How can schools begin to face up to systemic racism?

The White Spaces project highlights the challenges of unpicking systemic racism, but shows that doing so is within schools' reach, writes Shona Hunter

The White Spaces project highlights the challenges of unpicking systemic racism, but shows that doing so is within schools' reach, writes Shona Hunter

31 Jan 2022, 5:00

Racism is firmly back on school agendas in 2022. The profoundly unequal impact of the pandemic demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt the systematised nature of racial inequality and its intersection with other systemic disparities such as disability, gender, class and age. An early analysis in 2020 demonstrated that this was the case for morbidity and mortality, and we now also know that these systemic inequalities extend to access to schooling, food and healthcare.

But these issues are only heightened by the pandemic: they are not new. What is new is that we can no longer ignore that these disparities are racialised. That is, these inequalities are produced through the social organisation of race and ethnicity in modern Britain, rather than the result of a deficit already present in some communities.

Many of us have been more available than usual to hear calls from staff, students and parents to diversify the school workforce, leadership teams, governing bodies and to challenge a Eurocentric curriculum. But there is ongoing controversy, and the governmental framing and policy response is not straightforwardly in line with the incontrovertible evidence of disparity. The recent publication of the Sewell Report demonstrates this. In part because of these contradictions, considerable fear and misunderstanding circulate around issues of racialised inequality within organisations, including schools.

Since 2009, the White Spaces project at Leeds Beckett University has been exploring how to make systemic diversification of the curriculum and the education space stick.

The project’s key lesson has been to shift the conversation about racialised inequality away from deficits, problems and gaps that need to be filled (consider the oft-cited ‘disadvantage gap’, or the Covid experience of the digital divide). Instead, we should re-focus our attention on how cultural power is consolidated though our institutions – including schools.

We should re-focus our attention away from deficits and onto how power is consolidated

Part of the uniqueness of the White Spaces project is that it traces how this distribution of power and inequality is coded as white and how this coding relates to other forms of social inequality, like those of income disparity, ability, gender and sexuality. In doing so, it uncovers the particular and contextual social, institutional and emotional processes that create whiteness as a cultural force in British society (and globally).

In schools, social processes might include assemblies, classroom organisation, behaviour management and any number of other professional practices. Institutional processes include the policies that uphold these social processes. And emotional processes are present in a range of interactions, in the staffroom and the playground as well as in the classroom.

Unpacking these different layers facilitates an understanding of the historical and social processes by which our educational institutions have come to accept whiteness and take it for granted over time. One just published open access article, part of a special edition of the Ethics and Social Welfare journal on the topic of ‘Ethical Relations to the Past’ focuses on articulating how long-ago histories frame whiteness and continue to shape our practices and behaviours today.

Articulating the relationship between our past and our educational present is challenging work. This is because many of these social processes are hidden. They feel natural, and exposing them produces fear and stress for organisations and for the individuals of whom the organisations are made up.

Of course, teachers and schools are already under considerable stress and strain. But the majority of Black pupils say they’ve experienced racism at school, and a quarter of all pupils say this has worsened since lockdown. Black teachers also consistently report experiencing racism. Schools don’t just have an opportunity but a duty to change this reality.

The good news is that the White Spaces project busts two key myths: that whiteness is only about white people; and that it is somehow automatic or natural, and cannot be unlearned.

That takes some of the fear out of facing up to it, because it means teachers and schools can learn new processes – as they surely must, for the benefit of all.

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