations influenced by bias and culture, it is essential for schools to engage with the voices of the students to challenge these issues (Nelson, 2021).

By using a VCRM approach in this study and placing the voices of participants at the centre of the research, their perspectives on the relational qualities of their voices with their teachers could be understood. It was evident that participants in this study were eager to share their experiences of the relationships with their schoolteachers, and what the implications of these are and were. This contributes to a better understanding of these experiences as directed by the voices of participants themselves. Addressing the underlying racial bias towards difference is complex but pivotal if racial discrimination is to change in Australian schools. Given the findings of this study, future research using a voice-centred approach should seek to understand the implicit and explicit biases of teachers in the Australian context and also to include and better understand the voices of teachers within the student/teacher relationship relative to diverse student cohorts.