3 important lessons about racism in UK schools

As the world reacts to Harry and Meghan's interview this week, Viv Grant suggests it’s a good time for schools to explore their own work around racial equality

Viv Grant

Taking inspiration from Meghan and Harry to tackle racism in UK schools

It has been almost 10 months since the world witnessed the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. As a black woman reflecting on this time, I have found myself asking what an “education in hope” looks like. 

With a particular emphasis on our work with white senior leadership teams, I have identified three key lessons.

Lesson 1: Schools are centres of racial socialisation

In one of the modules of our Race, Identity and School Leadership programme, we ask school leaders to reflect on their school experiences. Which teachers influenced them? How did they see themselves as learners? What beliefs were they beginning to shape about education and its purposes? These questions often prompt rich reflection, debate and discussion. 

After a while, we ask: “To what degree did race figure in your reflections?”

With majority-white senior leadership teams, on a scale of one to 10, where one is low and 10 is high, the response is nearly always between one and three. And then the penny drops. 


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UK school leaders remain uncomfortable discussing race, and feel ill-equipped to discuss either race or racism, because it did not figure in their own experiences of schooling (or teacher training, for that matter) and hence they have simply replicated their own experiences of schooling.

What needs to be understood is that schools are centres of racial socialisation. It does not matter if a school is diverse or relatively racially homogeneous, racial socialisation still takes place. Schools are places where racial identities “emerge, collide, erupt or lay hidden daily”.  

It is only by bringing these interactions to the fore and making them part of their day-to-day practice that schools can become places where race socialisation supports the development of positive racial identities across all members of the school’s community.

Lesson 2: Anti-racism is foregrounded by a positive racial identity

This work is not easy work but it is right work. As a black woman, it is also not easy work. Every time I explore the impact of racism, old memories, feelings and hurt are activated and, once again, I have to find ways to bolster a positive racial identity within myself.

From working with majority white senior leadership teams, I see it is not easy work for them either, because they are being invited to be a part of the race conversation in ways in which they haven’t been before. They are being invited to own their own racial identities as white, and this is not easy.

It is not easy for a number of reasons:

Norms: Racism thrives when “other” groups are given attention because they don’t fit within what the dominant culture has defined as the norm.

Unconsciousness: Whiteness and what it means to be white goes unexamined and escapes conscious attention.

Racial socialisation: Through racial socialisation both in and outside of school, many white teachers and senior school leaders have been taught to be colour-blind. The assumption being that race is something that belongs to others and therefore it is best to pretend that race can’t be seen. But if we live under the illusion that we don’t notice race, by implication racism cannot be seen either and therefore can’t be addressed.

A first step for white senior school leaders is to develop a positive racial identity and to take responsibility for resocialising themselves and “accepting whiteness as part of who one is and being wholly oneself while refusing to perpetuate the oppressive parts of whiteness”.

Lesson 3: We must understand the emotional reality of this work

Becoming racially literate is an emotionally challenging process that does not happen overnight. It takes times to develop the skills and confidence that enable us to engage in meaningful and healthy cross-racial dialogues; notice and analyse racial dynamics as they occur; and ask race questions about ourselves and our own teaching/leadership practice.

The reason why many teachers and school leaders struggle to become racially literate is because they have not learned how to also become emotionally literate when discussing race. Instead, they have learned to disconnect from their emotions and slam on the emotional brakes. This disconnection has often meant a fracturing of relationships on both sides.

In a performance-driven culture that rewards expediency and performance-related outcomes, it can be hard for school leaders to engage differently with this work. Many need support to accept the need to slow down, allow the process of becoming more racially aware to unfold and learn to be comfortable with ambiguity and not knowing. 

Coming to terms with this way of working is not purely a cognitive process. Yes, we need to be able to intellectualise and think critically about what it means to become racially literate but we must also understand that to gain any traction in our own personal awareness and self-development, emotional literacy also plays a part.

Teachers and school leaders would do well to reflect on Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence competencies in relation to race to enable them to become more racially literate.

Looking forward 

So where will we be on the 25 May 2021? Schools will commemorate the day that George Floyd’s life was so cruelly taken away. Relationships and the emotional tone of these connections are everything in schools and even more so in our efforts towards greater race equality and social justice. But we need to be prepared to ask:

  • Will there be a deepening understanding of what the journey towards true racial literacy really looks like? 
  • Will there be an understanding that becoming anti-racist is not just to do with reworking the curriculum, writing new policies and completing audits?

In searching for answers to these questions, I hope there will be an understanding that to be effective, these actions must be complemented by a commitment to undertake deep inter- and intra-personal work. We have to be willing to know ourselves in order to facilitate a deeper knowing and connection with others.

Viv Grant is an executive coach, author and public speaker and a former headteacher. She is also an advisory board member of the UK’s first Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools at The Carnegie School of Education at Leeds Beckett University

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