Behavioural difficulties

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
I worked for three years in the area of south-east London where black teenager Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death in a racial attack. It's a mainly white, working-class, depressed part of the capital, where black people are sometimes still referred to as "coloured" and Asian people are, as often as not, called "Pakis".

I believe these words are not always used as insults. For some white people with experience of nothing outside their own culture, they are everyday expressions, a language of ignorance - not hatred. But for others they suggest something more, and invite darker thoughts and deeds.

At the boys' secondary school in Woolwich where I taught, the black boys were devastated at what had happened - and afraid of what might happen next. That allowed the Afro-Caribbean and Asian boys to talk about their experiences of racism and violence.

For many, the trip to and from school meant running a gauntlet of fear from attack and insults. I was stunned and saddened at what I heard. For the most part, the white boys were equally condemning of the murder.

However, there were the usual minority of disaffected white boys who reflected the educational and personality profile of the five young men who were charged with but not convicted of Stephen Lawrence's murder, and who gave evidence at the public inquiry into Stephen's death. They were aggressive young men whose guttural language and archaic ideas about anything that deviated from their narrow experiences would produce derisory howls.

Like the five, they were committed believers in glorious isolation; they had never had any social contact with black and Asian people and found the whole idea of multiculturalism laughable.

They gloried in their rejection of anything they perceived as un-English - a poet's name, a specific reading of history. They saw their sneering lack of interest as a form of positive discrimination. Multiculturalism was an invasive, threatening and unwanted influence.

I was struck by the inarticulate opposition, devoid of a coherent morality and organisation, that these youths represent. It underlined why resistance is needed to any notion that school is the place for the three Rs and nothing else.

The death of Stephen should not be seen as a failure of multiculturalism in school and society but a reason for supporting and increasing it. The message multiculturalism delivers of mutual respect and understanding is urgently needed to illuminate the sorts of communities which would welcome those suspects home.

Dave Bryson teaches English in a south London secondary school * If you have a strong opinion on a curriculum subject, write to Brendan O'Malley, secondary editor, TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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