Coming across a recent article in the Edinburgh Evening News where a former Fettes College pupil told of mock "slave" auctions and discrimination from teachers and fellow students made me wonder if most readers would dismiss this as "something that happens in these spaces of privilege". Assuming this happened, I suspect most of us, as responsible educators, would distance ourselves from such behaviour, viewing this as being in extremely poor taste at best and outright racist at worst.
However, it would be a complacent, naive or possibly lazy approach to assume that racism or racist incidents are the preserve of those who are perceived to be privileged. A 2019 Intercultural Youth Scotland Report report based on an online survey attracting responses from 110 black and minority ethnic young people found that under a third felt they were unable to tell their teachers if they had experienced a racist incident, and half the respondents did not feel that their school would respond effectively to any concerns raised about racism or discrimination.
The report also found that there were perception differences between male and female respondents, with female respondents being more critical of the ability of schools to respond or staff to empathise. African/black respondents reported far greater concern about the lack of awareness of their teachers about black culture, heritage and backgrounds, as compared with Asian respondents.
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Now, you could say that is one report with a small respondent sample. However, what cannot be dismissed is that the findings of this report echo the findings of other research (see Arshad et al 2004 and Caulfied et al 2005 – no web link, see reference below) and writings by black and minority ethnic students, such as Aleisha Omeike.
However, the report by the Evening News left me wondering what signals are being given that some behaviour is fine and tolerated while others are not? When I used to work as director of the Multicultural Education Centre, based in Leith Walk Primary in Edinburgh, many, many years ago, I remember talking to a local Asian shopkeeper who asked me why his shop was always targeted with graffiti and he regularly received racist verbal abuse from local young people, while the neighbouring shops with white shopkeepers never received the same treatment.
What gives fellow pupils the message that it is acceptable to make fun of others because of colour, ethnic background, religion, accent and so on? What makes teachers turn away or pretend not to understand or hear what is going on? Indeed, what are the loud and consistent counter-messages being given by us as educators that this is wrong, and for young people to understand why this is wrong?
Incidents of "slave auctions" and the like also made me ponder over concepts like privilege and advantage. Many will have heard the term "white privilege" since the events of Black Lives Matter. That word "privilege" has caused consternation as people have argued that not all white people have privilege: how could individual white people living in poverty have privilege?
Here lies the misunderstanding. It is not about the specific situation of individuals. When the concept of white privilege is used, it is used by those of us who work to promote anti-racism and race equality as an overarching concept. This concept has been developed and embedded into our systems, over centuries, to promote a worldview that has categorised some cultures, languages, accents, images to be more superior and advanced than others. Colonialism has shaped much of the construction of that worldview, and so some forms of knowledge, pedagogical strategies and research methodologies that are associated with the colonisers have been bestowed higher status, recognised and rewarded accordingly. This "buying into" this worldview has not just happened in the West but also across the globe.
When I was growing up in Malaysia, I was studying the same textbooks as my counterparts in other countries in the world, including within the UK. We have all potentially internalised similar stereotypes, prejudicial ideologies and dominant narratives that emerged and favoured the colonisers. During colonial times, as academic and public intellectual Edward Said suggests, knowledge became a commodity of colonial exploitation as with other natural resources.
This is why there is such a movement to decolonise the curriculum. The decolonising project is about asking us to think again about how we classify, organise and represent knowledge. Decolonising the curriculum is about being prepared to reconnect, reorder and reclaim knowledges and teaching methodologies that have been submerged, hidden or marginalised. It is not about the wholescale eradication of what is currently being taught, but to contextualise this within an understanding that the production of knowledge, the nature and validity of knowledge has not been a neutral project.
So, back to my questions about what messages are being given that allows certain behaviour, comments and attitudes to be seen to be acceptable? What teaches a group of young people that they have the power (entitlement) to harass an Asian shopkeeper but not harass his white neighbour? I would suggest that those young people, just like many of us, are caught in a worldview that has promoted messages, whether subliminal or explicit, that that which has emerged from outwith the West is in deficit, and in need of being modernised and redeemed; such a view gives permission to treat those we deem as deficit accordingly.
As educators, we have the perfect mechanism by which to dismantle such worldviews: the curriculum. Failing to do so will be to miss opportunities and to contribute to perpetuating to the creation of future citizens that have behaved as I described above. We need to set high expectations, to make the most of teachable moments, to seek justice but in an educative way; it is not about blame.
We need to provide accurate information and dispel misinformation. We need to build the capacity of ourselves and the young people we teach to speak up for themselves and others, to be kind, to be just and to behave as global citizens. Regardless of all the negative comments that inevitably come when we discuss Pisa (Programme of International Student Assessment), perhaps we can take some comfort from results that indicate that Scottish pupils score above average on attitudes towards immigrants and respect for other cultures. While this may be speculative rather than a consistent reflection of reality, it does indicate that we are heading in the right direction.
One message I am clear about: we need all teachers to help stamp out racism – it cannot just be left to those who have taken an interest in the issue.
Professor Emeritus Rowena Arshad is chair in multicultural and anti-racist education at the University of Edinburgh, and a former head of the university's school of education
Caulfield, C., M. Hill, and A. Shelton. 2005. The Transition to Secondary School: the experiences of black and minority ethnic young people. Glasgow: Glasgow Centre for the Child & Society, University of Glasgow.