Rescuing the lost boys of racism

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Racial harassment, most frequently by white working-class boys, is a growing concern. Young blacks and Asians are sadly used to taunts and attacks - whether on the football terraces or on the way to school.

In recent months, there have been a number of high-profile cases of racially-inspired bullying, in one case leading to the suicide of a Sikh schoolboy.

So, what can be done to curb the behaviour of young racists?

The Government is currently working on new laws to clamp down on racial abuse and many schools are already working hard to combat racism. But until now little has been done to help the abusers to see the errors of their ways.

A report published this week suggests that by working with young racists, trying to understand their perceptions and problems, it is possible to make a significant impact on racist behaviour - and help to reduce racially-mot ivated assaults.

The report, entitled Blood, Sweat and Tears, published by the National Youth Agency, was written by anti-racist consultant Stella Dadzie. It documents a three-year youth work project that focused on mainly 12 to 18-year-old white working-class males living in Bermondsey in south London,an area with a history of racist activity.

These were teenagers that the existing youth and voluntary services in the area had written off as "lost causes" and too dangerous to work with. Many of the 200 young men had been involved in racist behaviour themselves though the project also involved some black workers as well as a small number of young white women.

The aim of the Bede Detached Youth Work Project was to challenge racism. But rather than hammering out anti-racist rhetoric that the youths had heard at school and ignored many times before, project leader Aine Woods and her team took a different tack.

They supported and befriended these lads and by doing so, met needs that hadn't been met before. Observing that "boredom was at the root of much of their anti-social behaviour", they set up a programme of activities, made links with their parents and other locals and generally won their trust.

Below the surface, there were other things going on. "The supportive relationships that were established through these interventions not only raised the project's status in the eyes of the parents and workers from other agencies; they also made the young people themselves more receptive to the project's hidden agenda, which was to confront and challenge their racism whenever the opportunity arose."

And there were plenty of opportunities. Racist comments reflecting local attitudes would crop up on the way to a football game or during a day trip to France. Often the youths voiced their perception of the unfairness of equal opportunities policies as giving black people an advantage over whites. They also railed against the double standards they believed to be at work when it came to racism itself.

As one local parent said in the report many of the children do not understand why, if they get into an argument in school, and someone comes out with "black slag" and someone else says "white honkey" "the teacher's down on the white kid more than the black one".

"Now that attitude goes through the school with them. They think 'well, we're nothing, according to the teacher we're second-class citizens, they're better than us."

For many of these young people, it was the first time that such feelings and perceptions had been discussed with people outside their peer groups.

"In our project," says Stella Dadzie, whose role was as trainer, adviser and researcher as well as author of the report, "we didn't start from the basis of something being wrong with these young people. Our approach was based on the belief that they are growing up in a social and economic context that lends itself to these attitudes.

"What we did with them is to show them the folly of racism, that it's not the way to deal with their own insecurities and feelings of disenfranchisement."

It is impossible to measure the effects of the project. What is clear is that during the three years it was in operation, local police reported a 40 per cent drop in racial attacks - in an area which was notorious for its white-on-black street violence, often inspired by British National Party members.

According to the National Youth Agency, which funded the project, it had its successes. There were "those who were enabled to see through the lies they had been told and have a mature perspective on why they believed and acted as they did.

"But there was a much larger number who made the first steps towards change and now opt out when their mates make racist jokes and have stopped being deliberately provocative."

According to Stella Dadzie, although young people are more receptive to project work outside schools, there are elements of the programme that can be adapted to a school environment. "Many of the lessons and methods explored in the book are highly relevant to schools. Approaches that we used such as befriending, daily discussions and pastoral work could be integrated into the curriculum."

She believes that the will is there, even if the way may appear to be beyond reach. "There will always be teachers concerned enough to take on the work and implications of our project. But whether schools as institutions will take it on depends on whether the Government realises the need to promote and resource this kind of work."

There is also concern that since child development and psychology were effectively squeezed out of teacher training in the late 1980s, many staff lack an awareness of the difference between normal and abnormal behaviour and how children function emotionally.

According to one veteran educationist: "Teachers need to be sensitised in what to look for and often they don't have the space or the understanding to observe subtleties of, for instance, body language that would indicate social exclusion. "

Another key area has to do with the whole-school perspective and ethos. He believes that some schools haven't explored racial harassment because they haven't looked at bullying, of which it is a part, nor have they considered the class dimensions that often underpin both kinds of behaviour.

"In LEAs and schools where anti-racist strategies have been thought through, they have looked at class issues and how to affirm white disaffected youth. They have also, in confronting behaviour management issues, laid down a value system that is agreed to and conformed to by every child and teacher in the school."

But such vision and rigour requires training, and therein lies another rub. With schools now responsible for their own in-service training, they often use their own staff to do it. Previously LEAs bought in expensive specialists. "If the inset is being led by someone who has read one book, what's the quality going to be?" he asks.

While there is no longer a statutory obligation for schools or education authorities to monitor incidents of racial harassment, it is widely acknowledged - in the words of Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality - that "harassment is still a fact of life for ethnic minority children as part of the day-to-day general abuse that goes on."

A report published last year by ChildLine underlines this point. Analysing more than 1,600 callers to the charity's helpline, it revealed that one in four callers said they had experienced racist bullying, half of them for more than a year before seeking help.

The fact that some schools have difficulty identifying the racial bullying was graphically illustrated in the case of Vijay Singh of Stretford, Manchester. On October 12 last year, his family came home to find the 13-year-old football-loving Sikh boy had hanged himself.

A few days earlier, his English teacher at Stretford High School in Trafford had awarded Vijay a merit for a poem on bullying he had written. What the teacher didn't know was that for Vijay, this was no mere class exercise. After his death, his mother found a diary containing vivid accounts of daily verbal and physical assaults. Neither she, his friends nor his headteacher had known of the bullying he had endured at the hands of white boys.

How schools, with all the constraints they are forced to work within, can deal with the kind of behaviour that led to Vijay's suicide is the big question.

Caroline Dargan, headteacher at North Harringay Junior School in north London, admits that "schools can't be separated from society. When you have parents making racially abusive comments, you can't stop that from pervading children's thought processes."

She has instituted an Assertive Discipline framework, an American behaviour management programme developed by Lee Canter, which sets down ground rules which everyone follows and by which everybody is treated. "That way, children know what the boundaries are and know everybody will be dealt with fairly."

Hand in hand with this, she uses peer mentoring for specific conflicts between the older children. "We have the aggressor sit down with the victim and trained peer mediator, usually with me overseeing them. I had in two children yesterday. The victim asked the perpetrator, 'Why did you say that to me?' The perpetrator replied, 'That's what my dad said.' Then the victim said, 'Why did you repeat it?' and the perpetrator said, 'I wanted to hurt you. ' Then I said to the perpetrator, 'You obviously wanted to hurt him but his colour has nothing to do with it. You were angry with him because of his behaviour. Here are some strategies you can use in future.'"

While peer mentoring can be effective with younger children because, as Caroline Dargan admits, "they use race at this age as a way to hurt each other verbally, " there are misgivings about its use with older students. Says Liz Fakete of the Institute for Race Relations: "I've seen examples of peer mentoring going wrong, where black kids have been used as guinea-pigs for white kids' identity problems."

Consultations on Labour's proposals to further curb racist behaviour, published by the Home Office in a much-vaunted document entitled Racial Violence and Harassment, ended last month. The plans include measures to establish new offences for racially inspired crimes and increase penalties for crimes with a racial element.

While a racial harassment Act will create a framework for institutions and give a message to society that racism will not be tolerated, the real changing of young hearts and minds requires a lot more in the way of blood,sweat and tears.

Blood, Sweat and Tears is available from the National Youth Agency, price #163;8. 50. Tel: 0116 285 6789.

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