Let’s be brave. Let’s talk about race.

I’ll begin by showing my hand. I am white, male, middle-aged, protestant, heterosexual and read history at Oxford University. I have the exact same profile as many of the people who led us to this moment in time. It is now past the time for a paradigm shift in race relations, and education is how we will do this.

I am also married to an Asian muslim (who spent her early childood in a war zone and her teenage years as a refugee). We will let our daughters decide which, if any, religion to follow. I’m a board member of the charity Remembering Srebrenica Scotland and our aim is to tackle prejudice and intolerance in society. I’ve been a teacher for close to two decades and am currently a school leader. I hope, if you are profiling me now, it looks a little different.

The fires of protest are burning brightly just now; there is no doubt that millions of people are angry. I hope this cycle will be broken; that action will follow this tragedy which will change direction and give hope. If schools are going to be in the vanguard of this change, we need to take positive steps. Here are some thoughts on how to do this.

Step 1: Reinvent Protest

I subscribe to the view that teaching is a subversive activity. I am idealistic, but not ideological, and it is vital to teach pupils how to think for themselves without teaching them what to think. This is a fine line and I know I get it wrong when I teach topics like slavery – I don’t want pupils to think it is ok. I am happy with the dissonance in my head on this. I do want pupils to be active, or even activists, in shaping their world. I have adapted Edmund Burke’s maxim that all it takes for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing (I dropped the gender specific part of that quotation). I totally support the right to protest, but in the midst of a pandemic I am concerned that the people who will pay a price are the NHS frontline staff, and the BAME community who suffer disproportionately from COVID. Can we reinvent ways to protest? The picture at the head of this blog is one I designed myself (hence the totally amateur nature of it), and it speaks to the idea of all colours in one heart. My call is for people to use their homes as a protest tool until they can safely get back on the streets. Put this heart up next to your rainbow, and add #blacklivesmatter or any other slogan you think expresses your feelings. Let’s keep them up until we have broken the cycle. Our pupils can start this today if we encourage them.

Step 2: Recruitment

I heard Prof Rowena Arshad speak several times this year on race, at researchED, at the Into Headship conference, and at EduMod. Her work on research in race in Scottish education is groundbreaking. There is definitely a perception gap around appointment and promotion in education between white and non-white. Why is this? Having an equal opportunities policy does not mean ‘job done’. What are your stats about numbers of non-white applications, appointments and promotions? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most employers don’t track this. At the Into Headship conference I was in a room with about 300 fellow trainee headteachers, and it was a very white room. The most important thing for career progression is to have someone who is a mentor/sponsor. Hashi Mohammed has written brilliantly about this, so what can we do to put this kind of support in place? 

Step 3: Tackle Micro-Aggression

The overt, blatant aggression that exists on the far right is a huge problem, but the micro-aggressions that exist everywhere are just as challenging and we can do something about them. An example is not calling on a child in the class because you don’t know how to pronounce their name. Learn their name: it is vital to showing them respect. Again Rowena Arshad is very good on this. Talk about race with colleagues and pupils to find out what micro-aggressions they face on a daily basis. Most of them come from subconscious behaviour. What can be done to eradicate them? 

Step 4: Professional Learning

Most teachers are scared to talk about race because they are not confident enough to do so. They fear saying something wrong, something that will get them in trouble. All teachers need to be able to talk about race. What professional learning have you done to enhance your confidence and understanding on this? There is no shortage of organisations willing to help and support. Connect Futures is a good starting place, and I’ve already mentioned Remembering Srebrenica which has organisations in all UK countries. At EduMod at the Fringe (an event that I run with Louise Hunter of Summerhouse Media) we had a session with members of the Scottish Youth Parliament, one of whom challenged her headteacher on the school’s LGBTQ+ track record. The solution? She gave a talk at INSET to her teachers on how to speak to gay pupils like herself. Impressive.

Step 5: Decolonizing the Curriculum

Last summer Pran Patel gave a TED talk on this subject, and he spoke at EduMod. We need, at both a national level and school level, to ask searching questions about the curriculum. In each area of the curriculum, what proportion of key individuals being taught about are non-white? Are the examples of artists, authors, leaders, scientists and musicians representative of the whole world? Is the southern hemisphere just as prominent as the northern?  

On the back of this, what are you going to do about it? Something? Nothing? Why? How can you create the conditions for curriculum reform that will challenge the structural racism that exists in society? The curriculum is perhaps the most powerful weapon that we have to change society. Recalibrate it for this purpose.

Step 6: Be A Voice

This blog by Daniel Stone makes a brilliant point to white people:

“Be our voice when we’re not there: Structural inequalities and underrepresentation mean that often minorities are not in the room when discriminatory decisions have been taken. We need individuals and allies who are able to stand for justice in whatever sphere of life they find themselves in. People who are able to use their platforms and positions of influence to ensure justice for those who can’t be seen, who can’t speak and who can’t breathe.”

Please put that into practice.

Step 7: Read, Think, Act

My thanks to Connect Futures for this reading list. Order these titles and more and get them up in a display in your school library. Have conversations around them. It’s ok to disagree. The only thing that’s not ok is staying silent.

  1. Black and British: A Forgotten History. David Olusoga
  2. Back to black: Black radicalism for the 21st century. Kehinde Andrews
  3. People like Us. Hashi Mohamed
  4. Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World. Layla F Saad
  5. Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. Afua Hirsch
  6. The Good Immigrant. Nikesh Shukla
  7. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Reni Eddo-Lodge
  8. I am not your baby mother. Candice Braithwaite
  9. So You Want to Talk About Race. Ijeoma Oluo
  10. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Peggy McIntosh
  11. Natives, Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire, Akala
  12. A tale of three cities: Public officials and senior representation in the NHS, University, Police and Local Authority. Zubeda Limbada
  13. Decolonise the curriculum. The Teacherist
  14. Wellness for All: Anti-racism in the early years
  15. Hostile Environment. Maya Goodfellow

And finally… 

I titled this blog a provocation, because I want to provoke thought, discussion and action. What you do matters. This is the slogan of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and I use it frequently in talks and lessons. I absolutely believe it is true. What you do to make things better matters. What you fail to do is critical. There are no more excuses.

5 thoughts on “Let’s talk about race: a provocation for teachers

    1. Thank you Jill, I really appreciate that. I’ve had a lot of good talks with different people on the back of this so am working on change. It would be great to pick your brains on this too. 👍

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  1. thanks for taking time to write this article.
    However I would like to highlight a few points that seem to be consistent with every man & his dog jumping on the black lives matter bandwagon.
    Firstly, why jump on the bandwagon now? Where were you all before and they many decades before?
    did Blacklives not matter then? or was it OK because it was being ‘hidden’ and not at the forefront to remain silent (does that therefore make one complicit in these crimes for not speaking out earlier?)
    You end by saying “There are no more excuses” – Is that implying there were excuses before all of this came to the forefront with the George Floyd lynching?

    Also many of these Slave traders became philanthropists who made fortunes from Slave trade and that money then being pumped into institutions such as schooling – Dollar academy being a prime example.

    Do you think there should be compensation? reparation fees to the victims? I do…. what form should these take. Should BAME pupils be allowed fee free education in such institutes?

    And I would like to see campaigning and movements asking and fighting for these things. Words alone are no longer suffice. Action needs to be loud and clear and momentum needs to continue.

    As Malcolm X said – No sellout, No Compromise

    I was born in Scotland in the mid 70’s. My father was a Muslim immigrant who came here to take on the manual labor that the whites refused to do. He came with nothing. Worked hard, got an education and became a successful businessman as well as bringing up a family who all went on to be degree qualified and Doctors and business leaders in their respective fields. All this achieved through hardship and intense racism.
    My sister and I were the only 2 colored kids in a school of 2,000 plus. I remember thinking, look at these ‘Protestant’ kids fighting with the Catholic kids going to different schools. Used to think if this is how white kids are with one another, what chance has a colored kids have – and I was right…. my upbringing was full of being outcast, racist abuse and beatings. I’m not complaining, it makes some people stronger later in life. But others not so.
    I now live abroad and have a growing family of my own. My kids still call Scotland their home, they love it, even though they have spent ore of their living life outside Scotland than in it. We still have our home in Stirlingshire and try and come back every year to spend summer months there.

    Professor Paul Gilroy – There aint no Black on the Union Jack – still relevant today as it was when written. DO read it when and if you get a chance.

    No Sell-out – No Compromise

    also, some facts about Dollar Academy – I wanted to enroll my kids there, but would it be hypocritical of me to do so with it’s deeply entrenched history linked to slavery?

    https://veronese1515.blogspot.com/2018/

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    1. Thanks for your reply – as I said in the blog, I wanted this to provoke discussion and that’s exactly what you’ve done. Even though this was posted about 10 days ago and has been read hundreds of times, you are the first person to challenge me on this, which seems odd. As you say there is a bandwagon effect, but also a continuing silence. Here are some points in response to your comments.
      1) Why now? My defence is that I’ve been talking about this for years, but only now is there a moment which might be a paradigm shift. My personal education began when I met my wife in 2004 and she has taught me what it is to be a Muslim immigrant in Europe (Belgium and Scotland). Her extended family live in a worldwide diaspora and I have learned from all of them. Professionally, I moved to the Middle East in 2008 and as a Head of History had to create a Key Stage 3 scheme of work around Islamic History and also the Slave Trade. I had never learned anything about either field at school or university in Britain (despite holding 2 history degrees). I have been speaking about curriculum equality ever since then. In 2016 I began to work with Remembering Srebrenica and have taken adult and pupil trips to Bosnia to help educate people about a genocide committed against Muslims, only 25 years ago. The divisions in Scottish society you describe show that we are really not that different. I have addressed race in education through the Wellington College Ed Fest and at EduMod last year, so I have been at this for a while, but I accept that I should have blogged about it sooner. The final sentence on excuses is because all I have heard in the past by way of explaining racial tensions and injustices have seemed to me excuses. It’s time for them to end and for action to move things forward. I am working on practical measures around teacher education right now and if you are keen to have input I’d like to hear from you (see the end of this post).
      2) On Dollar Academy. I interviewed for my job in 2017 and asked specifically about the slavery legacy. If they were willing to acknowledge it, and show commitment to doing something about it, I wanted to be involved. If they weren’t I would walk away from the interview. The then Rector, David Knapman, gave me the answers I needed when I spoke to him. I believe in changing institutions from the inside, and we began a process (that is ongoing) to address the heritage of the school. We have had constructive dialogue with Sir Geoff Palmer, Graham Campbell and Lisa Williams who visited the school, advised on our next steps, and spoke to pupils. You can see them at this tweet link: https://twitter.com/robin_macp/status/1123235707525455872?s=20 Sir Geoff says that we cannot change the past, but we can change the consequences of it. I totally agree, and this is what I am trying to do. Graham talks about reparative justice, and this is what I also believe in (in answer to your question). There should be policy decisions which bring communities together and build a better future, and I like Graham’s work with Flag Up Scotland very much (see this link http://www.flagupscotjam.uk/). He gave us several useful suggestions which remain possible future actions, and we already have 100% bursaries for pupils from Barbados. What we did after that meeting in April 2019 was commission independent research into John McNabb and the origins of the school (like Glasgow University) and this work was due to be completed this term. Sadly, lockdown meant our researcher couldn’t access the archives needed, so the deadline has been extended. After this, the school will decide what to do in terms of addressing that legacy – sadly I am moving on, and am personally disappointed not to be involved in this crucial step. I am also aware of the blogger you cite, as he contacted the school by email and tweets about us frequently. I have responded to him, but never been acknowledged. I had hoped he would be involved in our work, but sadly not. Instead I spoke to Graham Campbell and his response was immediate and impressive. I respect him a lot and am glad he is on board. The future looks much more positive and the pupils at the school (and some recent FPs) have been very active in demanding more wide-ranging changes. You may see this in the press just now. I am optimistic about the future because of the strength of feeling that exists now. The collective will is strong.
      3) Your personal story is one that I would like more pupils to know about. It is very important to hear personal accounts. We teach the Migration and Empire unit at National 5 History which looks at immigrant stories to Scotland and the discrimination they faced. This course ends in 1939, but it needs a more recent focus so that pupils realise it is a still a live issue. Would it be hypocritical of you to send your children to Dollar now? My argument is that Dollar NEEDS parents like you, and pupils like your children. It comes back to Sir Geoff’s point about changing the consequences of the past. My own children are Scottish-Asian and are growing up bilingual in Dari and English, and this to me is what Scotland in the 21st century should look like. I would love for you to visit Dollar and make all the points you’ve made here, and see for yourself what the school’s future looks like. After all, we can’t change the past, but it’s what we do next that we can influence. If you want to take me up on the offer, please fill in the contact form here and mark it FAO Robin Macpherson: https://www.dollaracademy.org.uk/contact I would very much like to meet you in person to carry on the discussion. I finish at Dollar this term but will be at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen thereafter, so you can also reach me there after August.
      Very best wishes, Robin.

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