Shades of blindness;Anti-racist books

25th June 1999 at 01:00
TEACHING RACISM: OR TACKLING IT? Multicultural stories from white beginning teachers. By Russell Jones. Trentham Books pound;14.95

Chris Gaine welcomes a call to revise blinkered attitudes on racism.

How often do we hear that young children "don't notice people's colour"? While it's true that racism is learned, it seems odd that children to whom we constantly talk of red trains, blue dresses and black cats apparently fail to notice the skin colour of their classmates. And for teachers to claim that they themselves do not, or mustnot, notice colour is not just silence, it is silencing. This is the territory Russell Jones explores in this book.

He examines how primary schools approach, think about and respond to "race" and culture - actually not all schools, but white schools, as the book focuses on white student teachers, taught by white lecturers, with placements in mainly white schools staffed entirely by white teachers. Jones didn't choose this, but that's how it is where he works.

The book addresses a paradox that can be put in several ways. "Race" ought to be irrelevant, but those most concerned about it are those who notice and draw attention to it the most; "race" ought not to be important, but to make it unimportant we first have to make it important; "race" ought not to matter, but to make it irrelevant we need to pay careful attention to the ways in which it does matter.

There is an alternative view - that if we try to be "colour-blind", "race" will not surface as an issue. But Jones says this is tantamount to ignoring the problem in the hope that it will go away.

There is no such paradox with culture and ethnicity. People's ethnicity can be a significant and conscious part of how they want to live, how they see themselves and how they want to be seen by others, and they would have it no other way, so education should make no attempt to be culture-blind.

But race and culture get blurred, as does what "counts" as racism, which is why so much uncertainty and nervousness surrounds it. Colour as such should have nothing to do with social interaction - culture always will, and we must recognise that.

Jones explores the other side of the paradox - the silence about racism brought about by those who usually have concerns but who are uncertain and nervous about how to act upon them. Such people seem to end up determinedly not noticing "race" or culture in the hope that this will make them unimportant. He shows a systematic silencing of "race" and culture as issues. When black children are underachieving it's their individual faults; when they are racially abused it didn't happen or they deserved it; when they're culturally different white people assume they would like to be the same as the majority, or they're perceived as middle-class so "not a problem" (a perception that also whitens them). If multicultural education is brought up, it is treated as irrelevant, or "PC", and therefore legitimately ignored or avoided.

This may sound a travesty, but Jones cites remarkable examples, such as a school which "has no black children" but where black children walk past him in the corridor, or Asian pupils being racially abused in a school with "Pakis out" graffiti outside it, but where staff believe they need not mention racism because the school's Christian atmosphere immunises it.

This is a timely book. Since the report on the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, the police have had to examine the ways in which "race" and culture matter, and education cannot escape doing the same. Trentham is to be congratulated on its timing and speed: the book contains references barely three months old.

The book is also depressing. It reveals gaps everywhere in initial teacher education: in central policy assumptions about what kind of training teachers need; in students' perceptions and in their own willingness to be challenged in this area; in higher education provision (patchy, sometimes ineffective, always too little); in schools (mentors' and others' uncertainty about what to do, lack of knowledge and unwillingness to think the issue through).

Jones lists everything that could be done to improve the situation - and it is a huge task, though a re-assertion of the ideal of teachers as critical and reflective practitioners would do as a start. Teaching is complex and not reducible to checklists and competencies; in dividuals have to be willing to challenge their own assumptions, and there seems to be a pernicious symmetry between simplistic ideas about education and naive views about racism.

The book may also be useful. Despite its critique of many practices, it is respectful of teachers and their work (Jones was, until recently, a deputy head of a primary school). It is accessible and clear, and provides excellent case study material. Using it as a staff development activity, one could do worse than simply take some of the 36 sometimes contradictory rationales and rationalisations schools and universities use to make racism disappear. They will cause argument and debate, but neither ethnic minority nor white children will thank us for silence.

Chris Gaine is reader in sociology of education at University College Chichester, and author of a website about racism for classroom use,

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