Thursday, 9 March 2017

Multiculturalism is dead: long may it rest in peace

David Cameron told us in 2012 that multiculturalism is dead. In the same year the introduction of the new Teachers’ Standards require all teachers “not to undermine fundamental British values” (FBV) (DfE 2012), and requires them to promote FBV within and outside school. However, the issues that arise from Britain being a multicultural society are not going away. Following Brexit everyone knows that immigration is a key topic of debate in our homes, our pubs and bars, our social media and in our schools and classrooms. Following 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London, the growth of Islamic State in Syria and the so-called Trojan Horse Affair in Birmingham and the requirement of head teachers and governors to safeguard children and young people from radicalism and extremism (HMG, 2015) we know Muslims have been singled out as the ‘other’ who needs surveillance. It is time to ask some pertinent questions about Britain’s imperialist past and to question a national identity that is promoting whiteness.

These two issues: immigration and Muslim as ‘other’ spills into the school – how should teachers respond when it does? How can teachers support the children of those who are being vilified or bullied because they are migrants or Muslims (or both), or a second or third generation person of colour? What can teachers do to make sure they understand the issues for themselves? How can they feel confident to know when students bring ‘false news’ to the classroom and to challenge it? How can teachers ensure they can make the distinction between fact and opinion? Dealing with the issues around immigration and racism is a challenging task and teachers need help.

Truth and False News

Let’s start with some definitions. How can we distinguish between truth and false news? A scientific definition is helpful. Any scientist will tell you there are no truths, only interpretation, but they will also tell you there are verifiable facts. Teachers need to ensure they understand the facts and be able to separate these from how those facts are presented and interpreted. Teachers need to be good at this because they have the job of ensuring young people know the facts, and have the critical thinking skills to question how they are presented. Teachers also need to understand how government policy influences how facts are presented and how the press mediate information to the public. This has never been more important. The digital revolution allows virtually anyone to create and share news and this is undermining the role of both government commentators and the free press.

These issues are not going to go away. In Britain today government and media have failed to ensure that the British people understand the facts of migration issues and of Islam. The power axis between government and media create ‘regimes of truth’ and create dominant ways of thinking. We construct society through the language we use and in mediating issues around immigration to the public, government and media have created a climate of hostility towards migrants, asylum seekers and Muslims that teachers should be deeply worried about and know how to sort out fact from opinion. Let’s start with some verifiable facts.

Historical background to understanding migration

We have to start with our history. We cannot think about migration into Britain without looking at how Britain transformed from a colonial to a post-colonial power after the Second World War. As one migrant said to me in 1975, “We are here because you were there”. From my experience of working with trainee teachers over 20 years, I know that some of the basic facts about Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world and how we manage race relations here are not well known, it is therefore important to give a brief overview here.

A brief history of Empire

The basic facts of the British Empire are well documented and tell the story of imperial exploitation and plunder that enriched Britain and left the exploited worse off. However, this is not the way Empire is perceived by the majority of the British public. In 2014 a YouGov poll found 59% of respondents through the British Empire was ”something to be proud of”, and only 19% were “ashamed” of its misdeeds. There is clearly a mismatch here between facts and opinions. Teachers have a responsibility to understand the facts so let’s begin with a brief overview of Empire.

Let’s start with slavery. The first British slave voyage was led by John Hawkins in 1562 in the reign of Elizabeth 1. Africans were captured and sold as goods in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The Slave Trade was finally ended in 1827 and historians estimate that British ships carried 3.4 of the 12 million slaves as part of the triangular trade. Ships left the ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool carrying goods made in Britain. They arrived in West Africa and exchanged these goods for slaves. On the third part of the journey they would arrive in the West Indies (Caribbean) where they were sold to plantation owners.  The profits made from slavery financed the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the Caribbean Islands became the hub of the British Empire.

Imperial expansion began with the acquisition of Newfoundland as a colony in North America (1583-1818) and then moved into Central America and the Caribbean beginning with Barbados in 1628. Britain moved into South America and Asia in the 18-19th century, Australasia and the Pacific from 1832-1907. The first African colony was Natal in 1856, and Britain colonised most of South and East Africa and much of West Africa in the 19th century.

By 1913, Britain controlled 23% of the world population and 24% of the total land area. At the peak of its power, the phrase ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’ was used because Britain’s expanse around the globe meant the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. After the second world war Britain divested itself of its colonies and since 1948, 59 countries have gained independence from British rule.

The impact of Empire on the colonized took myriad forms. In some places like Australia, North America and New Zealand conquest was so successful that the indigenous peoples of those lands are today small minorities whose lives are frequently blighted by poverty and discrimination. Those of white European descent dominate, racism towards these first nations’ peoples is well documented and verifiable discrimination abounds.

Other forms of empire took the form of conquest followed by ruling from a distance, usually with the cooperation of local people who worked as civil servants and tax collectors.  In this way Britain controlled India, much of Asia and the Middle East during the 19th century and conflict over land and between peoples today can often be traced back to the straight lines drawn on maps by Britain and the other European colonizing powers as they fought each other for domination. In Africa there were different approaches to colonization from the widespread settlements of British immigrants in East and South Africa, to the rule from a distance in West Africa. Empire is nothing if not complex.

History attests that the colonial enterprise was for the benefit of the colonizers, the flow of people under slavery, resources and raw materials under colonialism, from the colonies to Britain made us the wealthiest country in the world and resulted in impoverishment for the colonies. Some of the worst atrocities against people were committed by Britain under colonialism. This included the creation of concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-2002); the massacre of Indians carrying out a peaceful protest against British colonial rule in Amritsir in India in 1919; the partitioning of India into India and Pakistan that displaced 10-12 million people and created an overwhelming refugee crisis in 1947 where 1-2 million died in the violence that erupted. Hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan is a legacy of partition. When the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating 23%. By 1940, Britain accounted for 10% of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a destitute country with millions starving.

Between 12-29 million Indians died of starvation under the British Empire as millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain as famine raged in India. In 1943, up to 4 million Bengalis staved to death when Churchill diverted food to British soldiers during another famine in Bengal. Today thousands of Kenyans have launched damages claims against the UK government for the mistreatment, rape and torture of 100s during the Mau Mau uprising against colonialism (1951-1960). We cannot tell the story of Empire without including slavery, partition, torture, famine, concentration camps and massacre.

End of Empire

Things changed rapidly and decisively following the first-world-war as anti-colonial movements gained momentum. Rebellions in Ireland, India, China, the Caribbean, Egypt, South Africa, Malaya, Kenya, Iran and other places in the early 20th century were subjugated, but could not be contained. The victory of the second-world-war left Britain bankrupt and unable to continue operating as a colonial power. First to divest was India. Always considered the ‘jewel in the crown’, the people of India had engaged in sustained resistance to British rule for much of the 20th century and finally won its independence in 1947. Britain partitioned India to create Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Pakistan was divided into East and West Pakistan, separated by the Republic of India. Unsurprisingly this arrangement proved disastrous and resulted in revolution following West Pakistan’s genocidal attacks on the East that ended with the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. For over 200 years Britain took what it wanted from India and when they left 90% of the population lived in poverty, life expectancy was 27 and literacy was only 16% (Tharoor, 2017).

By the mid-60s the bulk of the British Empire had been decolonized, frequently through armed resistance with its resulting bloodshed.

Events at home

Having provided this extremely brief overview of Britain’s Empire, I turn to events at home. Members of the British Empire were considered British and in 1948, the British Nationality Act gave the right to enter, work and settle in Britain to all colonial and commonwealth citizens. Following this, in 1949, a Royal Commission on Population identified a significant shortage of labour in Britain. The Commission thus paved the way for active recruitment from the former colonies to the labour market in Britain. 

Following this, British Rail, the NHS and London Transport deliberately targeted labour recruitment from the commonwealth and hundreds of thousands of people were recruited, initially from the Caribbean and India, to fill labour gaps in the economy.

In 1948, the first migrants arrived from the Caribbean on the good ship Empire Windrush. It is important to remind ourselves slavery had transported Africans to the ’West Indies’ over the three centuries that Britain was involved in the slave trade and one could argue Britain had obligations towards these descendants of former slaves who, following decolonization, had few means to create viable economies. Britain was ‘the motherland’ and the motherland said it needed them.

How would this much needed labour be received in the ‘mother country’? How would government and media respond to their arrival? This was a pivotal time in our history. Let’s momentarily jump forward to 2012 and David Cameron’s speech in Germany on radicalization and the causes of terrorism. In this speech he referred to his government’s belief in certain values which government had a responsibility to actively promote. He listed those values as:

 Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizen: this is what defines us as a society.

If only these Fundamental British Values had been articulated so clearly to the majority population as migrants from the Caribbean and India started to arrive on these shores. It might have influenced how the media responded to the arrival of these former colonial subjects. At this time the vast majority of the population in Britain had never seen a person of colour and information about the new arrivals and why they were here was largely drawn from the media. How the media, in particular the tabloid press chose to represent these people was not in keeping with the list of British values cited by Cameron above.

The newcomers had been actively recruited to fill Britain’s labour shortage and surely had a right to be treated fairly. Unfortunately this didn’t happen. Neither government nor the media did anything to ensure the general public was properly prepared for immigration. Rather, the period 1948-1970s saw the racialization of British politics whilst governments of both parties stood back and watched it happen.

The new post-war Labour government introduced the NHS that needed to be staffed, they committed to a large house-building programme that needed workers, they established a comprehensive transport system in London that needed recruits. The need to recruit workers was especially necessary as many of the indigenous white population were migrating to Australia, Canada and New Zealand – this was in fact a time of net migration. Labour was recruited to support the economy but the British people were not prepared to support the migrants.


Mediation of history

A pattern began to emerge that established how Britain responds to migrants that is true to this day. Now we shift from the facts to the way those facts are presented to the public. We see how government and media present the truths of migration to the country. As stated above, the state sought to recruit labour to meet the needs of the expanding capitalist society. Labour came not only from the former colonies, but also included hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans and Irish. The presence of the white migrants was largely ignored by the media who focused instead on those who were visibly different because of the colour of their skin.

At this time a group of white racists, both inside and outside the government, began to ferment fear over competition between the indigenous population and immigrants for limited resources: jobs, housing, education and health care, and thus started what has become a familiar mantra – the immigrants ‘take our jobs’ and ‘cost the country too much’.

Soon this repeated mantra manifested itself in trouble and here we can identify biased reporting in the media. In 1958, when groups of white youth attacked black youth from the Caribbean, the media named this racist event as ‘The Notting Hill Riots’. Reported by the media as evidence that there were just ‘too many’ ethnic minorities, the British government responded not by challenging the racist claims made by the press, not by naming this as ‘opinions’ which were not supported by the facts, but by pandering to the tabloids and restricting immigration. And so cycles of racist attacks and media misreporting stimulated cycles of immigration restriction. We have here the fact of migration, but the decision to focus on ‘coloured’ migration as problematic. Instead of challenging this and making the case for migration from the former colonies the British government set about a policy of restricting such migration. 

Restricting migration

In 1962, the Conservatives introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants Act that restricted black and Asian migration, not people from the white Commonwealth, the thousands of Canadians and Australians that came here, just people of colour. This could have been an opportunity for government to start making the case – to help the British white population understand our colonial past, our obligations to our former colonies, our need for labour, the perceived necessity of migration, but they did not. This decision was shared by both of the main political parties; when Labour came to power in 1968 they introduced an even more restrictive Commonwealth Immigrants Act. The Acts specifically denied the automatic right to entry and abode of black and Asian British citizens from the Commonwealth. 

It became apparent that both parties in power wanted to present themselves as responding to public fears of black immigration that had been stirred up by politicians, other public figures and especially the media, rather than make the case for their policies of labour recruitment or the moral case of obligation to those whose resources and labour had been exploited under colonialism that had made Britain the wealthiest country in the world.

Managing Race Relations

Alongside restrictions on immigration came three Race Relations Acts in 1963, 1968 and 1976, requiring the state to ban discrimination on grounds of race, colour or ethnic origin. This was important, however, the Acts made little difference to ongoing discrimination and racist attacks. Race relations in Britain had become a significant political issue that would be a feature of every election to come. The opportunity for government to challenge media representation had been lost. 

The media had done a good job – the majority of the indigenous white community in Britain believed there were too many people of colour in Britain.  Despite the 1991 census that showed only 5% of people in Britain were migrants (including all those born outside Britain, white and people of colour), polls asking people to estimate numbers of Black and Asian migrants consistently found people over-estimated the actual numbers by massive amounts. And yet, successive governments did nothing to challenge these misconceptions and study after study through the 1980s and 1990s showed that ethnic minorities were systematically excluded from equal participation in Britain because they were discriminated against. ‘Coloured’ immigration was constantly on the front page of the tabloid press. Gallup polls in the 1960s consistently showed over 70% of the population wanted further immigration control and the government responded with further restrictions.

The National Curriculum

In 1988 the first National Curriculum was introduced in England and Wales. This was an opportunity to ensure everyone was taught about the British Empire and understood migration to Britain. History was a compulsory subject, but unfortunately the opportunity was lost – it did not include the history of Empire. Opinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of British people think the Empire was a good thing, something to be proud. Considering the brief history presented above, the polls indicate that the general public have very little understanding of the true nature of Empire where Britain used violence to rule other people, deny them independence, exploit their labour and take their resources.

Academic historians have called for honest history teaching if our children are to understand our past. Dr Andrea Major at the University of Leeds, for example, has called for improved teaching about the British Empire, claiming there is “a collective amnesia about the levels of violence, exploitation and racism involved in many aspects of imperialism”.

Education about all aspects of British colonial history can’t be the sole responsibility of schools. The media have to take some responsibility to generate more open debate to ensure all the public gain a better understanding of the world around them and in particular our fellow British citizens whose heritage lies in the countries of our colonial past. As Dr. Esme Cleall from the University of Sheffield says, “The violence of the British Empire has long been forgotten. We need to face up to this history and education is crucial if we are to do so.”

Teaching of course can only do so much. Young people deserve to know the facts of Empire, but they need also need critical skills to understand how a lack of open and honest appraisal of the past creates false facts and biased opinion.


Public figures

We cannot lay the blame for the misrepresentation of history and in particular of immigration entirely at the door of the media. Politicians are also culpable. In 1968 the now infamous Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell made what has come to be referred to as his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which he criticized Commonwealth immigration and the government’s anti-discrimination legislation. Powell was a powerful speaker who voiced fears that immigration would lead to bloodshed and it caused a political storm and his dismissal from Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. But his rhetoric also caused a media storm and is considered a significant turning point in race relations.

He was not the first Conservative MP to use race relations as a means to gain popularity. The 1964 General Election saw Labour come to power, however in Smethwick, the Conservative candidate gained the seat using the slogan, "If you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote Labour".

Events such as these influenced the decision by the Policy Studies Institute in 1968 to carry out research into racial discrimination in Britain and found it was "from the massive to the substantial". The tabloid press was found to play a large part in this, particularly with a campaign during the 1960s to criminalise black youth. They consistently presented street violence with scant regard to the truth. 

Much research has been done into media representation of ethnic minorities and there is a consensus that representation has been distorted and has reinforced existing prejudice among the public. The presence of media bias has been established through painstaking analysis of headlines, articles and space given to minority issues in our newspapers. The media, particularly the Tabloid press, use stereotypes to portray minority ethnic groups and over-report Black crime fueling fears about threats allegedly posed by Blacks to the White majority. By contrast, Black experience as victims of crime and police harassment of Black families has rarely been reported. Ethnic minorities are more frequently associated with negative personal characteristics and tendencies to crime and violence, not as victims of discrimination. This misrepresentation has been shown to be consistent over time and has made a huge contribution to Britain’s endemic racism.

Governments must take their share of the blame for deciding to exploit the public’s fear of immigration for their own gain. In 1968 Enoch Powell’s rhetoric inciting fear of people of colour and streets running with blood won votes. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher suggested  “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture,” and in 2014 Michael Fallon repeated it by claiming British towns are being “swamped” by immigrants and their residents are “under siege [with] large numbers of migrant workers and people claiming benefits”. The Conservative anti-immigration rhetoric surfaced again when Cameron’s (2016) described refugees fleeing from persecution as “a bunch of migrants”, or the numbers of people seeking refuge in Europe as a “swarm”. Cameron took the rhetoric further by claiming the “traditional submissiveness of Muslim women’ put them ‘at risk of radicalization”, or when he announced Britain could deport people who fail to learn English – all grist to the mill of a racist press and an ignorant public.

I could go on and on – politicians and government are part of the problem and the press should be holding them to account. Teachers have to be able to recognize how prejudice expressed by politicians and repeated in the media influences how children and young people see the world and make a determine effort to challenge racist rhetoric.


Change for the better

That is not to say things have not changed, there is evidence that responsible journalists have tried to change attitudes related to ethnic minority issues and there is evidence of more positive reporting in the 1990s, particularly in the quality press where the voices of ethnic minorities are heard and the problems they experience given a hearing. It is true that Black African and Asian minorities are now treated in the media far better than in the 1970s and 80s. That doesn’t mean negative portrayals have stopped, they have simply shifted their focus towards newly arrived groups such as asylum seekers, Muslims and some EU members.

The real increase in immigration however, came not from the Commonwealth, but with our membership of the European Union and the free movement of people. Today the immigrant population is mainly white, but despite this, prejudice, discrimination, violence and hatred against people of colour prevails.

The election of New Labour in 1997 saw a stated commitment to social justice for racial minorities for the first time. Following the murder of Black African student Stephen Lawrence, stabbed by a gang of white youth whilst waiting for a bus, Labour established The Lawrence Enquiry and the subsequent report by Macpherson (1998) did help shape Labour’s thinking about institutionalized racism.

The subsequent Race Relations Amendment Act (2000) signaled a commitment to ending institutionalized racism in our public services, especially the police and the parallel ‘duty to promote’ racial equality was established by the Commission for Racial Equality in 2003. However, Section 19 of the RRA 2000 excluded asylum and refuge. This is significant as restrictions on immigration now meant the majority of people of colour entering Britain are asylum seekers.

Inevitable the events of 9/11 and 7/7 changed the terms of public discourse about race forever, leading to a shift in prejudice and racism away from people of colour towards those of the Muslim faith, a cultural racism identified as Islamaphobia.

Where are we now?

The Race Relations Act (1965) outlawed racist discrimination that was the daily experience of migrants from the Empire during the 50-70s. It certainly did help to reduce prejudice. Today we have measures in place so the state can act decisively to challenge racism, but little has been done to actively challenge the expressed racial prejudice of very large and significant sections of the white British population. Report after report (usually following significant racist incidents) has found that racism is endemic and discrimination is pervasive (see, for example the Scarman Report (1981) following the Brixton riots; the Burnage Report: Murder in the Playground (1989) following the murder of an Asian youth in a Manchester school playground; The Macpherson Report (1998) following the murder of Stephen Lawrence). Government has done very little to challenge racist views and instead has gone along with the idea that immigration is inherently problematic. Extreme far-right racism embodied by such organisations as the National Front and the British and Welsh Defence League continue to exist and racially motivated attacks are common.

It can’t be denied that the lives of many ethnic minorities have improved, they are represented in parliament, in the media and the professions, this is all good, but the main point is that it is one thing to tackle prejudice that restricts opportunities for people of colour, it is quite another to tackle the endemic racism that still exists in Britain that came to the fore post-Brexit. Racism is still a systemic, structural problem in Britain. The unemployment rate for all ethnic minorities is twice as high as for whites – these are verifiable facts. Whatever issues we look at – health, education, housing, over-representation in the criminal justice system – things are worse if you are a person of colour. Racism is alive and well, and rooted in our colonial past. As a nation we have avoided dealing with it.

Media ‘truths’

Immigration and race relations have always been and continue to be framed by the media; their focus on the problems of people of colour, on the competition for health, education, housing and jobs between the white population and people of colour sets the tone. People of colour are presented as having problems – they don’t speak English; they prefer to live in ghettos rather than assimilate. The tabloid press fails to report widespread racial discrimination that empirical studies have consistently found – from employers, housing agencies, Trade Unions, local government or to condemn the physical and verbal abuse people of colour frequently experience on the street.

Today with the successful reduction of immigration from the former colonies, most people of colour in Britain are second or third generation and the press have shifted their focus towards problems of cultural adaptation, intergenerational differences and disagreements, gender roles, religious extremism, dangers of radicalization etc. The problems are presented as with the communities and not with the racial prejudice of the white majority.

No government has ever taken serious the problem of tackling white racism; rather it has encouraged and exacerbated it. David Cameron is right ­– multiculturalism is dead. And long may it rest in peace. As he said in 2012, “multiculturalism encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream”. Rather than challenge racism, successive governments opted for multiculturalism to emphasis difference and separateness, to ‘celebrate’ cultural diversity and despite a brief flirtation with anti-racist education in the 1980s with the publication of The Swann Report (1985), multicultural approaches prevailed and have done nothing to challenge white racism.

In his speech Cameron also claimed, ”…when a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them.” And yes, the law does condemn, but when government provide grist to the tabloid press mill with its racist rhetoric it is hard to take it seriously. A government so serious about FBV that they require all schools to teach them should also condemn those who flout them. The media consistently presents one-sided, distorted or alarmist stories about people of colour, and recently in particular, inaccurate stories about Muslims and asylum seekers have prevailed.

We live in a country where a sizeable portion of society, maybe the majority, is hostile to people of colour and most recently this has been extended to our fellow Europeans, many of whom don’t feel welcome here anymore. Victims of prejudice find their exercise of freedom of opinion and expression reduced, a specific flouting of FBV.

False news?

Reporting in a truthful and balanced way has always been an important professional goal for journalists. Today the integrity of journalists of all persuasions is being challenged. Journalists who in the past have expressed opinions by describing black youth as ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’ or Muslims as ‘terrorists’ have created stereotypes and reinforced prejudices that have contributed to the endemic racism that is present in Britain today. When opinions held by the majority of the public are actually based on ignorance, or false facts that have been fostered by politicians’ rhetoric or tabloid opinions, then it is hard for any of us to sort out truth from falsity, and in the field of immigration and race relations trying to distinguish fact from fiction is a minefield. As teachers we have an especial responsibility to ensure the young people in our care know the facts and can sort out the difference between fact and opinion. If we are to teach FBV and prepare our young people for democracy, this task has to be built into everything we do. And we must start by ensuring teachers have the knowledge, skills and understanding to do the job.  

Those responsible for Initial Teacher Training and Continual Professional Development have a moral duty to ensure that teachers know the facts and have the skills to deconstruct how facts are mediated to the public by government and media. Surely this is central to teaching Fundamental British Values.

References
Cameron, D. (2012) Speech at a conference in Munich.
Cameron,D. (2016) Prime Minister’s Question Time, 27.01.2016.
DfE (Department for Education). (2012). Teachers’ Standards. London: HMSO.
HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) (2015) Prevent Duty Guidance: For England and Wales [online}
Fallon, M. (2014) Interview with SKY news.
Macdonald, I. A. (1989) Murder in the Playground: The Burnage Report. Longsight.
Macpherson, W. (1999), The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, London: Home Office.
Scarman, Lord J. (1981), The Brixton Disorders, 10–12th April (1981), London: HMSO.
The Swann Report (1985) Education for All: Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office
Tharoor, S. (2017) Inglorious Empire. Hurst & Company.
Thatcher, M. (1979) In a TV interview on ‘World in Action’.



Monday, 19 December 2016

Black Bodies/White Gaze: a retrospective look at my anti-racist teaching with student teachers.

I have just finished reading a book that has made me reflect deeply on the work I tried to do as a teacher educator with my young student teachers to challenge racism and to promote anti-racist practices. I am very grateful to George Yancy and his book: “Black Bodies: White Gaze” (2016) for catapulting me into this pause for thought.

I was a teacher educator for over 20 years. The university where I worked was predominantly white, we occasionally had a black or Asian student, and over the 20 years I worked there we had one black lecturer in the education department. The town where the university is situated has less than 1% ethnic minority. The students mainly came from the locality and are used to inhabiting white spaces. At my insistence, a racial equality element was built into the BA (Education) and over the three years of their training over a period of ten years, I was allowed three slots for a lecture, one a year, with a follow-up seminar. I reflect now on the ways in which I conducted those lectures and take this moment to read my practice through the work of Yancy to help me theorise a bit more than I did at the time, why I did what I did.

In the first term of the course I led the EPS, (Education and Professional Studies) part of the degree. This module had to cover an enormous amount of content and so I had to make my one-hour lecture as powerful as possible. I began by asking my young white students (mainly 18-19 year old females, with a few males and a few mature women) to write down on a scrap of paper how many black or Asian people they thought lived in the UK. I gathered in their responses, quickly sorted them and one-by-one read them out loud. Less that 5% of them in each of those ten years got the answer right (at that time around 5%). Every year a small minority (around 10%) thought people of colour constituted over 70% of the population. The vast majority however, guessed at between 30-45%. This is actually a bit out of step with research findings with the UK population as a whole, where the majority thinks the ethnic minority population is over 25%. When I revealed the census statistics they found it hard to believe. I asked them to reflect on why the majority of them held such a distorted view of the make-up of the United Kingdom. They didn’t know. Most of them had never met a person of colour outside the context of an Indian or Chinese restaurant. There were always some who wanted to challenge the figures; they didn’t believe the census was correct. Some suggested that there were huge numbers of illegal immigrants who didn’t figure in the census. This frustrated me at the time, now I see that this response is an example of how the white students tried to explain away how they could be wrong in their guesses, rather than address the fact that if the figures were correct their own world views were distorted.

Following this, I asked the students to anonymously write down things they had overheard other people – not themselves – say about black or Asian people. I collected them in and read their comments out loud.  Apart from the ‘they take our jobs’, ‘they should go back where they came from’ there were many words of abuse and denigration. Listening to these words read aloud made them uncomfortable. I wanted them to see how the racist gaze of whites distorts not only the experience of ethnic minorities in the UK, but all of us.  Some of them accused me of being racist for reading the comments aloud. I explained that I wanted them to realize that the majority of them held a distorted view of actual numbers of black and Asian people living in the UK and that it was important to correct that, and that all of them were aware of the racism present in their lives. I told them I didn’t blame them for that, what I didn’t do was ask them to reflect on why so many of them had false knowledge of the world. Nevertheless, I wanted them to take responsibility for the truth and I expected them to challenge others who hold mistruths or utter racist comments in front of them. I wanted them to understand that if they, as future teachers, were not prepared to do that, then they would be implicated in the maintenance of white power and privilege to the detriment of all the children they would be responsible for; that all children are hurt by racism, both those holding racist views and those on the receiving end of racist abuse. I wanted them to recognize the truth that the black and Asian children they would be teaching were the subject of the racialised gaze of whites, where whiteness is seen as the norm and their black and brown bodies as ‘other’. Yancy emphasizes, “White racist consciousness are part of a larger historical imaginary, a social universe of white racist discourse that comes replete with long, enduring myths, perversions, distorted profiles, and imaginings of all sorts regarding the non-white body”.

I then told them a story. It was my own experience when, as a teacher of English as an Additional Language, I had taken a group of Pakistani children, aged 6-13 to a country park. While playing in the sandpit two of the younger children were the subjects of racial abuse as a group of teenage boys started calling them racist names and spitting at them. I explained to the students how I chastised the boys and complained to the management of the park (who refused to do anything) and how I apologized to the children that this had happened while they were out with me. I told them how 13 year-old Rukshana had told me, “That’s alright Miss, it happens to us everyday, someone spits at us. That’s why my Mum doesn’t want to go out”. Whenever I tell this story I find myself welling up with tears, it was a life-changing experience for me to be confronted with everyday racism just because of the colour of the children’s skin.

They were trainee teachers – what did they think their responsibility was? What role did they think teachers should they play in ensuring their pupils understand the demographics of the country, how would they challenge racist abuse when they heard or encountered it? These were questions I wanted them to address in the following seminar.

I would have been surprised to find out that any of these students were actively racist, but their world-views were imprisoned by a historically inherited racism built by the institutions of slavery and colonialism and subsequent post-colonial immigration of which they were largely ignorant ­(Britain choses not to teach our children that aspect of our history).  I also wanted them to see that a desire not to be racist is not enough. I wanted them to take responsibility for knowing British history, to see how the claim that some of them made, “I’m not racist, I don’t see colour” is disingenuous; that the discursive practices they themselves had brought to our attention, which constructed people of colour as inferior, as objects of abuse, should be challenged. No matter their personal views of their own beliefs, they couldn’t escape from the social imagination predominant in the UK that a body of colour is inferior. As Yancy says, “White racist consciousness are part of a larger historical imaginary, a social universe of white racist discourse that comes replete with long, enduring myths, perversions, distorted profiles, and imaginings of all sorts regarding the non-white body.” At the time I hadn’t fully grasped the implications of this for myself.  Yancy clearly explains that in a sociopolitical and cultural structure where whiteness is privileged and normative, it is “neither necessary not sufficient that people designated as white cling to racist beliefs in order to benefit from whiteness”.  They benefit because of the larger social positioning and valuing of white bodies over other bodies. Hence, they play a role in constituting the Black body as ‘other’ and in sustaining white racism.


I was fully aware of British history and in the second year of their training I took them on a short trip through British history of slavery and subsequent colonization of half the world. I used poetry and prose to bring the voices of people of colour from the past to help them understand the legacy of that past for relationships between white and people of colour today. They protested that they couldn’t be held responsible for the actions of people in the past and whilst acknowledging that fact, I explained how the past still affected them today. The values and assumptions of the white slavers and colonisers created institutional structures to maintain white power and those structures underpin racism today. I wanted them to enlarge their frame of reference, to come to terms “with the ways in which their bodies are marked by a history that they did not create, but will perpetuate” (Yancy, 2016). I wanted them to see that history has given them their frames of reference and their identities as white people that confer privileges on them that they continue to benefit from.  The students were largely ignorant of that history and I hoped they would take responsibility for their own reading and research.

In the seminar following this lecture I set up a research project they were required to do for their EPS assignment. They were to replicate research carried out on a number of occasions in Britain and the USA with 4-5 year old children to find out their attitudes to people of colour. In their teaching practice schools they were to work 1:1 with each child in the reception class. They had a set of pictures depicting a very multicultural classroom and laying the pictures out in front of the children they asked the following questions: Which child looks most like you? Which child would you like to be your friend? Who has been good in school today? Who has been naughty in school today? The results they reported were similar to the published studies. Overall children wanted their friends to have blonde hair and blue eyes. The children mainly chose brown or black and some white boys as those who had been naughty in school. Good children were mainly blonde, blue-eyed girls. When the students reported back on their findings they were genuinely shocked that children as young as four, including black and Asian children who were in the study, showed the preferences for friendships that they did and also ascribed naughtiness to black or brown children. Most disturbing was the fact that many of the Asian children in the study in response to the question – who looks most like you – chose white children. What I didn’t see clearly then and have understood through reading Yancy is that these young children were already attending to the world in a particular fashion, they lived in the world of white racist practices in such a way “that the practices qua racist practices have become invisible”. The children live in “a familiar white racist world of intelligibility, one that has already ‘accepted’ whiteness as ‘superior’ and Blackness as ‘inferior’.” (Yancy, 2016) Yancy would ask us to consider whether the white gaze has seeped into the consciousness of these children of colour, skewing the ways in which they see themselves. I hoped that this exercise would convince the students that anti-racist education needed to start the moment children started school, that we couldn’t assume young children were somehow unaware of living in a racist society.

In the final year of their training in my race equality lecture slot, I began by asking them to close their eyes and imagine they were soaring high above a city at night, flying like a bird, able to see all that was happening below them. I asked them to look and see the streets and the houses, the shops and people and the traffic before alerting them to something that was happening on the street below and told them to swoop down in their imaginations and see the scene: a black boy lying bleeding on the pavement and another black boy trying to stop the traffic. I told them that although some cars slowed down, none of them stopped. I asked them to imagine what they thought the white people in their cars were thinking when they didn’t stop in response to the black boy desperately trying to flag them down. I asked them to wonder why no one stopped to ask, “Are you OK? “Can we help?” After this thought experiment they shared their ideas in pairs and then reported back to the group. Year after year students suggested the car drivers were afraid – a black person trying to flag them down would probably be dangerous and in that situation self-preservation was more important than compassion. Some students also made the assumption that the boy had done something wrong. They projected on to his black body the idea of the young black male as criminal. I wanted them to imagine the impact on the boy of being judged dangerous and possibly criminal just because his body was black. 

After this exercise I told them that the boy on the pavement was Steven Lawrence, an 18 year-old black student who was waiting for a bus with his friend Duwayne. Stephen was brutally stabbed and murdered by a gang of white youths in 1993. I also told them that when the police arrived they failed to investigate the murder effectively and that this failure led to an investigation into police behavior. The resulting Macpherson Report in 1999 laid the charge of institutional racism at the door of the police and other public institutions including schools. I expected this powerful story would help them to recognise white power and to see how it can impact on people of colour. I wanted to help the students see that history shaped what the white police officers saw as they looked at the black body of Steven Lawrence dead on the street. They didn’t see a hard working schoolboy expecting to study law at university; they assumed he was a victim of gang warfare. The same racism pervaded the perception of those who didn’t stop for Duwayne, and the perceptions of the police officers that failed to investigate and bring Steven’s killers to justice. I told them that later in a court case the accused were acquitted. Duwayne’s evidence was considered unreliable.

I asked them to recognize their own white gaze when they thought it was acceptable for the car drivers to assume that Dwayne posed a risk to their safety. To see that even at this vantage point, racial constraints acted on what they could see in their mind’s eye. I wanted to raise their awareness that everyday historical practices of whiteness impact on how they interpret what they see without them even being aware of it. I wanted to raise their consciousness to see how, although they didn’t commit the historical outrages of slavery and colonialism, their lives are still under its sway.

Reading Yancy, I realize that I was trying to start my students on a lifelong journey of what Yancy names as ‘un-suturing’, a commitment to challenge white racist practices whenever they see them. Yancy calls on white people to critically engage in “unmasking and fissuring white historical sedimentation” if we are to find a “new way of seeing, a new way of knowing, a new way of being”.

The methods I used relied on narrative events to provoke painful ethical self-examination. I wanted to engage their emotions, expand their empathy and develop their moral imagination. I chose narratives as the best vehicle for doing this. First, I evoked the unthinking narratives the students carried around in their heads about the world in which they live in terms of numbers of people of colour. Secondly, I asked them to report stories of racism from their own experiences and thirdly, I told them a story from my own experience of witnessing racism. For their assignments they had to collect stories from young children as they listened to the choices they made about characters in a classroom. In the second lecture I drew on poetry and prose to bring the voices of slaves and colonized people as well as post-war immigrants to the students. These stories were chosen to bring the four hundred year history of the British encounter with Africa and the Asian sub-continent alive. Finally, I told them the story of Steven Lawrence and the characters and events that surrounded his death.
.
These choices were carefully made. I had long decided that it is impossible to challenge the immorality of racism by invoking principles informed by facts and figures to be grasped through rational thinking. I knew from my anti-racist work with children in the classroom that unless we feel an emotional connection then empathy cannot be engaged and ethical reasoning will not follow. I also wanted the students to feel angry about racism, to recognize that things they care about, justice, fairness, equality, are seriously threatened by racism. I wanted them to be angry about the damage that white supremacy has done to them, to be angry that just by being white they still benefit from Britain’s history of conquest, exploitation and racial violence. I wanted them to see that this damage to their psyche is not trivial but significant, and that the damage is still being inflicted today through our institutions and practices. I wanted them to engage in self-conscious reflection on the emotions my stories evoked, to expand their reflective capacity and link the narratives to the development of their moral imaginations. I wanted them to consider, ‘How should we live?’

I have long argued that narrative understanding and story-telling is our primary meaning making tool, stories have the power to take us back to the past, to places and social realities we have never experienced and allow us to enter the lives and viewpoints of others and experience their experiences. But we have to pick our stories carefully to ensure we recognize the humanity of those we are depicting. George Yancy makes powerful use of his own story and the stories of other Black lives that renewed my humanity and stretched my empathy muscles and provoked intense thinking that led me to reflect on my own past practice and has ‘un-sutured’ me and renewed my commitment to the life-long process of challenging racism in every way I can.