We need to talk about racism

We need to talk about racism

Safiya Raqib and Helen Drought are Diversity and Inclusion leads at Waddesdon C of E Secondary School. The school recently achieved the RACE Charter Mark Silver Award. The RACE Charter Mark delivered by Fig Tree International and awarded by SSAT recognises schools wishing to demonstrate their commitment to action and improvement in relation to race equality in all aspects of their work.

Our journey in actively identifying and seeking to correct, through changes in policies and practice, the covert and overt systemic discrimination that our school like many others experience started in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in America. It was a year of global changes with the carnage and restrictions of Covid-19 becoming the norm. Increased reporting in the media during the pandemic catapulted the murder from potentially being another case in the history of violence in America against black people, to one that commanded people’s attention and started a movement towards a discussion on the matter of race and discrimination.

Our head of history, set up an anti-racist group named ‘We Need to Talk about Racism’ (WNTR) in order to provide a safe place for our minority students to express how they felt about the murder, and about their lived schooling experiences.

Of course, like many schools we had our experiences of racism, even though they appeared limited. Essentially, did we think we had a problem of racism or micro-aggressions in our school? No.

RACE Charter Mark – Discover

However, what our students told us through a narrative video, recorded by the newly formed WNTR group, sent staff a clear message: they as minority students in our majority white school had experienced micro-aggressions that were going unchallenged, unnoticed and often unrecognised. We had undoubtedly opened a can of worms we had not been prepared for.

We had limited incidents reported as racist; our results showed no clear difference in the performance of our students regardless of background; we had won the literacy diversity prize and received 100 books by diverse authors; our curriculum subjects had elements of cultural awareness embedded within them through the recognition of this requirement via the exam boards; and yet some students from minority ethnic groups felt alienated. The shock, disbelief, sadness and disappointment felt by all stakeholders of our school community facilitated a drive to change this narrative through education, training, policy adaptions and ultimately listening.

We had given our minority students the power of voice and now we had to give our majority a perspective (Li, 2010); they needed us to listen and we were listening. We had to understand that conditioning prior to attending our school meant that in the past students may have withheld information where they felt marginalised in order to not challenge the norm which was likely to affect how the problem was perceived and responded to, an issue identified in Critical Race Theory.

The steps that followed contributed to our commitment to empowering the voices of our minority students and recognising that we had to take a critical thinking approach in order to challenge our own concept of ‘normal’, regardless of our backgrounds as educators. We took many steps to ensure that positive change was embedded into our school at all levels, including:

  • Appointing a new governor for diversity and inclusion, who also became our first non-white governor.
  • Using the Race and Conscious Equality Charter Mark action plan to identify areas within our school hierarchy and community that needed addressing.
  • I undertook a masters level course with the Open University: ‘Addressing inequality and difference in educational practice’, enabling better understanding on recent UK and US based race research within schools and shedding light on the concept of epistemic racism.
  • Formally creating a role for a diversity and inclusion lead within school, with a focus on race and ensuring that this role entailed working closely with our headteacher.
  • Adapting our uniform requirements to include culturally appropriate clothing and adhering to the Halo code.
  • Delivering race-related inset training, ensuring racial and cultural misunderstandings are reduced and ultimately eliminated, and promoting culturally responsive teaching (Cazden & Leggett, 1976 citied by Khalifa et al, 2016).
  • Adapting our school community music festival to encompass a cultural element, with an emphasis that we celebrate together as a school, rather than having a stand-alone ‘culture day’.
  • Having Black Celebration Month specifically in October, but visual representation and discussion throughout the academic year through assemblies and PSHE lessons.
  • Ensuring that the cultural celebrations of our students are given importance in the school calendar.
  • Undertaking a staff diversity indicator survey to monitor our recruitment and selection of staff.
  • Ensuring that positive diverse images are present in lesson, for example images of a black foetus in science and normalising everyday items used by our minority groups such as pik combs, plantain crisps, henna cones in maths and business-based case studies and questions.

Our key learning and message to other schools is that a lot can be achieved regardless of the ethnic backgrounds of students. As a majority white school we do not have the benefits of drawing upon the wealth of knowledge and participation of parents and communities of minority ethnic groups, many of whom are not represented within our school. Instead, our important and influential role as educators is to facilitate conversation, raise consciousness of the systemic racism that can exist, and promote education for all by ensuring a high quality education for all in a majority white school who live in a majority white country. These students will form a greater proportion of the workforce, legislators and indeed future educators than their minority ethnic counterparts so it is vital that they have a more holistic and knowledgeable experience and appreciation of the importance of acknowledging and normalising the differences of race and related identity and empowerment. Only if we do this can we ensure that education settings like ours are a positive tool for change in bringing about equality and equity for all our
students from all backgrounds. (Milligan, 2014).

References

Khalifa, M, et al. (2016) ‘Culturally Responsive School Leadership: A Synthesis of the Literature’. Review of Educational Research, vol. 86, no. 4, pp. 272–311. SAGE Journals, https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654316630383.

Li, J (2010) ‘“My Home and My School”: Examining Immigrant Adolescent Narratives from the Critical Sociocultural Perspective’. Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 119–37. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613320903550154.

Milligan, Lizzi. (2014) ‘“They Are Not Serious like the Boys”: Gender Norms and Contradictions for Girls in Rural Kenya’. Gender and Education, vol. 26, no. 5, 2014, pp. 465–76. pmt-eu.com, https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2014.927837.


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