Written by Sofie Bergland, Norwegian Study Centre, University of York, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences.
“The pain of not addressing racism is all the more dangerous particularly in educational spheres where the minds, subjectivities and futures of minoritized youth are influenced.” (Solomon et al. 2006).
The statement above explains vividly why the educational arena is an ideal place to start challenging racist and ‘white ignorance’ attitudes. The evidence I have come across towards institutional racism within the British education system is overwhelming. As a Norwegian teacher trainee, I will have a substantial responsibility when it comes to dealing with and addressing ‘race’ issues in the classroom in the future. On these grounds, it has been essential for me to study and critically question how I can bring this new knowledge into my future profession. In this piece, I will primarily address the experiences with racism in teacher trainee courses in the UK. However, as a Norwegian citizen, I will also provide an outlook on the issue concerning ‘race talk’ in Norway. These claims emphasize the need for anti-racism and diversity training in ITT courses in both the UK and Norway.“The pain of not addressing racism is all the more dangerous particularly in educational spheres where the minds, subjectivities and futures of minoritized youth are influenced.” (Solomon et al. 2006). Click To Tweet
The department for British education states its purpose is to “ensure that education builds character, resilience and well-being” (GOV.UK 2019). Likewise, the government in Norway believes “all people are equal regardless of what makes us different” (Government.no 2019) and refers to maintaining ‘human dignity’.The department for British education states its purpose is to “ensure that education builds character, resilience and well-being” (GOV.UK 2019). Likewise, the government in Norway believes “all people are equal regardless of what makes… Click To Tweet
Although these thoughts represent what we continuously strive for, it is not the current reality for many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people (BAME). Studies from the UK demonstrate there is “unintentional racism towards students”, “little support and engagement from teachers” and “prejudice-based bullying” (Bain 2018) starting in primary and continuing throughout high school. Their “well-being”, which is stated as a fundamental principle, is not maintained when having to face involuntarily disadvantages and discrimination in school. Between the years 2014-2017, reports of racial hate crimes increased by 50% in schools in the UK (Bain 2018). Consequently, the time to reflect upon the construction of teacher training courses has never been more necessary.
Teacher trainee experiences in the UK
A study published by Bhopal and Rhamie (2014) explores the various encounters teacher trainees had with ‘race’ and racism in their courses. The first significant encounter was the conflict on dealing with ‘otherness’. The issues following the notion of being different was either not recognised or “could not be tackled” (Bhopal 2014). It was concerning social class background. However, the trainees felt the “physical markers of race” (Bhopal 2014) were the most prominent regarding ‘otherness’.
Secondly, some felt that diversity and inclusion “were important goals to be aimed for” (Bhopal 2014), but few believed it could be achieved. A prevailing view regarding significant concerns in today’s society is believing that one person’s actions will not make a difference. This opinion is not only experienced with racism, but also regarding climate change and political voting.some felt that diversity and inclusion “were important goals to be aimed for” (Bhopal 2014), but few believed it could be achieved. Click To Tweet
Lastly, the trainees experienced “racist assumptions” based on racial perceptions. Several of the participants in this study were of BAME backgrounds. They reported mostly positive experiences. On the other hand, they encountered episodes of stereotypical attitudes and isolation “from their White peers” (Bhopal 2014). The research demonstrates that teachers also experience racism in the classroom. Generally speaking, the majority of the trainees “did not feel equipped” (Bhopal 2014) to handle racial incidents nor to discuss ‘race’ and ‘otherness’.
‘Race-talk’ in Norway
The outcome of an observational study by Svendsen (2013) about Norwegian classrooms in relation to ‘race-talk’, brought five issues into light when deliberating this topic. The aim of the study was to highlight how racialised topics were discussed between students and teachers. A vast majority of the teachers were White Norwegians. The study concludes that through “denial of ‘race’…racism is enacted in the classroom” (Svendsen 2013).
The first problem was how educators and students defined racism differently. To the teachers, the term was simply reserved for skin-colour based incidents. On the contrary, students related the word to ethnicity, culture, religion and skin colour. With the students’ understanding of racism, racial acts are results of “the insurmountability of cultural differences” (Svendsen 2013). General confusion about the definition of the concept of ‘race’, leads to responses such as it is “too close for comfort” (Svendsen 2013) and is often why the topics are avoided in the first place.
Second, the emotional state and prior experiences will determine the approach to situations. One teacher used an example of ‘cultural conflicts’ that received negative responses from the students. The teacher tried to explain the topic of immigration in terms of being ‘thrown out of the library’ for wearing caps. This effort to ‘neutralize’ the political issue of citizenship and immigration control, assumed ‘cultural conflicts’ were driven by “unequal power relations” (Svendsen 2013). By using such examples, the educator put teachers in a position of power and subliminally removed the students’ voices. This incident indicates the lack of prior experiences and knowledge the teacher has with cultural conflicts. In addition, a student reacted by yelling “because we are foreigners” (Svendsen 2013) to the question about why they were thrown out of the library. The reaction might have been catalysed by prior experiences or more awareness about the topic.
The third issue that arose was rejecting the existence and saying the concept of ‘race’ was dated. A specific incident sparked this conclusion. The word ‘neger’ was brought up by one of the students. The educator stated it was a “historical term” (Svendsen 2013) and refused to acknowledge its relevance in racial discourses in today’s society. His lack of ability to talk about ‘race’ in a critical way, was determined by “anxiety of being cast as a racist” (Svendsen 2013). I believe this is true for many teachers: they lack deep knowledge about the concept, have not questioned their own perceptions, and are afraid to come across as racist.
Fourth, discussing only the negative sides of immigration. An attempt at having a class discussion on the theme of immigration, lead to negative stigmatization related to the term. Instead of focusing on the misconceptions and stereotypes people might have when thinking of immigration, he focused on the negative effects. The students with immigrant parents tried to “rid themselves of the bad feeling the topic had landed on them” (Svendsen 2013). Is this a case of ignorance or unawareness of a student’s identity?
Lastly, believing that all human beings are of the same race. To close up the ‘discussion’, the teacher asked the students to write down “that all human beings are of the same race” (Svendsen 2013). This task given undermines the history and oppression of BAME people, and the current racial incidents that are taking place.
Considering the five main conflicts that derived from the study by Svendsen (2013), I have created a simple list containing crucial points suggesting how teacher trainees can start tackling the institutional racism in education.
1. Acknowledge the existence of ‘racism’ and ‘white privilege’.
2. Present an accurate definition of ‘race’ and ‘racism’, so that both the teacher and the students have a common understanding of the terms.
3. Prior experiences and judgements have to be dealt with beforehand. Teachers have to critically analyse their own misconceptions and stereotyping.
4. Address the negative misconceptions surrounding the term ‘immigration’ and how it is often portrayed wrongly by the media.
5. Discuss the concept of ‘colour-blindness’ and why it is not an option. It is about acknowledging the struggles and discrimination BAME people have faced for decades.
6. Know your students in a way that when bringing up these concepts no one offended.
In the end, it all comes down to what qualities we want students to face the world with? Excellent academic work and leadership or being open-minded and critical thinkers? Education has become a place of prestige and a competition on acquiring the best results. Where are the fundamental values of kindness and respect in this picture?
Bain, Z. (2018). ‘Is there such a thing as ‘white ignorance’ in British education?’ in ETHICS AND EDUCATION. Volume 13, Part 1. Pp 4-21
Bhopal, K. & Rhamie, J. (2014). ‘Initial teacher training: understanding ‘race’, diversity and inclusion’ in Race Ethnicity and Education. Volume 17, Part 3. Pp 304-325
Government.no (2019). ‘Core curriculum – values and principles for primary and secondary education’ Viewed at
Svendsen, S. H. B. (2013). ‘Learning racism in the absence of ‘race’’ in European Journal of Women’s Studies. Volume 21, Part 1. Pp 9-24
Solomona, R. P. & Portelli, J. P. & Daniel, B-J. & Campbell, A. (2006). ‘The discourse of denial: how white teacher candidates construct race, racism and ‘white privilege’’ in Race Ethnicity and Education. Volume 8, Part 2. Pp 147-169