Ever since the wave of discussions about racism that flowed from the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in June and July, I’ve been thinking a lot about what an ‘anti-racist’ curriculum would look like in schools. It’s a huge, important, complex area – one you don’t want to get wrong – so, I’m writing this with an exploratory mindset, feeling my way. I worry that schools will feel a need to ‘do something’ and might make hasty decisions for presentational reasons, when this is an area that definitely needs careful consideration, time invested in building shared understanding and long-term planning. There are no quick wins.
It’s not as if racism is something schools don’t already discuss. In fact, I’ve been involved in extensive discussions about tackling racism in schools since my first job in Wigan in the late 80s – and in each of my schools since – in Notting Hill, Haringey, Islington, Essex. Part of the issue now in 2020 is the obvious fact that racism persists – painfully obviously so – despite decades of discussions about tackling it. Whatever we’re doing isn’t enough – or we’re doing it wrong. Of course there are improvements; there have been shifts in attitudes in numerous arenas of public life. But as Hans Rosling argues in Factfulness, social and material injustices don’t need to be getting worse for us to still be deeply concerned and angry about them.
Now in 2020, the very fact that Black Lives Matter exists as a movement tells us that there is still a long way to go – as do various other responses. I was astonished at the backlash that John Amaechi experienced after releasing his BBC Bitesize video explaining the concept of white privilege. Just this week the National Trust has decided to highlight the connection many of its artefacts and buildings have to slavery – and it’s got some people’s backs up; they’re happier with heads in the sand, denigrating ‘wokeness’ etc. It’s pathetic – but real. We’re not even at the point where we can make assumptions about people’s shared understanding of the problem, never-mind roll out coherent effective solutions.
The main thing I’ve done since June is to buy and read the books various commentators were recommending – alongside numerous articles and blogs. I’ve learned a great deal. It’s definitely something I’d urge people to do – particularly if you are a white person who doesn’t – and won’t ever – experience racism directly. These books are full of insight and wisdom, impossible to summarise, but I’ll give a flavour with a couple of stand-out things I learned from them:
Black: Listed by Jeffrey Boakye. The main theme of the book is the complexity and problematic nature of labels. Most collective terms such as PoC and BAME mask the full diversity of billions of people, essentially labelling people as ‘not white’. African, Afro-Caribbean, Black British…these commonly used terms present challenges and paradoxes – offering an identity label that has power at the same time as reinforcing the persistent ‘othering’ that underpins so much everyday racism in this country. Boakye communicates this complexity superbly well alongside his powerful personal testimony of living in a world riddled with racist assumptions. His chapters about ‘Black Guy’ and ‘coonery’ are affecting because they capture everyday experiences; a fear of humiliation being one of them. We can’t just assume that people fit a label; that they identify with it. That’s not wokeness; it’s about recognising all people for who they actually are, not the group identity you want to lump them in with.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race: Reni Eddo-Lodge. In an incredibly powerful book, one main idea that struck me was Eddo-Lodge’s helpful distinction between racial prejudice and structural racism. It’s ludicrous to me that white people can complain about ‘reverse racism’ or claim colourblindness in their dealings with people. I’m always amazed (and depressed) when campaigners like David Lammy are accused of race-baiting when they highlight racism. Some people just want to smooth it all away. Eddo-Lodge explains – in no uncertain terms – that racism cannot and will never be fully understood as a collection of acts of racial discrimination or verbal abuse; it’s a power relationship seared into our economic and social structures. White privilege is real; at least it’s real enough to enough people to warrant a deep examination.
I must admit that some counter arguments have caused me to stop and think. One British Asian commentator posted about his frustrations that, following BLM, so many of his white colleagues seemed at pains to tell him all about the privilege they had and he didn’t, when, previously, he’d not been aware of it. He didn’t like it. Other responses focus on the almost tactical error in the anti-racism cause of putting white people on the defensive especially if they do not feel materially privileged for multiple other reasons. But these seem to me to miss the point about structural injustice. The way some BAME people (and it only needs to be some) experience life in Britain is to be confronted with racist assumptions on a daily basis; white people never have this problem. That’s the privilege. I get it. It’s a helpful concept to examine your complicity in sustaining racism as a white person if you do not actively tackle the structural aspect of it.
Still… you can see that there’s a lot of work to do to get clarity around these issues – the concepts, the definitions, the sharing of personal and political narratives – before you could march into school and simply deliver a message.
Natives by Akala is an epic book. I love its mixture of analysis, autobiography and polemic. One of the main things I took from his book was the sense that Kingslee Daley lived an extraordinarily complex life outside school – including attending a pan-African Saturday school and, later, witnessing the full harsh realities of teenage street culture: violent assaults, stop and search… and yet, it’s likely that his teachers knew very little about it. Reading the book I often wondered – whilst accepting that we can’t all create schools on our personal terms – what a school curriculum and ethos would have had to be like for Akala to have felt strongly positive about it. My overall take-away from the book is a sense of stories untold: about his personal heritage backpack* (Scottish, English, Jamaican); echoing Boakye and Eddo-Lodge – the persistent ingrained nature of racism that an average white person will simply be oblivious to; and the story of colonialism, Black history, slavery and its abolition – a history relevant to British people of all backgrounds that has so many more layers and perspectives than are usually encountered in a school curriculum.
How to Argue with a Racist: Adam Rutherford I think this is an important book that, if more people understood, would cut away at the roots of racism. It lays out the ground for a true understanding of concepts of race and how they do and do not connect to genetics and heredity. Ideas include:
- Humanity really is just one big ‘mongrel’ family. At one time in the past, the family trees of all people living today will intersect with all the people living at that time. (Because of migration and maths!) That’s been calculated to be only 3400 years ago. Everyone is descended from all of the people living at that time. ‘Race’ really has no scientific basis at all. It’s a social construct and needs to be understood as such.
- A further example: all people with any European heritage will have a common ancestor who lived only about 600 years ago.
- Genetic diversity in Africa is greater than in the whole of the rest of the human population – reflecting our origins in Africa and the migration that began about 70,000 years ago from NW Africa.
- All of the myths about physical and mental attributes ascribed to certain racial groups are based on racist pseudo-science. Even when broad correlations exist between some groups of genes, they don’t explain the real world phenomena people associate with them (eg fast runners, bad swimmers). Social, economic and geographical factors override genetic explanations every time – and yet these myths are perpetuated either from sheer ignorance of the science of wilful (racist) misreading of it.
I still have many more books to read. Already my overriding sense is of having had my eyes opened by these writers’ perspectives and I know for sure that an anti-racist school curriculum needs to operate on many levels. I’ll need to explore these more fully in further blog-posts but my list of things to look at would include:
- Values and attitudes to racism within the community – of parents, students and teachers. For example, can we tackle white privilege if we don’t all accept it as a reality? We need a shared sense of our common anti-racism goals. How do we frame them? What then goes into a curriculum for personal development; into our ethos-reinforcement via assemblies and general messaging?
- The experience of BAME students and staff: There are issues around equalities in general – representation, employment, leadership roles and role-models etc – but also the day-to-day experience of being labelled and othered one way or another. (I read about a Black African heritage student who’d felt humiliated being the only black student in her GCSE history class – having the teacher and students turn to her constantly for her view about slavery. As if she had more personal insight or connection than her white peers; as if she somehow represented all black people and would necessarily want to share her personal perspective. There was a misjudgement on the teacher’s part – but probably one they were oblivious to. This needs to be explored; there are training needs — but who would be best placed to deliver it? )
- The content of the history curriculum: Surely the history of Britain includes the history of all British people. (I began to explore this here: British History; Black History: Everyone’s history.) That means a fairly wide-ranging history of migration, colonialism as well as the events that took place on British soil and/or shaped our institutions.
- Representation across the curriculum: How do we capture the diversity of perspectives in literature, art and music, for example – whilst also teaching a set of cornerstone canonical works? Are they at odds? What goes in; what goes out?
- The depth and focus of the science curriculum: I simply don’t think we do this well enough – teaching how inheritance really works (with updated ideas about genetics), teaching our wider history as a species evolving and then roaming the planet – all with a view of breaking down the racist pseudoscience that holds strong in so many quarters. I don’t even think all science teachers understand it well enough.
A lot of things to think about! Perhaps the thing overriding all of this is the need to make a plan for a process to deal with it all. A ‘first day back’ session on racism really won’t cut it. This needs a sustained process harnessing genuine expertise and wide consultation within the school community.
Making that plan would be a good place to begin. More to come…
*Backpack: A concept borrowed from Headteacher Sonia Thompson. Every child comes to school with their backpack of culture, knowledge, experience – the question is whether they ever get to share what’s in it.