As you can perhaps tell from my name, my genetic make-up has ingredients from a few different races: my most recent family history has roots in China and Ireland.
With straight but not black hair, green eyes and a skin tone that ranges from Valspar’s Pink Alabaster to Lord of the Jungle depending on the season, as a general rule – from my experience – I look Asian to Caucasian people, and Caucasian to Asian people.
Over time, I have developed a bank of self-deprecating jokes that I can roll out for laughs, and do so when I feel confident that they will be received in the right spirit – seeing and acknowledging difference but without any malice.
A reflection of society
Although this humorous and lighthearted approach to my own racial mix works for me today, it is something I had to learn growing up.
My feeling, now that I work in education, is that I never really noticed how much ethnicity and appearance were shaping my schooling.
After all, I went through my entire education having only white British teachers.
That is not to say that my education wasn’t fantastic, or that my teachers weren’t excellent, more just asking the question: if my interactions with teachers and peers strongly influenced how I felt about myself, society and its attitudes towards race, then by not having access to racially diverse teachers, was my education missing something?
Certainly, when I think back, my memory does present quite a few examples of interactions with teachers that seem comical now, but were confusing at the time…
When I was in Year 2, the whole school gathered for an assembly, part of which was devoted to Chinese New Year.
Without warning, I was brought up to the front of the assembly to answer questions about Chinese culture and demonstrate how to eat rice with chopsticks.
Like lots of other families, we went to the Peking Garden for our dinner a couple of times a year – but at 7 years old, I had no real clue about either, which I demonstrated to the rest of my peers.
It was slightly embarrassing but more significantly, it was the first time I remember being treated differently by a teacher.
Then, aged 11, I was one of two Chinese boys in my year group – the other was a friend of mine called Peter.
After finishing my work early, I took my book out to the front of the classroom to be marked.
When I received it back, it had "Good work, Peter" written in it.
A completely understandable and forgivable mistake (what teacher hasn’t mixed up some names at some point?) and one to which I hadn’t attached any significance…Until after I pointed out the error, the teacher added, "Oh, that’s right. Peter’s the other one, isn’t he?"
These are just two examples from my own (much longer) list. I am sure that countless others share similar experiences, including many that were far more damaging.
In fact, to further gauge the authenticity of my experience, I asked a couple of friends of mine with a similar upbringings to see if they had any stories of their own. Unsurprisingly, they did.
A friend of Indian heritage from Preston told me how he had been selected to compete in cross-country for the school, which meant leaving a lesson early to meet the other children.
He asked for permission to be excused, only for the teacher to say that he could go after he had named seven different curries.
Another friend of mine who came over to Liverpool from Lebanon said that he had a real problem explaining to a dinner lady that he couldn’t eat lunch like the other children during Ramadan.
When a teacher was consulted, it was decided that they didn’t care what he did at home and all children had to eat lunch.
He spent the next part of the lunch hour picking the ham off the school-made sandwiches before reluctantly accepting that he had to eat them to avoid getting into trouble.
When speaking with my friends about these experiences, we all had a good laugh about the absurdity of these stories.
Additionally, we all agreed that it helped us to develop a resilience that we were now grateful for, even though that was despite these teachers, rather than because of them.
The power of school, and teachers
However, I now regularly tell these stories to student teachers – or anyone, for that matter – as a way of demonstrating two main points:
- How powerful (both positively and negatively) a teacher’s attitudes, values and actions can be.
- Why we need a more diverse representation of all different aspects of society to go into teaching.
This second point is particularly key when you look at the most recent school teacher workforce statistics published by the government:
- In 2018, 85.9 per cent of all teachers in state-funded schools in England were white British (out of those whose ethnicity was known).
- By comparison, 78.5 per cent of the working-age population was white British at the time of the 2011 census.
- 3.9 per cent of teachers were from the "white other" ethnic group, the second highest percentage after the white British group.
- 92.9 per cent of headteachers were white British.
I feel that, at this point, I must repeat that I am not in any way dismissing the merits of white British teachers.
Nor is it my intention for anyone who identifies as white British to take this as any kind of personal attack over something that they cannot control. (I also really don’t want to alienate 86 per cent of my colleagues and 93 per cent of my prospective employers…)
It is more my intention to highlight that if 93 per cent of headteachers and 86 per cent of teachers are white British, then logically, they will share some of the same blind spots.
If we are to maximise human welfare within our society, we need to maximise the experience our education system provides.
We need a more diverse everything. We need more diversity of perception, more diversity of thought, more diversity of interaction and more diversity of the role models we present to children.
So if you’re from a black, Asian or minority-ethnic background and struggling to figure out how you can help to play a part in positive social change, perhaps consider a career in teaching.
Ian Wah is an assistant headteacher and teacher training mentor at St Francis de Sales Catholic Junior School in Liverpool