In the light of recent events that have shocked the world, Angelina Idun, director at SSAT, shares personal insights on race, inequality and discrimination.
Writing this has not come easy. I have stopped and started quite a few times over the last month.
I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the video that went viral around the world on 25 May. This was a video filmed by a now traumatised 17-year-old girl. This young black woman, the same age as our own year 12 students, captured the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes to restrain him.
I am pausing to take a breath, as I re-read these first few lines. Why?
- Because I am so outraged, angry, upset, sad, sickened (the list of emotive words could go on) to again see the life of a black man taken so brutally, unjustly, because of the colour of his skin. The same colour skin as my brothers, son, nephews, uncles, cousins, dad.
- Because thinking about this is all surfacing personal experiences of racism that I have no desire to dwell on. I feel a weight on my chest, tightening knots in my stomach with each memory. I am not being dramatic, if you know me that is not in my nature, and I am not even digging deep.
- Because for years, to suggest you have been discriminated against or held back in some way because you are black would be considered an excuse, bitterness, having a chip on your shoulder, so the idea that only now we are asked to speak and people are ready to listen is hard to swallow.
- Because I am wondering whether I will be accused of adopting a tone that seems completely out of place in an SSAT blog, pamphlet or resource or wherever someone might read this.
But none of that matters and I’ll write on.
I have no personal connection to George Floyd and yet I feel so connected to him.
For days after his awful death I asked myself why I was feeling it so deeply. I told myself I needed to get a grip. After all, George Floyd is not the first black person in my lifetime to die a wrongful death, to be killed because of the colour of his skin. I was relieved as it dawned on me that this event was in some way triggering family members, friends and colleagues. Resilient people, of different generations, who know and understand what it is to endure inequality and racism, who have found their own ways to rise above it and stay positive, optimistic and dignified.
What George Floyd went through is unimaginable, however I have talked with others in recent weeks of how his dying words “I can’t breathe” resonate. These words also used by Eric Gardner (I’ll leave you to do your homework) are symbolic of how exhausted, drained and stifled black people right here in England feel, because of the racial inequality they face and that continues to be deeply ingrained in our systems and institutions.
Seeing the #BlackLivesMatter movement gain momentum here in the UK is undeniably thrilling. It brings a sense of hope, a feeling that things can change for the better. I wanted to cheer when I heard there was a BLM protest in Norwich; this is where I went to university. I have fond memories of the city, but these are sometimes clouded by memories of name-calling when I rode my bike from digs to campus, memories of a shop assistant who would not allow me to try on a dress I had my eye on for our finals ball, the same dress tried on by a white student hours later.
When I was growing up, seeing a black face on TV, and I don’t mean a painted-up one, was quite an event, a rare one. In the last few weeks, I am sure I have seen more black faces than ever before appear on TV news and documentaries. Black people with a wealth of expertise and talent in such a range of areas, called on now not for any of that, but to be the authority on racism. They have been called on to give accounts of their own heart-breaking, painful experiences of discrimination and injustice. They have been called on to explain years of systemic racism and to educate others on how to fix this and how to be anti-racist. Some of those making an appearance have said that they felt “compelled” to speak. These same and many more brave people have been stepping up and speaking out on social media platforms. No doubt their voices have been amplified in workplaces of all descriptions.
In the days following Floyd’s death, I listened, watched and read, in admiration of these powerful voices, so frankly telling it like it is from their perspectives. I too felt compelled to speak up, to seize the moment in case the opportunity should be lost. And to be honest I felt bad because I didn’t know quite what to say, and I didn’t see why I should rush. This is no quick fix.
I was glad to come across a tweet about a webinar appropriately called “I can’t breathe: Collaborative support for women” which I signed up for and encouraged others to do the same. It was reassuring to be one of 450 women in this safe, empowering space that Wednesday evening in June. 450 women wanting to connect around the issues we are facing and trying to process. Wanting to listen, learn, find a voice in all of this. I’m grateful to the women who made this happen and I took a lot from the session. Angela Browne is a principal, coach and founder of the Nourished School online community.
Here’s one thing from Angela that is relevant to anyone wanting to find their voice, be bold and act courageously. Angela offered 3 steps to speaking up when you can’t quite find the words:
1. Listen – not for what is true for you but for what is true for others
2. Assimilate – shut out the noise from elsewhere and spend quiet time coming to terms with what you are hearing
3. Speak – in a way that allows truth to be heard, even if it’s uncomfortable
I have done a lot of listening in the last weeks. Lockdown life has given me time and space to assimilate. Now it’s time to speak.
For now, I have this to say.
It matters that we talk to children about race and being anti-racist in a way that makes them feel safe, supported, enabled and valued.
No child is going to have to listen to their form tutor blatantly directing to them a racist view that my 12-year-old self could not challenge. The view that “we don’t want our white girls marrying black boys”. No black child is going to have their A-level English teacher call on them, the only black child in the group, to confirm when studying Othello, the stereotype that black men are more sexually virile than white men. My 17-year-old self had to deal with that. I have refused to let such things get in my way but these – and the far more subtle forms of racism that exist today – do damage, over generations. The children we teach have parents (in fact probably grandparents!) of my age. Some will have had similar or worse experiences than me. There are so many reasons why it is important to be aware of and understand this.
It matters that black children see positive images of themselves in the books, resources and opportunities that we must put in front of them in school.
Things have come a long way since my own school days when such images were non-existent and some of my junior school classmates equated being African with the starving children in Kenya surrounded by flies, or teenagers in South Africa being shot at and killed by the apartheid regime.
I had a message a few days ago from a former student of mine who I am proud to say became a colleague and a senior leader. She referred to a book group I ran at the school, deliberately introducing KS4 students to Maya Angelou, Alice Walker etc. Of this she said “One of the most amazing things I witnessed was your book club. The joy I used to see on those students’ faces. You have probably inspired millions of children.”
It matters that the curriculum is reviewed so that children learn about the contributions and achievements and roles of black people in every field.
There are organisations, institutions and individuals who have been championing, researching and evidencing this for a long time. Their expertise must be drawn on to challenge racism, develop anti-racist practices and resources, and to support teachers and leaders.
“The curriculum is the lived daily experience of young people in classrooms… curriculum is pedagogy.” Dylan Wiliam, Redesigning Schooling
The curriculum is powerful and must play a key part in helping to tackle racism and inequality.
I mentioned a message from a former student/colleague earlier. Reflecting on this, she also had this to say of someone who is now a headteacher, someone who for me has been a strong ally for a long time:
“Miss P is probably sad right now but one of the most powerful things I have experienced was my history lesson. She fought for equality and freedom of black people when it wasn’t even trending. She exposed us to a black culture that was hidden.”
It matters hugely that the issue of under-representation of black people in headteacher, principal and other senior leadership roles in education is addressed and taken seriously.
It is not ok to berate and make judgements about institutional racism and under-representation at the highest levels and top tables in other areas of public life if we haven’t got our act together in our own organisation. Handouts, tokenism and short-term fixes are not the answer.
I have been a teacher for over 30 years. A school leader for more than 20, doing what I am passionate about, making a difference to children’s lives and serving for the most part, in vibrant, diverse, disadvantaged communities. My work has taken me to schools and educational settings the length and breadth of the country, to different parts of the world and to humbling locations and prestigious venues. It’s connected me with incredible, inspirational leaders. But I meet too few black leaders. It is not a figment of my imagination that it takes a disproportionately long time for black educators to get into leadership and from there to the top roles in their organisations. That is, if they are not put off by continually being told that they need more or different experience, that they need to serve longer in an acting role, that they need to wait a little longer for the training, that they are not a “fit” for the role. Unconscious bias, conscious bias, it’s all real. This has got to change.
It matters that people stop hiding behind talk of the situation in the US being worse and focus on addressing issues that affect black lives right here on our doorsteps.
For me this means starting with self and each individual’s own circles of influence, personal and professional. If change is going to happen, everyone must do their bit. Colleagues I have spoken with are trying to educate themselves, to understand their white privilege, their biases. This is heartening and it gives hope. The books of black writers that I was saving for later in my Amazon basket are out of print! Amazing. This necessary re-education, self and organisational scrutiny is going to be uncomfortable. Angela Brown talked about needing to sit with the discomfort as we listen, assimilate, speak and then move to action.
It matters that action that results in visible, tangible, lasting change is taken in every place of work. Action that is not limited to more talk, empty promises, statements and token gestures.
In the next few weeks, days even, Black Lives Matter is going to lose top spot in the news. There may be more far right demos like the one we saw recently, further incidents like the banner flown across the Etihad stadium, attempts to stop people speaking like some I’ve seen on Twitter using overtly racist language. This all takes me back to my first few years at secondary school and the faces of boys in my form who wore to school green canvas jackets with NF prominently displayed on the back. It takes me back to the daily worry that they might be true to their word and bring more of their NF friends to the school to sort out the handful of black kids who attended. At an SSAT discussion dinner last year, headteachers talked about the increased level of racist incidents and experiences their children have been reporting since Brexit.
Should we be even more worried for our children and for those who have found their voice? I’m with Michelle Obama on this one. “When they go low, we go high.”
We must keep the momentum and keep Black Lives Matter on every agenda. I trust that the new and existing allies will be a strong, persistent, well-educated force who will make change happen and bring us closer to putting an end to everyday and institutional racism.
It matters that this is not left for another generation to do.
It seems fitting to conclude with the call to action of another Obama.
“Let’s get to work.”