Black pupils at elite UK private schools have urged them to take stronger action against the "terrifying" racist abuse and bullying they have suffered there.
In a letter to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) – which represents most UK private schools – current and former black students describe being subjected to teachers' jokes about segregation, "constant use of the n-word" and bananas being left outside a locker.
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"Whilst we were all privileged enough to attend these schools, there is no amount of privilege that can shield one from racism," the letter signed by 190 students says.
"Often clearly in the minority, the racism we are subjected to is complex yet severe, the impacts of which have stayed with many of us long after leaving."
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One pupil describes another classmate painting themselves brown to dress up as a black character. Another tells how at a rugby tournament they were "called the n-word and told to pick up my banana peels".
"This was hurtful and I reported to teachers who promised they would take it up," the student says. "However it was only when I took to social media and told people to repost that my school took hold of the situation.
"But still I received warnings from teachers that it was an inappropriate use of social media."
The letter calls on private schools to take measures to protect their black pupils, such as adopting a clear racial code of conduct and committing to diversifying their curriculum.
Independent Schools Council chief executive Julie Robinson said: “It is heart-breaking to read of the harrowing experiences detailed in this letter.
"Speaking out about racism is key to tackling it and I am sure school leaders will welcome conversations with the young people in their care about this issue to ensure they know how to share concerns or seek advice.
“We know that schools strive to be inclusive and tolerant environments in which the wellbeing of every young person comes first. Should a pupil ever be worried about racism or feel they have been the victim of abuse of any kind they should report it immediately. We are unequivocal – racism cannot be tolerated.”
The letter in full:
To Our Educators,
This week has been tough. As a community, we are grieving for our murdered brothers and sisters and for the state of the world.
Yet in the midst of our mourning, we have also been forced to think about our own experiences of racism here in the UK, so many of which took place within the hallowed halls of your institutions during our formative years and are still taking place as we speak.
What’s upsetting is that we are the lucky ones. Members of our community across the pond are being killed in the streets, not to mention those here at home, being wrongly imprisoned, spat at whilst carrying out essential work and attacked in public.
Whilst we were all privileged enough to attend these schools, there is no amount of privilege that can shield one from racism. Often clearly in the minority, the racism we are subjected to is complex yet severe, the impacts of which have stayed with many of us long after leaving.
It is precisely these sorts of attitudes and behaviours which, when left unchecked, can lead to tragedies. Racism is dangerous at every level, and at every level it contributes to a society in which the murder of unarmed black people is possible.
Racism is a rampant issue spanning the British educational landscape, but in a country where two-thirds of the cabinet attended private school, along with 65 per cent of Supreme Court judges and 26 per cent of FTSE 100 chief executives, independent schools have a clear responsibility to produce balanced, unbiased individuals. Although the domination of these professions by independent school alumni is itself an inequality that needs to be addressed, we cannot deny its reality. Your schools produce some of the most powerful people in the world.
Now, more than ever, we cannot afford for these powerful individuals to operate with prejudice and yet such prejudices are so often harboured within your institutions.
Our experiences range from the covert and insidious:
“There was one occasion where a girl dressed up as a black character and painted her body brown (essentially black face).”
“Continuously having my name mispronounced, people doing 'African accents', making jokes about the one black teacher that I ever had (who was a supply for 2 weeks) being my uncle and the air of 'casual racism' that was seen as very acceptable throughout all of my time at school.”
To the overt and terrifying:
“Bananas outside my locker. Constant use of the n-word. Being told to go back to my own country. Jokes about segregation from teachers. Disproportionate punishments, and disregard for the actions of other students towards me.”
“Near the end of the first year in a rugby sevens tournament, I was called the n-word and told to pick up my banana peels. This was hurtful and I reported to teachers who promised they would take it up. However, it was only when I took to social media and told people to repost that my school took hold of the situation, but still I received warnings from teachers that it was an inappropriate use of social media.”
“Being called a ‘fat n***er’ by a member of the school.”
But two things unite them all – impunity and apathy. Apathy from the teachers whose job it is to protect our wellbeing and impunity for our peers that abuse us creating environments where racism, however casual, is not just present but accepted and excused.
As Cambridge graduate Pemiwa Arowojolu explains in her dissertation entitled “Black skin white mask: A study of black boys in Britain's top private schools”, "black people have been given ‘the burden of proof’, which means that if they cannot prove racism then it is dismissed", This has led to a culture in many British private schools where racist attitudes are the norm, allowed to fester unchecked and unchallenged.
So what can you do to make this better? We have a few suggestions:
1. Introduce unconscious bias training as standard for all staff, as well as providing workshops for students across year groups
2. Talk to your black students about their experiences, take the time to understand what they are going through and listen to their recommendations.
3. Hire a workforce that accurately represents your communities. We ask for all schools to review their hiring process and commit to becoming equal-opportunity employers.
4. Ensure access to BME [black and minority ethnic] counsellors for students.
5. Adopt a clear racial code of conduct, with appropriate punishments included. Commit to following through with these punishments when required.
6. A tangible commitment to diversifying the curriculum.
Above all, we are asking you to stand up for your black students, listen to them, respect them and value them. Growing up is hard enough without carrying the burden of racism throughout your school career.
For the black students still in your care - ensure they feel welcome in the places which for many are second homes. For your black alumni, using your sizable endowments to contribute to movements such as The NAACP legal defence fund or The Amos Bursary might go some way towards an apology for their experiences.
For the world, prioritise cultivating environments of acceptance and understanding, producing adults who aren't simply not racist but anti-racist.
Your Black Students - past and present
Tiwa Adebayo, Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls / Aldenham Preparatory School (2016)
Ife Ojomo, North London Collegiate School / Edge Grove School (2016)
Gbenga Ojo-Aromokudu, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys' School (2015) and 187 other signatories