The fight against racism

24th October 1997 at 01:00

THE EDUCATION AND CAREERS OF BLACK TEACHERS: CHANGING IDENTITIES, CHANGING LIVES, By Audrey Osler, Open University Press Pounds 15.99.

ASSIMILATING IDENTITIES: RACISM AND EDUCATIONAL POLICY IN POST-1945 BRITAIN, By Ian Grosvenor, Lawrence and Wishart Pounds 12.99.

RESEARCHING RACE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE IN EDUCATION: ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF BARRY TROYNA, Edited by Pat Sikes and Fazal Rizvi, Trentham Books Pounds 14.95

Black teachers have succeeded despite racial inequality in the education system, says Beulah Ainley.

Audrey Osler's book, The Education and Careers of Black Teachers, draws on the experience of black people who have made it in the education system despite racism. That they are teachers and senior educators is important not just because they are under-represented in education, but because they can be role models for black pupils.

The case histories in this book demonstrate the effect of racism in education - and prove that for black people to succeed they need high educational success and a great deal of confidence, determination and support. The black teachers interviewed here experienced racism as pupils, especially if they were the first black child at their school. They were objects of curiosity, "patted on the head and treated like dolls".

Some remember not liking the "Sambo books" which depicted black people negatively. Others were afraid of going into the playground because of racism. Yet they found ways of surviving; they kept quiet, studied and never told parents of their experience out of fear.

Teaching was not always their first career choice. One African-Caribbean science teacher said, "I drifted into teaching"; while a female Asian teacher only chose teaching so as to delay an arranged marriage.

However, after entering the profession most black teachers took a pastoral and personal interest in black and ethnic minority children because of shared identities and their experience of racism. Black teachers felt they were in an important position to change schools and many became involved in working for a multicultural curriculum.

Black teachers faced opposition not just from white teachers but from black pupils. One black teacher explains that when he tried to stop black children from "wasting time" or "being rebellious", they accused him of acting "white or English" because the black students believed he had "sold out".

Being black and taking a stance on equality issues meant that most interviewees were not promoted despite the extra work they put in helping ethnic minority pupils. One senior manager explained: "I have had to ask, badger, persuade and be persistent to get the professional development that I believe was mine by rights."

In charting the life histories of black teachers and senior educators, the book shows that the education system has a long way to go before equality is a reality. While black teachers have a vital role to play in fighting racial injustice, it is important that they do so with the help of "white colleagues who share their goals".

Ian Grosvenor's book, Assimilating Identities, takes an historica1 look at the debates on race and education since the war. It examines the succession of policies intended to solve the problem of black educational under-achievement: assimilation, integration, multicultural and anti-racist education. The book focuses on the educational policies of Birmingham during the 1960s.

One of the book's main arguments is that educational policies contributed to the racialisation of Britain's black population, black people and their culture not being seen as equal but as "alien" and a "social problem". The state supports this belief by introducing immigration controls, which encourage prejudice based on fear of "lowering standards in health, housing and education".

Assimilating Identities provides evidence that the education policies of Birmingham LEA during the l960s were overtly racist. For instance, an LEA conference in 1960 referred to the increase of black children in schools causing problems of "integration and language difficulties". Fear was also expressed that white pupils were being removed from schools with immigrant children and so some schools were becoming all black, and this was seen as unacceptable.

Reports and memoranda also show that racial stereotypes were common in Birmingham LEA. For example, Mediterranean families were seen as involved in catering and therefore "unconcerned about the welfare of their children during the hours they were away". Asian people were portrayed as "industrious and eager to learn" and had the advantage of a strong family, but the mothers were "unable to speak English" and girls were subjected to an "oppressive code of behaviour".

West Indian children "presented serious educational problems", spoke a "base patois", or "plantation English", which was seen as a "handicap to normal language", and they had "behavioural problems" which they had "inherited".

Despite the history of racism in education which this book clearly reveals, we are also reminded that there have been some welcome changes since the 1960s.

An example of how change is achieved through co-operation between white and black teachers comes in the life of Barry Troyna, a man who devoted his academic life to race, education and social justice. His death in 1996 at the age of 45 meant we lost a powerful advocate in the debate.

The first essay in Researching Race and Social Justice in Education, "A Life Recalled", describes Troyna as a "contradictory person", who could be "kind and supporting", yet "sarcastic, selfish and tyrannical", but who was committed to his work. Troyna explained in the preface to his 1993 book, Racism and Education, that he was committed to social justice because as the son of Jewish parents brought up in London he witnessed the racist abuse of African-Caribbean children at his school and experienced anti-Semitism.

Not everyone agreed with Troyna's views on race and education but, as one contributor puts it, Troyna was never afraid of criticism. As the collection makes clear, he undoubtedly made an important contribution to the issue of race and social justice which will continue to stimulate debate.

Beulah Ainley's Black Journalist, White Media will be published by Trentham Books in January 1998

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