Structural Racism or Unconscious Bias: That time a parent called me racist…

I’ve written before about the importance of conversation and how our current climate, so often fuelled by blame and fear leads to a polarising of thinking, which I believe gets in the way of real, progressive change. I want to explore how, at this time, we (primarily referring to white educators) might hold strong on our commitment to dismantling structures of racism but not get side tracked by symptoms of the issue or performative displays of ally-ship, whilst also continuing to learn and check our own biases and privilege. To illustrate this I want to unpack an encounter that happened in the early part of my career.

In my first year of teaching I had an incredibly bright, but very under confident, young black student in my year 10 class. She developed a dislike for me, amongst other things taking issue to my (yet un-honed) no hands up approach in class. Older and wiser, I now know that it probably made her feel on the spot and humiliated. As a result, her way of gaining back some power was to try and humiliate me. She would shout out, roll her eyes and mutter under her breath whilst I was talking. Despite my best efforts to have conversations after class to try and resolve the situation, these behaviours persisted. I invited her Mum in for a meeting and described the behaviours outlined above. To my surprise, rather than back me up her Mum, took issue with this and told me that I was racist,  stating that I was labelling her daughter as an ‘angry black woman’. This encounter really affected me. It’s not nice to be called racist, particularly when you’re a new and tired teacher trying really hard but that wasn’t why. l remember distinctly saying “If you get an A* in my class but you leave this school thinking that it’s acceptable to treat anyone in the way you’ve treated me then I’ve failed you”. I felt so strongly that if I did not challenge this behaviour, I’d be letting her down in a big way. I’d be letting any child down if I tacitly taught them that behaving in a hostile way towards someone who was teaching you was acceptable, but particularly a young woman of colour, for whom the world is always (though hopefully not forever) going to be more challenging for.

This story speaks to something that has been getting to me for a while. It feels to me, that we get hung up on individual bias, when the real focus of our attention should be on structural inequalities. Studies tell us time and time again about the poor educational outcomes (attainment, exclusions, access to university) for black students and whilst I don’t believe school is a panacea, we do know that well-ordered classrooms, with high and positive expectations of all students conduct have a role in trying to address this.

And yet, there’s another reading of this, one that I think as reflective practitioners, committed to anti- racism is worth engaging with. It requires me to look deeper into my own unconscious behaviour. Under stress and inexperienced, did I ascribe her behaviours as a threat in the same way that I would as someone in a white body? People of colour talk often about micro-aggressions that are picked up on an instinctive level. Was she responding to some sort of prejudice or bias that I emanated as I signalled her out. Or was she more self- conscious because of her experiences of structural inequalities already? I might never know. I always felt I expected a lot of her because I knew how clever she was but all our thinking is to some extent permeated by a white supremacist culture. I believe that as a white teacher working in predominantly BAME environment, I have a moral duty to at least entertain the possibility that I might not automatically be completely unbiased.

Moreover, a further reading might consider what it meant for her Mum to sit in a room and stand against a perceived micro-aggression towards her daughter. Perhaps it was cathartic? Some kind of rebalancing for her? Who knows what prejudice and discrimination she experienced in her own schooling. Surely, I shouldn’t have been too fragile at being on the receiving end of this and rather use it as an opportunity to better understand the lives of our students and reflect on my practice?

I think this encounter raises some important questions, as does the Black Lives Matter movement much more broadly. As educators we need to reflect on our privilege and bias in an honest way and be prepared to learn and change, whether that’s in relation to our classroom interactions, our behaviour policies or our curriculum. However, we also need to ensure that we don’t get distracted by the symptom of the problem and potentially make things worse with performative actions that don’t affect real change.

What I mean by that is boundaries and high expectations are not racist, they are part of a good education which is the right of all. We must reflect but also stand firm where we believe in things or know they work. I’m thinking recently about the furore around Teach Like a Champion but I’ve also written before about my commitment to decolonising the curriculum. How if we write the dead, white men out of the story we’re doing our young people a massive disservice in them being able to understand how and why the world is in the current state it is. Yet also,  if we only teach the dead, white men we risk, not only alienating our BAME students but missing a huge, vibrant and important chunk of the human story.

Further, abuse from parents is one of the most challenging elements of a teacher’s role, particularly the further you get in leadership and the more you have to deal with it. As school leaders we need to look after our teachers (particularly the new ones) and be clear with our parents on our values. At the same time we need to support our teachers, in a loving and non- blaming way, to reflect on their own prejudices and how this might inform their practice, in particular teachers who come from privilege who my not so easily understand the experience of some of our BAME students.

Ultimately, there is no quick fix (no hashtag or petition you can sign) to addressing the structural inequalities that pile up against our young people of colour. It’s the work we do day in day out in our classrooms and our curriculum planning, reflecting and thinking deeply, repairing relationships and being brave and firm and holding the line, as the adult in the room when we need to that will make a difference in the end.

Oh and that young women? She did get an A* after all but, more meaningful for me, was the handwritten invitation to prom that I received when she finished Year 11.

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