12 May 2022
Representation Matters beautifully reflects the work that I and many others do in schools to champion diversity, equity and inclusion. Those looking for “a tick sheet of how to become inclusive” will be disappointed, but then – as we should all know after the death of George Floyd and the experience of the pandemic – anti-racism requires more heavy lifting than that. And with a consistent, clear and challenging voice that chimed deeply with me as a black, female educator, Aisha Thomas here provides the arguments and the tools to begin to do just that.
The power of this book lies in the simplicity of the framework Thomas utilises to develop anti-racist and inclusive practice. Her three headings, ‘Reflecting and reviewing’, ‘Listening and decentering’ and ‘Creating an action plan’ will enable readers to work systematically through a “process of transformation”, supported by the voices of external contributors with experience of doing this important work (not all of whom are non-white, which helps to make the case).
One of the biggest barriers to progress in diversity, equity and inclusion is the appropriate use of language. Fear of ‘getting it wrong’ runs deep in a profession whose stock in trade is being the expert in the room; but Thomas gives some clear guidelines on how to talk about race. Her explanations of often loaded terms such as ‘whiteness’ and ‘white privilege’ cut through the social media misinformation, providing much-needed and excellent clarifications and resources.
Every chapter ends with a summary of its key learning points, a key question, further self-reflection questions and, most helpfully, discussion points for staff meetings presented in such a way as to propel positive motivation. These segments not only enable readers to start discussions, but most importantly to begin to turn theory into action. The key issues under the anti-racism banner are many and anti-racist thinking is constantly evolving. Thomas offers a good number of practical strategies to get out of the blocks.
For me, a key aspect of ensuring action is sustained is community engagement. As such, Thomas’s chapter in the ‘Creating an action plan’ section entitled ‘Parents and caregivers’ is of vital importance. Its discussion of how parents from a range of diverse backgrounds are key to enabling conversations of identity and purpose is on point, and a section on cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation is especially helpful.
However, I was left with a couple of concerns after reading ‘Representation Matters’. We know that race is a social construct, and Thomas approaches this clearly from her own perspective. In my experience, trying to develop an anti-racist approach focused on representation alone can result in identities being pigeonholed and marginalised. By focusing on group characteristics and membership to the exclusion of identity, we risk losing intersectionality, partially or fully. We all want to be recognised as unique and to live authentic lives, and anti-racism can’t be founded on institutions defining or relying on a set way that individuals’ identities should manifest themselves. Representation matters, but perhaps even more so identity.
Secondly, the term ‘anti-racist’ itself is complex. Simply opposing racism isn’t enough, and it requires more than just reading a book and answering its questions. Thomas’s provocations are very good to start the process of understanding how racism manifests in education – but any priorities that arise from these findings need to be addressed systematically to ensure lasting change. Each school has its own priorities that will inevitably feed into a review of its culture. In that sense, ‘becoming an anti-racist educator’ must be seen as an ongoing process – not an outcome of reading this book (or even a list of books).
In spite of these concerns, there is a great deal of strength in the consistent framework presented here and on putting the focus throughout on initiating action. After all, that is what will create the transformation we need and begin at last to change the status quo.