Racism must be fought daily

4th March 2005 at 00:00
In the run-up to the Holocaust memorial day in January, I was asked by a journalist how schools should teach the wrongs of racism. It is a question not easily answered in a five-minute conversation, and one which certainly causes much anguish to education providers, particularly those heard muttering "political correctness gone mad".

Many schools across the world commemorate the Holocaust and use it as a spring-board to deal with racism. An excellent example of this is the school in Whitwell, Tennessee, USA, which collected six million paper clips from around the world as a way to visualise the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.

Inspired by Norwegians, who wore paper clips in their lapels during the Second World War as a silent protest against Nazism and anti-Semitism, children with little experience of diversity in their own town were taught what happens when people are not tolerant of others, and that stereotyping of any kind is wrong.

Altogether they received 28m paper clips. Film director Steven Spielberg, of Schindler's List fame, sent a gold one. What began as a minor school project became a permanent children's Holocaust memorial and the subject of a documentary entitled Paper Clips.

Though the project caught my breath with its breadth and glamour, its greatest achievement was to make the extermination of Jews relevant to the everyday reality of privileged, mainly white, children in southern America.

But originality does not guarantee success, as recently experienced by a primary school in north Wales, which found itself accused of promoting racial bullying after separating and dressing children in either yellow (superiors) or white (inferiors) t-shirts. Reports of children leaving in tears blinded most to the school's seeming will to make a difference on its anti-discrimination day.

Schools have a vital role to play in preparing children for life in a multi-ethnic Wales. Anti-racism should be taught in the classroom, but done sensitively. Marking the Holocaust is splendid but to do so rashly, without couching it within a wider teaching plan, could either land somebody in hot water or lead to a missed opportunity.

Schools need a curriculum rich in racial equality values, and a school atmosphere that will provide children with a ready-made example of how to treat others.

Carys Thomas works for the Commission for Racial Equality in Wales

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