BHM - The context, two books and a rallying cry

    Published: 15 October 2020

    Writing this blog as someone who has worked closely with schools on anti-racism and race equality for many years and who has a mixed heritage daughter, I find it frustrating that, as a society, we still have a journey ahead in really eradicating racism. And what about our education system? As educators we know the importance of preventing and addressing racism, but how effective are we being?

    Such questions can feel uncomfortable, but they are important in helping us to reflect on the lived experience of families, children and colleagues from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups within our school community.  A rightful declaration of our abhorrence of racism, can put us at risk of closing our minds to the possibility it could still be there. We then miss confronting unconscious bias and structural racism that can exist within our education system. School staff, leaders and governors may feel uncomfortable thinking about such things, but discomfort can become a stimulus for positive change.

    The idea of a challenge to our ideas and views is where Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race” begins. It shines a challenging light on the failure to acknowledge white privilege. Eddo-Lodge flags the emotional disconnection, the defensiveness and/or the affront that many white people project when people of colour try to explain their personal experiences of racism. She also highlights that our British BAME presence is as invisible in our history syllabus as it is amongst our country’s public statues. Even the abuse and exploitation of BAME people in Britain is skirted over and pupils instead study the Civil Rights movement in the USA. Meanwhile, the significant contributions of BAME people to British society across history is barely referenced. Eddo-Lodge writes of growing up in a Britain where:

    “There was a perceived wisdom that all black and brown people in the UK were recent immigrants, with little discussion of the history of colonialism, or of why people from Africa and Asia came to settle in Britain. I knew vaguely of the Windrush Generation. ...because they were the older relatives of people I knew at school. …But most of my knowledge of black history was American history. This was an inadequate education in a country where increasing generations of black and brown people continue to consider themselves British (including myself). I had been denied a context, an ability to understand myself. I needed to know why, when people waved Union Jacks and shouted ‘we want our country back’, it felt like the chant was aimed at people like me. What history had I inherited that left me an alien in my place of birth?”

    Of course, there is a clear argument that history and history curricula are overwhelmingly created by the views and values of the rich and powerful. They decide what is worth teaching and celebrating through history lessons, statues, civic buildings and road names. This very challenging position has been in focus, recently, with the debate over certain statues in major cities and whether the philanthropy of some celebrated historical figures, somehow excuses how their initial fortune was made. 

    The experience of watching the killing of George Floyd on the news this summer left me deeply shaken, as it will have left many staff, pupils and their families shaken. The activism and protests that followed were inevitable, as was the backlash from some groups. With such polarised views being so publically apparent, marking black history month in 2020 feels timely and vital. Hertfordshire schools will want to seize the month. Indeed, the Equality Act compels us to recognise the needs of our pupils and respond to the importance of this moment. This could prompt a clear commitment to seeking to effectively address the demands of the Act. This could be a time for your school to take up a challenge. Consider, when did staff or governors last discuss the race implications of any aspect of school policy and practice or whether the school is meeting the real needs of BAME pupils? This can seem challenging, but the HfL Wellbeing Team is here to support you.

    Let me encourage you to read “Punching the Air” by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. It will take you on a journey to the inner experiences of 16 year old Amal Dawind Shahid. More than that, it will do so through a stripped-down powerful verse that drives the story forward with a raw reality, delivering the intensity of Amal’s every thought and experience. It is set in the USA, but the immediacy of seeing life through Amal’s eyes is not to be missed. The book begins with a court-case. We feel Amal’s powerlessness in a hostile system seemingly designed so that,

    “like everything that I am 
    that I’ve ever been 
    counts as being guilty”

    And where witnesses seem to be

    “shaping me into 
    the monster 
    they want me to be.”

    This extraordinary book, written for teens, is a must for everyone who works with children and young people. It exposes the bias of seemingly neutral systems, it challenges well-meaning people who cannot see unconscious bias and it explores humanity both at its lowest ebb and through a fight for integrity and survival. The writing is exquisite and the experience of the inner life of another human being is life changing. Perhaps the immediacy of seeing this black experience may help us recognise the importance of listening to BAME experience.

    Please embrace this Black History Month and use this moment of quickening to dive deep into action against racism.  This agenda will not be moved forward through an assembly.  It is critical that we listen to BAME voices and undertake fundamental school and curriculum review. Your school will not be alone in this and, again, the HfL wellbeing team is here to help you to make anti-racism part of the 2020 zeitgeist.  If you would like advice, support or training with regard to issues of unconscious bias, then, do please contact me through wellbeing@hertsforlearning.co.uk. We have an opportunity not just to reflect but to change.

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