Dancing to a different tune;Opinion

26th March 1999 at 00:00
A decade ago, in a school committee discussing racism, a white member of the group demurred at the notion that the term "Paki" was offensive. "It's just colloquial, affectionate even," he said, "like Tally was to previous generations." This hung in the air until the head of chemistry, himself Asian, quietly replied: "I find it offensive." Collapse of stout party.

Schools regularly monitor the occurrence of racial incidents, examples of racism are challenged more readily now than before, the public profile of anti-racist education is more prominent - yet there is a gaping lack of direct evidence about the experiences of ethnic minority pupils.

My hunch is that those schools enjoying a diversity of ethnic backgrounds are better placed to respond. Problems occasionally occur when a new pupil or teacher comes into a multi-ethnic school. Conversely, the difficulties experienced by black pupils whose pioneering parents have moved out of traditional housing areas can be intense. Does anti-racist training go on in those schools with no ethnic minority pupils?

The truism that children aren't born racist but adopt their behaviour from adult templates holds good, and one of the teacher's many obligations is to defend and promulgate the rights of the racially dispossessed.

In my first school, the PE department wanted several Asian prefects suspended because they refused to participate in dancing practice, yet turned up to help at the dance. Staff polarised. It was either a discipline issue or a cultural one. A petition surfaced. Twenty staff were reprimanded by the headteacher for supporting the Asian prefects (the deputy was a PE teacher) but they (and the staff) kept their posts.

Successful treatment of race issues in schools demands that ethnic pupils retain their confidence in the staff - not just in the narrow confines of subject specialism, but in understanding cultural pressures and family tension, religious observance and fasting, peer group problems, coping with gender issues. Most children will need support in negotiating adolescence, but a special sensitivity may be necessary to pupils from ethnic backgrounds.

A retired guidance principal teacher was recently greeted warmly by a man in his 30s. This successful businessman (they joked about whose Mercedes it was at the kerb) had been bullied by pupils and one member of staff about wearing his turban. The guidie intervened, spoke to both parties, and the problem ceased.

Twenty years later the warmth of the greeting was all it took to crystallise the need for teachers to give a lead in championing the rights of all the pupils they teach.

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