Race Matters

Let’s dig deeper about race in schools

No-one wants to be labelled as a racist. It is a dirty word, thrown around cautiously. Even when Nigel Farage slams immigrants, he often manages to escape it. But what does it mean for our children to only hear racism discussed in terms of labelling someone “racist”, with the emphasis on avoiding this worst kind of insult, rather than addressing the underlying problems.

A few months ago, a longstanding race equality activist told me an anecdote about his son. The boy was describing a friend, but consciously doing anything he could to avoid saying that the boy was Black. The father asked his son why that was, and his son replied “you can’t say it, Dad, it is racist.” After discussing it a bit more, the father was amazed to find that his son had only picked up this narrow idea of racism. The concepts of discrimination or historical inequality seemed to be missing.

With this kneejerk response to the very mention of race, our kids aren’t actually given the space and time to explore racism - where it came from and how we can tackle it. Without this exploration, it will to be hard for them to understand about how our system can be riddled with inequalities – from education, to employment, to role models on TV. Without this discussion, it will be much harder to together build a society free from racism.

The race equality organisation that I work for, Runnymede Trust, commissioned some research recently, in which we asked 900 adults across England and Wales from different ethnic groups what they thought were the solutions to racism. Over four out of five (83%) of people said that they thought that schools need to encourage more discussion between pupils and teachers about the underlying issues of racism.

93% of the Indian group, 91% of the Pakistani group, 90% of the Black Caribbean group, 99% of the Black African group, 25% of the Eastern European group and 84% of the White British group agreed with the statement “Schools need to encourage more discussion with pupils and teachers about the underlying issues of racism”.

I’m firmly of the belief that more discussion, at a young age, is what is needed to get to the bottom of the thorny and emotional issue that is racism. As we’ve seen in our own events for Runnymede’s End Racism This Generation campaign, it’s only through taking the time to watch testimony, listen to different views and understand the reality of existing race inequalities that people begin to understand. And with this understanding comes motivation to act.

What might these testimonies sound like? Maybe it would be the story of a Black woman from Bristol who is assumed to be a cleaner every time she arrives at someone's home (she is actually a physiotherapist).  Or perhaps it would be the story of a man in Taunton who leads a team of engineers. Clients hold the eye contact with his junior white colleague, never expecting the strategic expertise to come from him. And also, it could be the teenagers in London who have lost count of how many times they have been stopped and searched by the police.

To get young people talking about race, Runnymede has teamed up with theatre and film company The Red Room to organise some interactive participatory debates about race, in Ipswich, London, Bradford and Birmingham. These events, called “The R Word” feature live performance, music, video and conversation, to shed some light on racism.

At the Ipswich event last week, The Red Room set up a long table in the centre of the room. The event kicked off with “experts” sitting at the table – community leaders, local politicians, academics, artists and activists. As the discussion developed, young participants in the room approached the experts, tapped someone on the shoulder and took their place at the table. Over the course of a couple of hours, facilitation techniques borrowed from participative theatre allowed everyone to be an expert; every voice was heard.

By the end of the event, over a third of the 100 participants were making their own pledge to help end racism, as part of the End Racism This Generation campaign. One woman called out “we need to be recreating this kind of event in our schools.”

And it seems from the recent survey results that 83% of people agree.

As part of the End Racism This Generation campaign, Runnymede Trust and The Red Room are urging schools to encourage in depth analysis of racism.  Schools can use existing resources that encourage more discussion of race issues.

One resource is Romans Revealed, an interactive website that tells the stories of four people living in Britain in Roman times, such as Julia Tertia, whose journey to York started in North Africa. This work teaches primary school children that migration and multiculturalism is not a new thing, but that people have been travelling to and from Britain for centuries.

Another suggested pledge for the End Racism This Generation campaign, is for secondary school pupils to read and discuss the teen novel “Noughts and Crosses” by Malorie Blackman . The novel describes an alternative history in which African people gained a technological and organizational advantage over the Europeans. By flipping the status quo, it makes the reader realize how much racial inequality we just accept as normal.

These events and resources provide ways to explore race issue more profoundly in schools, in exactly the way that four out of five people recognize is absolutely necessary.

So, teachers! Make your pledge today to help end racism at www.end-racism.org.

Rose Hall is Campaign Manager at Runnymede Trust

Image Credit: Benedict Hilliard

  Share this post

Help us end racism

As an independently funded charity we rely on the support of generous individuals to continue our work.