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.