This is a guest post from Gemma Clark who is a white Primary teacher and EIS Rep. Teaches in Inverclyde.
I like most people, have been watching with horror as events unfold in America. The frequent murder of black men and the realisation of the true extent of white supremacy leaves us shocked and wondering how this can still be happening in 2020. How can people be murdered for going for a run, for driving their cars, for existing? Thank goodness it doesn’t happen here in our very tolerant Scotland where refugees are welcome and affectionately termed ‘refuweegies’.I like most people, have been watching with horror as events unfold in America. The frequent murder of black men and the realisation of the true extent of white supremacy leaves us shocked and wondering how this can still be happening… Click To Tweet
But racism is very much a fact of life here in Scotland, and we as white people are often (if unintentionally) complicit with it. It is our duty, as educators to learn about our white privilege, our biases and work towards being not just ‘not racist’ but actively antiracist.
Confronting our own compliance with and even participation in racism is uncomfortable and takes a real awakening. I was raised by liberal parents. My dad had a photo of Martin Luther King on the Wall and bought my niece black as well as white dolls to play with. I was educated on racism. I knew that racists are terrible people and that I am not like these people. About 15 years ago, I was utterly offended at being sent for the mandatory ‘antiracist training’ by a former employer. I am not a racist. That training is not for by people like me. I have now realised that I was completely wrong about this.
Several years after being offended that my employer had the audacity to send me, an educated and enlightened person, to antiracist training, I completed my teacher training. One evening while scrolling Twitter, I noticed one of our university lecturers was recommending a book, ‘Why I am no Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This lecturer had made a big impression on me during my training as she made me realise that teachers can play an essential role in supporting pupils from marginalised groups (and that great responsibility comes with this). Seeing this tweet coincided with a friend of mine telling me about his plans to emigrate to Dubai where he once lived for a couple of years. When I asked him why he wanted to move, he told me he was tired of racism and had enjoyed not having to deal with it in Dubai. I was ignorantly surprised. ‘But Scotland isn’t a racist country’? My friend was patient enough to explain to me that Scotland IS in fact, plagued by racism but that I don’t see it. I can do my shopping without getting dirty looks; I don’t need to hear the nasty comments about ‘these people’ or listen to insinuations that I am probably a terrorist. I can move through an airport without being treated at best with suspicion or at worst like a criminal. At this point, I was finally beginning to realise that there were a lot of things that I do not know or have the slightest understanding of. I downloaded Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book on Audible and vowed to listen with an open mind.
The author discusses the history of violence and racism towards Black people in the UK. She cites many statistics that clearly demonstrate the disadvantage that BME people suffer in the UK. She then goes on to discuss the harder to spot racism that she experiences every day. She ‘stopped talking to white people about race’ because it seems we are totally committed to not listening and discarding people’s lived experiences. She recalls times when she has had common ground and friendship with a white person, but if she ever ventured onto the topic of racism, she was always met with the same answers. ‘But that might not have been racism’. ‘But there might have been another reason why an equally qualified white person got the job’. ‘You can’t just accuse people of racism’.
On reflection, I hear these comments all the time and have probably said a few of them myself in the past. We think that racists are the gun-wielding skinheads with swastika tattoos that we see on the news; The deplorable people who we… Click To Tweet
On reflection, I hear these comments all the time and have probably said a few of them myself in the past. We think that racists are the gun-wielding skinheads with swastika tattoos that we see on the news; The deplorable people who we condemn and don’t want to be associated with. But Eddo-Lodge argues that ‘If all racism was as easy to spot, grasp and denounce as white extremism is, the task of the antiracist would be simple ‘. ‘We tell ourselves that good people can’t be racist’.
It is our understanding (or complete lack) of racism that is the problem. Racism is the societal structure that disadvantages anyone who is not white. This is what the term ‘white privilege’ (first coined by sociologist Robin Diangelo) is referring to. It does not mean that white people can’t have hard lives. It means that our lives have not been made harder because of our race. My being able to walk through an airport without being treated with suspicion or unnecessarily detained for extra ‘security checks’ is a privilege that I receive due to my whiteness
We don’t correctly understand Malcolm X or see him in context. We gaslight people with Martin Luther King quotes without knowing or understanding that … Click To Tweet
This brings me back to racism in Scotland and its relevance to teaching. Having taught children from a range of ethnicities and cultures, I like to think my teaching is inclusive and certainly ‘not racist’. However, watching a recent Ted Talk by Pran Patel on ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ made me reflect heavily on this. I have championed the multilingual skills of my Arabic speaking students, but I have not taught them about the contributions that the Arabic world has made, including modern maths as we know it! I know about white scientists and inventors who have contributed to society, but that is all. I have realised there is more to inclusive teaching than merely a few, token, black history lessons. We do not teach the truth about history, especially because so many of us do not know it ourselves. So many of us had no idea that Glasgow was instrumental in the transatlantic slave trade and that streets like Buchanan and Glassford are named after slavers. We don’t correctly understand Malcolm X or see him in context. We gaslight people with Martin Luther King quotes without knowing or understanding that he was more disappointed by ‘white moderates’ than he was troubled by the KKK.
As teachers, it is our duty to go through this process of awakening to do better by our pupils. I became acutely aware that antiracist practice in teaching, has a long way to go when a colleague of mine made a post on a teacher’s page about subconscious racial bias which she had seen on TV. To summarise, the BBC had interviewed two men. One was Finnish; one was Indian. Both were speaking clear English, but only the Indian man was subtitled. I noticed that a white male immediately commented on the post, suggesting it was not the appropriate forum for this discussion. I replied to this comment stating that I disagreed, as teachers, we have to ‘Get It Right For Every Child’ and challenge all racism no matter how benign it might seem.
There were many attempts to silence my colleague with all the usual rhetoric that I am finally beginning to see. ‘You can’t prove that’s racism’. ‘You can’t just cry racism’. ‘You can’t accuse people of being racist’. Click To Tweet
Encouragingly, there was a lot of agreement with the post; however, there were many attempts to silence my colleague with all the usual rhetoric that I am finally beginning to see. ‘You can’t prove that’s racism’. ‘You can’t just cry racism’. ‘You can’t accuse people of being racist’. Again, it all comes back to our lack of education and understanding of what racism is and our desperation to shut down any conversation about it. For sure ‘racism’ is a loaded and emotive word. I seemed to upset a lot of people by suggesting that there was a lot of mansplaining and whitesplaining going on in the discussion. This comment brought me a lot of angry criticism from several white men. I tried to engage them in reasonable debate, after all, we were on a professional forum and should be able to do these things. I was unable to keep up with the comments or fury and quickly became exhausted by it. I am aware of the irony, that I, a white person am complaining of exhaustion after talking about racism. There was no desire to understand the point the post was made, rather, people just wanted to ‘prove’ that it was utterly wrong. We must stop silencing people and start listening.
I see an urgent need for antiracist teacher training. I realise now that our well-intentioned ‘colour blindness’ is not serving our BME pupils. Our BME pupils are going to go out into a world where they will have more barriers and obstacles in their way than their white peers. They will be more likely to be unemployed. They may be victims of rising hate crime (if they haven’t already been). They will suffer health and social inequalities. Our pupils deserve a better curriculum, our unwavering allyship and most of all; they deserve teachers committed to antiracist teaching.