Saris and samosas won't beat bigotry

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Schools are confusing multicultural education with anti-racist policies, says Jaye Richards

No once again, racism rears its ugly head in the news (TESS, September 5), with both Glasgow and my own authority, East Dunbartonshire, listing disturbing increases in reported racist incidents. While officials from both councils express their concern, both admit that the reasons for this increase are unclear, except for, perhaps, an improved system of recording.

And, of course, the anniversary of 911 brought with it a fresh wave of anti-Islamic newspaper headlines providing fuel for the racist fires.

But the reasons are a little more complicated. For while schools and education authorities have made great progress in what they believe to be anti-racist education, the root of the problem lies in a confusion at these institutional levels, between multicultural education and genuine anti-racist policies.

For some years, the focus has been on multicultural education, particularly in Glasgow with its "international" school in Shawlands Academy.

Multicultural education aims to celebrate cultural differences, with schools as "neutral arenas" and teachers (and education authorities) providing the correct teaching materials and environments. The "one Scotland, many cultures" campaign being run by the Scottish Executive is a national extension.

But all this really does is raise awareness of other cultures, rather than get to the root of the racism problem, which is a belief in the superiority of one group over another. And culture is a wide-ranging term that must include lifestyles and socio-economics as well as nationality and religion.

As a feminist lesbian woman, I belong to three interconnected cultural groups, each with its own beliefs and challenges dictated by gender, politics and sexuality, not skin colour. Single-parent families and disabled people have distinct cultures. There is even, dare I say it, a growing culture of the school senior management team, although this is still one that is remote from most teachers and pupils. And the growth of the so-called asylum-seeker group has had a major influence on our society and, by extension, in our schools.

Mike Cole, writing on this subject 10 years ago, asked whether the predominantly white, middle-class teaching profession was morally equipped to teach about the ways of life of peoples from other cultures. Pictures of Bangladesh, samosas and saris, Cole argued, encouraged an aura of cultural superiority offensive to black and Asian people.

This argument is more relevant than ever before and we need to move away from these safe "cultural" sites - usually food, religion and the arts.

Instead of simply raising awareness, as teachers we must confront and counter preconceived ideas, from pupils and colleagues. Instead of being seen as a privileged group of professionals setting the agenda, we need to listen to the opinions of people from these other minority groups.

Treatment of the individual as a distinct, unique person, rather than that person as a member of a cultural group, must be the cornerstone of anti-racist education.

Time and time again, it has been shown that we are an institutionally racist society (the Macpherson report into the Metropolitan Police being just one example). Society is built on power relationships (teacher-pupil, for one) and these power structures establish and perpetuate racism in our economic, social and political institutions. Anti-racist education must start with an understanding of just how mixed up racism is with economics, politics, class and gender. What better place to do this than in schools where teachers could help young people to examine this process.

But are we willing to go the extra mile? Not yet it seems. For when presented with a golden opportunity to discuss these relationships with pupils in the wake of young people's anti-war protests over the Iraqi invasion, most schools fudged the issue.

Instead of using this situation as material for lessons about the ultimate power relationship - that of the superpower state imposing its will on smaller, weaker nations - schools gave out warnings and punishments to the kids who left their classrooms and marched. Visions of the British Raj spring to mind here. Surely we can do better than this.

So teach pupils about the outcomes of racist actions, rather than just an individual's intentions. Promote justice, not just harmony or "good relations". Help young people to expand the issues surrounding racism and prejudice to include not just helping the so-called disadvantaged to aspire to normality, but taking apart and reconstructing these definitions of "normality".

This has to be a better approach than this world culture melting pot we see on our classroom and corridor walls day after day. Let us use education to redefine and reshape issues of culture, religion, race, gender and sexuality. This is real anti-racist education for a 21st century Scotland.

Jaye Richards is a probationer teacher in East Dunbartonshire.

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