So-subtle shadow of racism;Letter

9th April 1999 at 01:00
IN "Institutionally lazy and fashionable" (TES, March 19) Farrukh Dhondy calls for an exploration of the correlations between class, family conditions, details of parenting, cultural pursuits at home, homework, behaviour in class, and "the great goal of achievement".

None of this is new - a research project only last year revealed that social class, itself correlated with the majority of his "variables", was the major determinant of success or failure in school (TES, September 25:

"5,000 pupils prove social class matters").

Race and class are not coterminous, nor are gender and class. In a society which bears the legacy of colonialism, the underachievement and disaffection of black boys of African-Caribbean origin must have wider causes than the individual or social characteristics that Dhondy names.

However, he is dismissive about stereotyping, responses to cultural difference and unwitting racism, which he claims are "grasped from the fashion ether".

Institutional racism is not divorced from stereotyping, unwitting racism or low expectation. What can look like individual acts of racism gets translated into institutional racism because the people in power in the institution do not challenge the perpetrators, do not support the victims, but maintain their own self-referential value systems.

Some of the black and Asian teacher trainees I work with have experienced this; I would like Dhondy to extrapolate how such institutional racism might affect children taught by the same adults who interacted so negatively with our trainee teachers.

It is fortunate that these students knew that they could come to people in authority in another institution, who listen and take them seriously. Otherwise I have little doubt that they would have become disaffected and then failed or dropped out.

So without denying the importance of supportive home backgrounds, I think the subtle ways in which people are the object of prejudiced attitudes, undermined, unable to perform at their best and then penalised by those in authority, is highly relevant to discussions of institutional racism.

Case study: A mixed-race student notes that two black boys are routinely "picked on" by the young, white, middle class, female teacher of her placement class. She feels that her efforts to create positive relationships with these boys and their parents are seen as threatening by the teacher.

She becomes increasingly anxious about her role in the class, and her positive image as a young black woman, vis-a-vis the teacher. She is not able to perform at her best, and we move her to another school.

Another case study: An African Caribbean woman, brought up here and with nothing about her speech to distinguish her from many other (white) working-class students, is told by her head- teacher that she needs to "learn to speak properly". Bewildered, the student comes to me and says that she is very careful to use standard English in school.

I collaborate with her in creating an agenda that she can talk through with her class teacher, intending that she complete her practice. A week later she reports that she is belittled about the way she talks and prevented from interacting with children. We decide to move her from the school.

I expect most of my colleagues, parents, children or young people, black or white, who understand the subtle workings of racism, could cite many more examples. We know how racist attitudes held by people in authority can maintain institutional white hegemony.

However, none of this has anything to do with characteristics of the ethnic-minority students or children themselves.

Hilary Claire

Programme director

Primary ITE courses

School of Education

University of North London

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