The #BlackLivesMatter protests of the last two weeks, catalysed by George Floyd’s death, have been accompanied by a wave of powerful messages I find I’m hearing or absorbing at a different level. It’s not like they’re new – or that I’ve never heard them before; far from it. I’ve been involved in discussions about racism for 40 years. But there’s something going on right now that seems different.
Where to begin? I guess the first thing that recently cut through my armour (of complacency, apathy, complicity, …..) was this thread by Iesha Small:
Read it all here: Exposure to racism is trauma Trauma. That’s the word that got me. Plus this, addressed to white people: “…start to notice what the world is like for Black people. The stuff you can dip out of as and when. Notice and acknowledge it. Don’t leave it to us to do all the time. It’s exhausting.” Exhausting… you can hear in her words how real that is.
Then this… from Angie Browne, former Headteacher who tweets as @nourishedschool
Angie’s message here struck me on several levels. There’s that same sense of exhaustion; that, this time, enough is enough. But my main reaction was that the thoughts and emotions that Angie is sharing are thoughts and emotions I have never ever had; never had to have; never will need to have. As a privileged white man, I have no equivalent to this – there’s no ‘oh yeah, I can relate to that because…..’ And, even though I know it happens to people I know – when I tune in or I’m forced to tune in – however horrified I am, however empathetic or how much solidarity I might offer ‘in spirit’, I basically do nothing about it at all. Nothing aside from sharing some twitter outrage from time to time, lending support to anti-racist campaigners – people like David Lammy whose principles and courage I’m constantly in awe of (eg when tackling Comic Relief white saviourship, Windrush scandal. ). But, let’s be honest, do I dip in and out? Yes I do.
#BlackLivesMatter has led to multiple frustrated but constructive threads and blogs about what white people could and should be doing. This one from Obioma Ugoala is a great example:
The message I’m hearing loud and clear is Educate Yourself. Do the reading. This starts off easily (lazily) enough. I ordered a lot of books – several have arrived; others (including the best-seller by Reni Eddo-Lodge ) are on the way:
First to arrive was Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye, recommended to me by Peter Hyman. Immediately, within two pages, my mind was opened and that hasn’t stopped. It’s utterly compelling. If I thought I was going to get some easy answers; some simple guidance, I was kidding myself. Here’s Jeffrey recently on twitter:
I’m not going to sum up what I’m learning from these books; it’s too soon. I’m in no position to do it justice. I’m just taking it in, re-thinking A LOT of stuff. For sure, I’m less sure than ever about labels. Jeffrey explores this beautifully: Black, People of Colour, BAME – all terms loaded with contradictions and complexities that need to be faced. Mainly, my reading so far reinforces the perspective (the fact) that racism is structural, embedded, absolutely inseparable from any telling of British history; it’s not a set of incidents and injustices. It’s built-in. And I’m part of that structure whether I like it or not; whether I feel personally responsible or not. It’s just undeniably how it is – unless a massive wave of sustained change is undertaken.
Another type of message I’m hearing louder, more clearly, has been about the concept of allyship. I’m not sure why this feels like something I should embrace now but, truthfully, it’s not a term I’ve engaged with before. I think this has partly been due to a sense that you can’t legitimately profess allyship if you think you’re also part of the problem. But then something I read on twitter recently cut through. The message was essentially, thanks for the support but “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?”
That was an almighty kick up the arse. Yes, where have I been? I’ve been here all the time, comfortable in a limited sense of my own worthiness but actually doing nothing of substance to combat racism. Conspicuously silent, some might say. I wouldn’t argue.
In the past, as school leader and employer, this was more tangible; actually a prominent issue in terms of student achievement, recruitment of staff, diversity of representation in any group including the governing body. In some respects I think that it was always too easy to fall short and then hide behind a process, happy to be seen to have considered the issues even when the outcomes in terms of inclusion and diversity were unsatisfactory.
Now, more or less a solo operator in any institutional terms, I don’t have quite the same scope for taking policy-level actions as a proxy for personal action. It’s more about what I do myself as an individual – which is a lot harder. What cuts through in recent BLM messaging is that passive, paralysed inertia from white people is noticed and is painful to see for anyone experiencing racism as their daily reality. It’s not going to be enough to shield yourself behind ‘not being racist’ – even if true; there’s a moral imperative to be actively anti-racist – which requires an entirely different level of activity and engagement. I different mindset. I’m hearing that… though still uncertain what that activity should be exactly.
Here’s a superb 10-point guide by Dr Muna Adbi for BAMEEd: Advice for being an ally. I found this looking through the BAMEEd website…
The 10 points are clear and the five actions at the end capture the spirit well: Listen, Learn, Check yourself, Take Action, Be Brave.
Some of the 10 points and five imperatives are easier to address than others. Racism and allyship deserve some hard thinking and, here in this thinking-aloud post, I’m nowhere near making specific statements of intent. I’m struck by the message that it’s time for white people to stop expecting/relying on black people to provide the solutions whilst also hearing the message about the problem of ‘performative allyship‘. To be honest, for me there’s a real dilemma there. If your tentative but public first actions are false steps… open to public challenge and criticism, it’s inhibiting; paralysing even. There’s an anxiety… But that’s pathetic isn’t it…
That thought provokes a reference to something bigger: white defensiveness. A white man on the news report right now is shouting “All lives matter; not just black lives”. The BLM movement is a threat to his sense of ‘how things should be’. It’s like those awful cringe-worthy, infuriating claims from privileged white people that they can experience racism too -that it can somehow cut both ways – ignoring the enormity of structural, historical inequality and prejudice they (me included) can’t remotely ever experience. The instances of defensive doubling-down when people are accused of being racist and then recoil in horror, hurt and bewildered.. making their hurt the dominant issue, going on the defence rather than taking time to explore the experience and perception of their accusers. These are mindsets that privileged white people like me need to address within themselves. I think that’s easier said than done; it’s the habit of a lifetime. My small handful of experiences of being directly accused of racism all relate to school discipline: angry teenagers venting their sense of injustice. Case by case, I’m certain I’d have defended myself and justified my actions; I’d have felt righteous -(except when I lost my temper, for which there’s no excuse). But then I was nearly always thinking about exchanges of words; incidents; a version of events. I wouldn’t have been seeing my actions through the lens of a student’s lived experience of everyday racism.
Clearly there’s a need for some deep personal (and then societal) self-examination if we’re going to get beyond being comfortably ‘non-racist’ to being uncomfortably ‘anti-racist’. How best to do this? I don’t know yet. I’m doing the reading. I should probably stop here and come back to this but I’m already I’m thinking along several lines:
One is to ensure that my core work makes explicit reference to anti-racism. There’s more do to influence representation at events that I participate in but in relation to the content of my work, I tend to wrap up all manner of issues around teacher development into the catch-all of ‘everyone benefits if you teach more effectively – so focus on that’. But maybe that’s not sufficient, even with the highest aspirations for all and the best possible CPD structures. I like to think cognitive science/edu-research-informed practice is universal and neutral but maybe there’s a layer missing.
This immediately leads into the next line of thought: I should do more to engage with what an explicitly anti-racist curriculum looks like in practice. I think I get the concept and spirit of it but I don’t yet fully understand what a ‘decolonised curriculum’ would look like – ie what exactly goes in and what exactly goes out, given that, time-wise, there’s something of a zero sum. More reading needed here for sure; more discussion with people a way down this road – including, for example, https://www.theblackcurriculum.com/ which I found this week, as part of an initial search. I’m also aware of some pretty divergent views and approaches around this issue amongst BAME educators and politicians- so, as Jeffrey Boakye highlights, don’t go looking for neat solutions – some kind of ready-cooked BLM-friendly scheme of work you can just plug in.
Finally, I think there’s something about having a platform; a following; a form of communications power that I can and should use more explicitly, more effectively….to champion, advocate, challenge, promote etc.. in the cause of anti-racism. But, again, heeding some of the allyship advice , it’s a mistake to shoot off with commitments you can’t sustain and it’s all too easy to fall into those performative traps; to be self-serving about it all, looking for big-ups. It costs nothing to use a hashtag in the heat of a crisis.. but I’m not one to change my twitter avatar to match the issue of the moment and I think a deeper response is called for.
Anyway.. for now, I’m going back to the books. It’s ok to admit you have more to learn… whilst acknowledging that it will be actions that count in the end. Reading the books won’t be enough by any standards. I guess, like Angie Browne in her video, writing this is my way of making myself accountable. If I change nothing, if I do nothing after this.. I’ll have failed. Paralysis isn’t good enough. No excuses. Do the work!