Do you have the Courage to Stand with the Us’s?

Now – imagine – We meet up. Thanks to a mutual friend, let’s call him… TED.

For the next 10 minutes I’m going to transport us to a lovely cafe in London,

and an afternoon I spent there, not long ago.

Now, I’m not sure if this is a friend-thing. Or a business-thing.

Or even a date! TED hasn’t told me much about you.

But your smile puts me at ease.

We grab a table, order some coffee.

And small-talk about the news.

Which turns out to be a mistake.

The news is horrific.

And you agree!

So we do that beautiful thing that’s possible in conversation and side-step the frightening reality of ‘now’ with a related topic. You tell me about an irrational fear you had as a child…

And you’re so good at anecdotes. It had everything. Humor, insight.

Now, it’s my turn.

When I was eight, I went on my first ever camping trip with the local Cub Scout group in Wolverhampton. In my family, we do a lot of reading so it wasn’t unusual for me to go to the library for a big pile of books to read in preparation for the trip.

Unaware that the county of Shropshire is not covered with venomous snakes, I got a book on coral and corn snakes and learnt a rhyme to help me tell which were poisonous.

I still know the rhyme:

‘Red before black is safe for Jack. Red touching yellow will kill a fellow.’

So, venom is my answer.

All snakes bite, but venom kills.

But the UK doesn’t have coral snakes, so [shrug]. You laugh politely…

You’re so kind! This person is so nice.

“Talking about fear,” you say, then you hesitate.

“Thinking about the things we see on the news..”

Then you ask your question:

“Were you ever afraid of racist people?”

YES. Is the short answer. But I want to keep this light and for us to have fun on our cafe meeting/date/whatever.

So I decided to tell a story where I think I come out looking pretty good!

In my twenties. In London. On a night out and and I’ve met this beautiful brunette-

Now thinking this maybe isn’t the best story but I’ve started so I’ll keep going –

She said “There’s a 24 hour pub around the corner from mine, let’s go!”

I walked into this pub, her local, in one of the most diverse cities in the world. All white people. And I thought, okay. We walk in and she’s there talking to her friends because it’s her local. I overhear someone saying, “What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?” And me, thinking, “Strange, anyway…”

As they runs off to the toilet they says, “Can you get me a glass of wine?” And I was like yeah.

Over to the bar. “Can I get a medium glass of wine and a pint of Guinness.”

The person behind the bar serves a glass of wine. I ask about the Guinness and she says:

“We don’t really serve people like you, in here.”

10 years ago, I was witty. I was arrogant. I had long beautiful hair as well. So I looked around, looked down the bar. Looked at her squarely. Looked down the bar. Looked at her again and said, “What, beautiful people? I see what you mean.

I’ll have a pint of Guinness please.”

She pulled my pint. I finished my drink, and then we left.

You seemed to like that story. And I do too. I remember walking away thinking:

“That’s an absolute win.” But it wasn’t really because nothing changed.

I wonder if I can tell a story that maybe makes you feel a bit angry about racism, but obviously still makes me look good.

We get talking about home, and you don’t assume I’m from anywhere other than the UK.

We talk about home cooking!

When I go back home to visit my dad, I’ll always go back to London with stacks of food.

My dad does this for me, just because I’m his boy. And I adore him for it.

I remember once going to school with a tin box full of lentils, and spices, and eating with my hands. I remember the teacher looking at me and saying:

“I think it’s unhygienic to eat with your hands.”



“So you know, most of the world eats with their hands.”

And she was like, “Yeah, it’s unhygienic.”

“What are you eating?”

And she said “I’ve got sandwiches.”

“Yeah. Isn’t that interesting?”

Here we go. A flicker of anger. You want that story to not be true. But it is. I promise you it is.

Now you’re quiet. You’re thinking.

“What happened, when you were younger and not so able to speak for yourself?”

Okay. I’ll tell you what happened.

I remember walking with my old man, it was shortly after the camping trip. We were in town and there was narrow pavement. A mother was stood talking to someone else on the pavement.

I remember the mother, the mother and the young boy, we’re about the same age.

I remember saying something really polite, “Good afternoon. Excuse me.” Super polite. Me and my dad both chipped in. And the child just jumped out of the way, happy as Larry, beautiful eye contact. You know, when you have those moments between children, where there’s: “Oh it’s another kid!” That sort of that absolute joyful innocence.

I remember the mother looking scornfully at us. But worse is that she looked at the child with real venom. Word for word what dripped from her mouth was:

“Don’t ever move out of the way for these people.

They’ve taken enough already.”

Now I’ve made you look horrified.

And you’re so lovely I don’t want you to feel bad.

And it’s my fault…

So I complete the story…

The friend, the friend the mother was talking to…

She said to the mother: “What? What do you mean?”

Then to us: “I’m sorry on behalf of her. Have a wonderful day.”

The friend holds the difficult conversation with the mother while we walk away.

My dad looks at me aavu thai chhe ane thatu rahese.

(These things happen – Racist people are racist.But we are not on our own.)

You like the ending of that story. So I keep going. I could tell loads of stories like that!

Like when I was in year 8 at school, I remember sitting in science, being a bit of a geek, showing off and the teacher puts a hand on my shoulder in a position of caring for me, and this is someone in a position of authority that I respect. He says, loud enough for others to hear:

“It’s a shame you’re not white, you can really have got yourself a good job and made something yourself!”

I don’t like being the cause of your discomfort.

So I complete the story…

Do you know what happened the week after that? Another member of the science team announced a new science club. One where we were going to learn about and understand the achievements of scientists of colour, who aren’t normally mentioned in the mainstream syllabus.

At this revelation, you’re delighted! You tell me “that’s brilliant” and “you’re so glad the other teacher was there.”

You ask for one more…

So I think of the times I’ve been most afraid. Between the ages of 11 and 16 how many times was I running away from adults who had chosen to turn their racial slurs into physical assault?

There’s a scar on my head.

There’s scars across my body and they didn’t come from adventure holidays.

I’d be walking home from school, walking down the street, and a vehicle would pull up.

Words and spit came from the window. What you learn to do as a person of colour is to ignore.

And try to just keep walking. Any act of resistance at that age is an act that can cause you physical pain. When you get big enough to defend yourself, you don’t get this as much from everyday people. That’s when you start getting hassled more by police.

What I’ve learnt recently is that as soon as you start getting white in your beard, the police hassle you less! And then our issues are with success in the system and structures.

I remember times the van actually pulled up, people jumping out holding poles and bats as makeshift weapons, and having to run away. I remember running past people.

I wasn’t running home, I was just running. Running away from them.

Anywhere but on the street.

I’ll complete the story…

A person helped once. They saw me running and unhatched their gate pointing into their garden. “Jump in there!” I did. I knew I could bold a fence if needed.

And I caught my breath.

And my breath catches again. Now. In this moment. In the cafe we are in.

I can spot a racist. It’s not hard for me or for most people of colour who grew up in the UK. People say, “how do you know?” Almost four decades worth of experience.

“You don’t know, you can’t prove it.” I don’t need to prove it.

Turn on the news. Listen to the stories. As an activist, I want you to know every single racist incident that happens. I want white people to be aware of every single act of racially motivated violence against black and brown people moment to moment in the UK.

But it would be too uncomfortable.

Watching the snakes bite.

It’s traumatising.

Why would you look when you can turn away?

What about if I asked you to just notice the moments of fear and tension?

In the pub, the beautiful people joke? I was drunk. It was only because I was drunk, I was that brash. As soon as I said it, there was serious fear. Serious fear of what might happen next.

The teacher with the sandwich? I was angry. I was an angry teen who had just been told I was dirty for doing the same thing white people do. As soon as I’d been cheeky, there was fear. My education was the most important thing. I didn’t want to get kicked out of school, but it happens – disproportionately – for young people of colour.

When people say “Black Lives Matter” other people say “well, no, all lives matter” and I think…

Okay. I’ve got four wheels on a car. Do all four of the wheels matter? Absolutely!

My back left one, it’s got a slow puncture maybe.

I’m not going to say “all my wheels matter” so that one can slowly deflate and that’s fine.

I’m telling you this now because there’s trouble in here. In this cafe.

A guy has walked in, not to get a coffee. He walks past us. And by the grace of God, he walks past us, picks a chair up, flips it around, and sits on it as he starts abusing a woman of colour. She’s not on her own and someone goes to the bar to say we’re been hassled.

I’m sitting bolt upright. Not from choice. This is just, boom. I empty my pockets, my phone, my wallet, my keys, everything is now on the table, without even thinking. Hyper-alert. Hyper- tension. Fear.

And you, you’re saying: “Are you alright, Pran? Are you okay?”

I’m not thinking. I can hear the words, but I’m not listening.

The racist, pumped up and enraged heads for the street and physically assaults the next man of colour he sees. There’s blood.

I’m lost. In fear. Trauma. Tension.

Not just because of this incident, this sharp bite. But because of all the others. I’m the 8 year old, the teenager, the 20 year old, I’m the grown man who anglesises his own name because Pranav is hard to say, “Can we just call you P?”

And you say you’d like to learn how to say my name.

And you say, what about the people who were there as you grew up who protected you and defended you and taught you your potential?

What people?

The woman that the mother was talking to did not say a word.

I learnt about scientists of colour on my own when in the library I was at university after another student challenged me: “What have Indians ever done for the advancement of human knowledge?”

No one ever gave me a way out when I was being chased by adults with weapons as a child.

Those were the parts I made up to protect your feelings.

But by protecting your feelings I’m causing your inaction.

Inaction is what enables a sweet little white boy to take on his mother’s message about them taking too much. Again when he overhears a school teacher speak to a child of colour with disgust and another underlining the fact they won’t achieve because they’re not white.

This child grows into an adult who thinks it’s okay to spit at children of colour or not serve customers in a pub or beat people in the street.

I can’t help but think that if even 10% of the time someone would have stepped in at any of those points, with that person along the whole of his lifetime, would he have been that same person challenging people of colour? Would that have happened?

I’m not sure it would.

And maybe I wouldn’t be so triggered by the trauma that’s flowing through me.

It took me three day to come down.

For my heart to stop racing.

For my mind to clear.

To breathe again.

My father and my grandfather, they did say: “These things happen.” They were talking about racism. And they said, “And these things will continue to happen.”

I don’t know if you’ll want to see me again after this.

We’re always taught to keep people wanting more. To hold a little bit back. But I haven’t really done that today. I may have frightened you. Or hurt you. Or offended you.

Maybe that means we’ll never see eachother again.

But if we do meet again, will you tell me some stories of when you have witnessed and taken action? When you’ve corrected a friend, or family member. Or just shared some knowledge.

If even 10% of the time someone would have stepped in…

Maybe next time we can talk about what we love rather than what we fear.


I hope we meet again.

Thank you.

White Folx and their ‘Allyship’.

man people art street

White folx, when you talk about intention, you prop up white supremacy in all its incarnations. When activists discuss education and holding space for those who wright damage on our melanated kin, we support those same structures.

We have come to embrace a kindness revolution in response to a violent act.

“So I don’t believe in violence – that’s why I want to stop it.
And you can’t stop it with love.”


Advocates of kindness, and let’s be honest, those who have not read any Martin Luther King, are always quick to condemn ‘divisive’ acts in direct reply.

The hegemony around the word divisive is not just clever but a great example of malicious duplicity. White folx, you are always quick to see and decry the falling of a statue.

“This isn’t the way it should be done”

Plenty of well-meaning white folx

This is perfidy of the highest order. Where was this vim when young black men are killed at the hands of the police? Pupils are colour discriminated against in their schools? And … I could go on.

But. Seriously, what is the point? You don’t see those acts, by the state, I add, as causing divides because our pain doesn’t count…

“If a man speaks the language of brute force, you can’t come to him with peace. Why, good night! He’ll break you in two, as he has been doing all along. If a man speaks French, you can’t speak to him in German. If he speaks Swahili, you can’t communicate with him in Chinese. You have to find out what this man speaks. And once you know his language, learn how to speak his language, and he’ll get the point. There’ll be some dialogue.”

This piece of writing may cause a storm in your mind. Still, I question: Are white people unaware of the white supremacy in our institutions? In this country? And yes, is the UK racist? 100%.

I don’t buy it; if you see the blatant acts, it’s because you are choosing to avert your gaze. I don’t believe that those who benefit from our subjugation are unaware and should be educated. This subjection is a choice to ignore the plight of the colonised through adhering to the covert system of power, or more accurately, falling into line with the habitus of whiteness (Bourdieu, Lentin).

Theorists have long described this epistemic complicit duplicity for decades as epistemologies of ignorance, Studied ignorance and agnotology. (C W Mills 1997, Proctor and Schiebinger 2008, I could go on).

I could cite scholars from over a century ago. It means very little because everyone knows, and if you’re claiming not to, be honest and stop lying to yourself.

Violence in response to violence is not violence; it is an act of survival. The majority of people in the United Kingdom today seek solely to make criminals of those brave souls who openly fight the systems of white supremacy. At the same time, the masses watch in their safe, warm homesteads.

This resistance to activists and their work towards justice is formed because of the fear that white folx will feel and live lives more like we do now to be stayed by the same oppressive hand. Melanated folx (in the main, and this one certainly) seek no retribution for the harm caused. I want to see just respite and then a world where we are treated as human beings of the same calibre as those who have that melanin deficit in their epithelial.

Martyrdom and sacrifice is required to be called an anti-racist and decent human being, or else I don’t care about the books you’ve read, the friends you keep or the bed you share. I don’t care about your families, your livelihood and even your safety in doing so.

Do you think I am being overly harsh?

When did you care about our families, our livelihoods and most of all, our safety? When did you look up and notice? Apart from the 8 minutes when the world watched a man die.

Call yourself what. That’s your choice.

Fairness is not for the soft of heart. I demand white folx be better or recognise that their decency is false.

I leave you with the words of Frederick Douglass:

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

The Iranians plot to

Why are we never greeted with headlines which are entitled with negative connotations around European, US or UK white folx.

The article mentions that four Iranian nationals plotted to instigate an horrific crime in the US. Now I’m not suggesting that we ignore the severity of the crime or even that we change the title of the headline.

I am, however, questioning why we rarely see headline in which UK nationals do bad things and are associated with their nationality?

Because their nationality doesn’t matter? I supposed it could be argued that in this case it does as a journalist critical of Iran was targeted… but does it? And how many times do we even acknowledge the crimes of white people in the media. I’ll write about this another time.

Why are we so quick to conflate and use the synecdoche with the good with our nation.

‘We won in the football’

But we are quick to distance and reject ourselves from the negative.

‘We benefit from the slave trade’

‘We fought two illegal wars and 500000 civilians died as a result’

This leaks into everything we do. The lesson we teach and the way we see ourselves and others in the world.

If we aren’t willing to accept as a nation we did some bad things then we aren’t ever going to see ourselves as anything other than superior to others.

Dog whistles and Gesture Politics

Funny isn’t it. Everyone’s an anti racist when it serves their agenda… Tyrone Mings accuses Priti Patel of stoking the fire – after her condemnation of racist abuse faced three black players.

‘Taking the knee’ is virtue signally, gesture politics … and then an open condemnation. The prime minister Boris Johnson as his official refuses to comment on the booing of the national team and guess what happened yesterday? condemnation was on the menu.

Sir Keir Starmer and the opposition also expressed their condemnation… while quietly reinstated an overtly Islamophobic man and the lack of action on anti blackness in his party is jarring.

Keep your words. This is straight from Machiavelli’s playbook. You summon the canines through your dog whistles calls and then when the inevitable violence occurs you blame the animals and their nature.

If you were silent and actually helped while the fire was being built. You’ll get no props when over condolences over the ashes or worse pretend you opposed the burning down all a long.

We see your hypocrisy. We keep receipts.

And Yes. We are coming for you.

Racism has come home.

The inevitable racist abuse is out in this morning, post England’s men’s footballs teams failure to win the European Championship.

Through out the tournament I saw the glorification of Raheem Sterling; who when he scored the opening goal against Germany was embraced and that it seems that the ‘boy from Brent’ is worth our adulation. Hagiography not as great as England’s white captain who score a superfluous goal later (which Sterling made).

Anyway, the dichotomy is palpable. When he expresses a deeply personal root through getting gun tattooed on his calf and stating clearly he uses his leg to shoot… he was then the ‘boy from Kingston’ (no, we are not talking about the Royal London borough here either).

Today folx will decry an overtly racist minority abuse towards those three black players. This is not the point. Individualised racism is a symptom of greater affliction. These people may be bad apples but they rise not far from the societal tree. And… that tree is rotten to the core and the soil is as toxic as it comes.

When we live a society in which people are only celebrated when contributing for the white majority, that isn’t a community it’s an abuse of power it is colonisation of achievement.

If I, Rashford, Sancho (who I can vouch for as a fine young man) or Sako in the words of Linton Kwesi Johnson were to exclaim England is a b*tch. You’d hear – “how ungrateful” “Go back to India, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, etc.” Reserved solely for us melanated folx.

I will leave you with the words of one of my former student …

We are only ever British when your win do something good, Sir. The rest of the time … we are … and you know …

She looked sullen. I had no sage words of advice or consolation. As truth was (and is) named.

It’s time we recognise that football may not have come home but racism has built its house firmly on England green and pleasant lands.

You can’t judge people by today’s standard!

Apparently this morning English Heritage have added this to their website.

“Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit…”

There is little arguing that Enid Blyton’s is problematic. The problem for me the rebuttals.

You can’t hold people to the standards of today. Everyone was racist and homophobic back then. It was acceptable.

Everyone thought that slavery was acceptable at that time.




You mean white people thought slavery was acceptable. Those who were enslaved don’t get to have a voice, do they not count as every one…

In the case of Enid Blyton. Her work was attacked at the time publishing.

Well it just sounds like more white supremacy to me.

Racialised Violence: Blink

TW: Racialised Violence.

I’m sitting a table in an independent coffee shop on Green Lanes. I’ve just order a matcha tea latte and a Paistes de Nata. Yes, I admit it this is about as middle class as it gets on this north London street.

It’s the summer the warm air circles and loops around the chair and awning. It’s a beautiful day and I’m talking to a man of south Asian heritage and white woman about my new found love for refined sugar. I know, I know. It’s was a light news day. 

I lean back in chair, slouching, no, no, let’s say a gentrified lounging movement – to the point where it starts to rock back but the waist high outer fence of the coffee garden stops me from hurtling towards the ground as my teachers always told me.

We talk our way around subjects the way the warm wind circles twixt the chair legs. Laughter and friendship were ordered with my serving of diabetes on my plate but then came a unwanted course.

A young man in his mid twenties vaults the fence walks past our table and sit opposite a couple closest to the door. He proceeds move the chair from the table like he own the land upon it was sat – he perches bow legged and points his attention towards the woman of colour. The abuse came so quickly it hardly registered. Hardly and HARDly registered. 


I’m a small child walking with my father “excuse me” we ask a mother and son as we pass on by, the child moves and his mother berate him “never move out of the way for these people they’ve taken enough”. 


I fix my gaze, sit bolt up right, clear the table in front of me and speak in soft Punjabi – “ne deki – Panga hona” (look there is trouble). I empty my pockets of my phone, shrapnel and fix my glare. 


Year 8 science class it’s Monday morning and I rocking on my stool “you’re really bright it’s a shame you’re no white you could has made something of your self”


Before the owner of the cafe arrives the man has lost interest and wanders in the street


Walking home from school a group of men jump out a van and chase us home. ‘Go home we are told we are not welcome’. 


My weight is on the balls of my feet now, my heart is racing and I’m trying to not let my facial expression betray my oath to always do the right regardless of consequence. 

He is now hassling people of colour of the street. 


I seeing our elders in our community being hassled and bullied by the police when they reach out for support. 


Pushing a random ensues and honestly it looks superifical, nothing to worry about I tell myself. A few swings and our neighbourhood racist is the victor. No one is hurt. 


I am the child who has been sidelined because his math isn’t good enough and he isn’t great with numbers… believe me it was more than good enough. 


Our racist empowered by his new found victory start to beat random brown and black people on the street. 

I’m now on my feet. 


At various points in my life I would have acted differently. At times to join the melee and at others to wipe away tears. Sometimes the only thing we can do is cry and keeping blinking those tears away.

Please remember, I am a 38 year older man with a lifetime of experience of self regulation, grounding and self awareness. I still carry those multiple events with my like a rolodex of sepia toned photographs. Even with my years of practice I still don’t own and control that legacy I was in a state of high arousal and anxiety for 3 days. Now place yourselves in the shoes of the young people and act in a manner that seeks to hold them in a place of love while they process their position in this society we have create for them.


Racial Anchoring

white and black anchor with chain at daytime

Schools have a role in all societal biases this is in part due to the cognitive anchoring bias. The order we receive information in is important for the next activity you need to find a peer, a pen and a piece of paper. 

Person 1- You have three seconds to estimate the value to the following sum:

1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8

Write your answer down in isolation.

Person 2- You have three seconds to estimate the value to the following sum:

8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1

Also, write your answer down in isolation.

In comparison, did Person 2 estimate higher than person 1? This works on the premise that an anchor is dropped on the information we receive first; in the first few seconds, you would calculate 1 x 2 x 3 (which equals 6) and then estimate the rest, or we get to 8 x 7 x 6 (which equals 336) and then estimate. This task is from the work of Kahemann and Tversky (1974), who found that people estimated the ascending sequence at 512 and descending at 2250. So the actual answer is 40320.

What’s even more interesting is that when the information we receive first is complete nonsense, we are still likely to drop anchors around it, which means that we are likely to bias regardless of the truth. Strack and Musweiler first dropped anchors by asking groups of candidates whether Mahatma Gandhi died before age 9 or after the age 140. Then both groups were asked to suggest when they thought Gandhi had died; the average age told of the first group was 50 and the second 67. Gandhi was 78 when he was assassinated. The crux of this bias is dependent on where you drop your anchors; even if the anchors are ridiculous, the order we receive them really does matters.

Great! Now we know that the anchoring bias exists, we can stop it; problem solved, we have ended discrimination in our classroom. Sorry, no, even if we know about the anchoring bias, it still plays a role! Like I said, there is work to do (Wilson et al, 1996). At this point, you may feel battered, bruised and you may even be questioning your life’s actions. Full disclosure I took a long time to get over myself. So don’t be too hard on yourself. Anchoring is a ubiquitous human response; unfortunately, as this is an implicit process, it can be highly problematic (Kahneman, 2013).

The long and short of it is simple:

What are you anchors around people of colour?

In his best-selling book, Daniel Kahnemann, Nobel Laurette thinking fast and slow details two discrete systems at work in the human brain. System 1 he describes as being automatic, quick and with no or little effort. System 2 requires attention effort that includes more complex computations. These anchors will exist the only way to ameliorate their impact is by using rational thought (system 2) in recognising and accepting their existence.

Assessment and Objectivity.

Objectively Speaking.

Before writing this blog, I googled the phrase “objectively speaking”. As expected, Google returned searches related to ‘observable facts’ and something-or-other related to being independent of emotion and perception. 

Before I go on, I’ll ask you to pause to recall the last time you encountered something that didn’t make you feel. Once you’ve done this, know this – ‘I don’t feel anything about [ ]’ is solely an inherent feeling. 

It is not possible for emotions and biases to not become involved.

I thought long and hard about a relatable example to use for the rest of this blog. Luckily, the indefatigable Pran Patel was on hand. Let’s take something we recognise as objective and break it down.

If you’re a driver, learning to drive, or use public highways anywhere within the UK – you’ll be aware of national speed limits. These range up to the national maximum of 70 miles per hour. We can objectively ‘measure’ 70mph. What is a mile was and how did it come to be? First, at the very least, we’d have to agree on the distance of a mile before this measurement of speed could take place. 

“But Sarif, we all know that a mile is” 

“Wait, what is a mile? Where did it come from?”

A mile was initially conceived as a Roman mille passus (thousand paces). But which Romans? As you may realise, Romans were not all the same height and thus could not stride the same length. 

The mille passus itself was relative to the Romans that took the said paces. Several centuries and some conversions later (furlongs, yards, feet, kilometres, etc.), we have a number for miles – relative to other measurements (5280 feet, 1760 yards, 8 furlongs, or approx 1.6km). So, we have a standardised measure rather than a measure free from perception and bias. And standardised is not a synonym for ‘objective’.

Think about the different measurements you make on a day-to-day basis. Let me make this more meaningful for you. Think about the various assessments in your classrooms. For those of you who are Key-Stage-4 teachers, you’ll arguably be making the most significant assessments for a group of adolescents in their lives. For psychologists you’ll commonly use ‘objective’ and ‘standardised’, but what is being understood by those you serve?

Moreover, how well do you understand the standardisation process of the given assessments? My point here is that there still needs to be a series of agreed principles for’ objectivity’ to exist. These agreements need (and are) to be socially constructed; Which means that compromises, interpretations, perceptions, and biases are present; Thus undermining the very notion of objectivity.

“Sarif, if objectivity isn’t objective, what does that mean for the way that we assess and measure progress?”

I fear if you’re asking this question, you may have misunderstood the point I was making. For many of us, we are so caught in the assessment and measurement process that we’re not in tune with the nature of the purpose that we initially set out to measure. 

Take the time to think about how we developed the tools to do the measurement. And, during the standardisation process, who are the groups with whom we are making comparisons? Primarily, I am encouraging you to think about the social contracts that are in place that allow us to feel contained by terms like objective. 

Suppose we accept that a lack of objectivity is the norm (because objectivity doesn’t exist). In that case, our assessments and measures are free to be more holistic by recognising features and characteristics that are otherwise are overlooked. I believe because of the assessment process and the need to measure everything; we lose some of the meaning of the ‘why’. 

So, In the main, because there is no space to account for it on the forms that we need to submit, no box to check, marked – don’t forget X is from a single-parent home. Or Y witnessed his whole village being razed to the ground.

Ask yourself, what’s stopping if you from recording the development and progress of the learners you work with within a narrative process? I’d propose that the chances are that you’ll soon understand the system’s relative parameters that stop you from doing this.

This is a guest piece from Dr Sarif Alrai

The Myth of Raising Aspirations

We need to talk about how we talk about young people.

For a sector that is supposedly dedicated to improving young people’s chances in life, we use a lot of language that stereotypes, marginalises and ultimately disempowers young people. After many years of listening to this damaging discourse disguised as inspiration, I have divested from the language of raising aspirations.

Hear me out.

The terminology of raising aspirations is everywhere in the youth and education sector. Schools recruit Assistant Heads with this as a speciality. Charity funding is predicated on the promise to raise the aspirations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. All of this aspirations-focused intervention and activity would suggest that the reason that so many young people are struggling is in their mindset: they simply do not aspire to achieve their best possible outcome, so they don’t.

But is that really the problem?

I’ve spent enough time around young people to know that they do not lack big dreams. What young people lack is a system that is set up for them to achieve those dreams. The reality is that we live in a society that relies on some people being worse off than others. All the narrative of raising aspirations does is locate the problem (i.e. low aspirations), and thereby the culpability, with the young person. This inevitably leads to pursuing solutions (raising aspirations, building confidence, developing resilience) that completely ignore the reasons that young people’s aspirations might be low in the first place.

A young person’s marginalisation does not occur in a vacuum: they are marginalised by a system that relies on this to happen in order to maintain its survival.

If our work with our young people focuses solely on their individual progress through raising aspirations, building confidence, exposure to role models, etc., without any consideration of this systemic context, we will never run out of disadvantaged young people. Our work will never be done. In Dutch we call this dweilen met de kraan open: mopping while the tap is running, in other words, an endless and fundamentally futile endeavour.

This is not to say that individual triumph over the oppressive structure isn’t a victory – it is! It just isn’t the victory you think it is. It isn’t justice. These individual stories of success often serve to legitimise the system by proving that it is possible to “win” within it, so as to distract from the system’s inherent injustice. The oppressive structure by its very nature will always allow a few people to succeed in order to maintain its own image as a functioning, equal opportunities system that can work for everyone as long as you work hard enough, all the while ensuring a never-ending pipeline of marginalised young people.

So let’s stop talking about raising aspirations.

If all our interventions ever do is tell young people how to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, without also acknowledging that there aren’t enough bootstraps, we are leading them to believe that it was always their problem to fix or avoid. If we don’t acknowledge the systemic nature of their experiences of disadvantage, we risk gaslighting entire generations with the message that if they’re not succeeding, it’s because they aren’t aspiring to do so.

We are complicit.

Saul Alinsky wrote about those who would go into communities marginalised by society, not to organise them to rebel and fight their way out of the mess, but to get them adjusted, so not only will they continue to live in hell; they’ll also like it. “A higher form of social treason would be difficult to conceive – yet this infamy is perpetrated in the name of charity.”*

So much of youth work is wrapped up in a discourse that actively obscures the structural causes of the problems it attempts to remedy. If as youth workers we only ever focus on helping young people overcome the challenges of marginalisation, we are part of the problem. In fact, our work would then serve to enable and legitimise the system that marginalises them. We should actively be working on preventing that marginalisation from happening in the first place. This requires locating its root causes, and dismantling the systems that routinely marginalise our young people. It also requires a radical reimagining of the world we exist in. This is not to say that the youth sector’s work can’t be meaningful. But we have to critically analyse the role that it plays within a system that will fundamentally never be changed by this work alone. We have to dream bigger. So let’s stop mopping the floors for a minute.

Let’s turn off the tap.


  • Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals, 1946.

This guest piece is by Imane Maghrani, Spark Programmes Director at The Advocacy Academy.