Is race the elephant in the staffroom?

Men at the recent WomenEd conference admitted they were scared to talk about gender. Are white people just as scared to talk about race, asks Cath Murray

This week, Jon Chaloner writes a column for us about last weekend’s WomenEd “unconference”. One keynote event featured men: the HeforShe panel. There were eight men at the conference in total – all invited guests – none had bought a ticket. Which is not that surprising, for a conference called WomenEd, right?

So of course, in this week’s edition of Schools Week, we cover the conference by having men write about it. Slightly ironic?

But that’s the whole point, WomenEd co-founder, Hannah Wilson told me. Male leaders – and as the stats in our story show, they hold a disproportionate number of leadership positions in education – need to be in the frontline advocating for women. One way they can do this is by creating flexible working environments that open the door for women in leadership positions, she said. Co-headships were posited as one solution.

Post-panel, it seems, Twitter went crazy, with many male tweeters pledging to attend next year – even national schools commissioner Sir David Carter.

Total success, then.

Then I got chatting to Wilson. What were the other themes of the conference, I asked? Surely it can’t have all been about men.

Well, one thing that stood out, she said, were the two sessions that nobody wanted to go to. One was cancelled. The theme? How to be an ally to LGBT teachers and students.

The second was the Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) panel*. I got in touch with panellist Ndidi Okezie, who told me how she arrived in the room to be told not a single person had signed up. Zero people. So the panellists took the debate into the foyer.

So why don’t women in education want to talk about race?

Okezie said participants identified both politeness and fear as barriers. Both certainly contribute to my own reticence. I’m “white” – as far as skin colour goes, I am part of the privileged majority, so I don’t feel qualified.

I do talk about gender, though.

Who’s going to ask a school’s press office to find out their staff’s sexual orientation?

In my job, the proportion of unsolicited submissions I receive from women for our opinion section is vastly inferior to those from men.

To maintain a balance, I’m constantly telling people: “We aim for diversity of representation and welcome submissions from women”.

But I stop there. The rest of the sentence gets swallowed: “and black or minority ethnic people”. I’m aware of it every time, lurking on my tongue. (Not to mention that “and LGBT people” is even harder to articulate – who’s going to ask a school’s press office to find out their staff’s sexual orientation? More on this in future.)

As Anita Kerwin Nye reminds us, language is crucial and perhaps “we welcome diversity in all its forms” would be a better mantra.

But the question remains: do we oh-so-polite British feel talking about race is vulgar? As if suggesting I’d welcome a submission automatically implies that I’ll publish any piece of writing simply for the sake of diversity.

And who wants to risk insinuating that someone’s opinion has value because of the colour of their skin? Yet somehow, I manage to put aside my qualms when it comes to gender.

Funny thing is, men don’t. The men on the HeforShe panel admitted something similar: they’re scared to talk about women’s issues in front of women, in case they say something wrong.

And perhaps white people are scared to talk about race in front of non-white people. Here’s why I am: first, I don’t want to pretend to own the debate.

Second, I don’t want to say the wrong thing. And third, I’m worried people will think I’m implying the colour of their skin is the most noteworthy thing about them.

So, safest to just keep quiet and wait for the BME person in the room to mention the R word, right?

Okezie laughed when I told her of my qualms. If I were to mention gender bias but fail to mention race, she told me, she would come away thinking the issue wasn’t even on my radar.

WomenEd asked its members to make pledges to be “10 per cent braver”. So my pledge is this: to mention the elephant in the room. Chances are, someone will be relieved that I did it first.


*In the print newspaper, the BAME panel was mistakenly referred to as a session on ‘diversity’.

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  1. It’s true. Many men (and women) think gender equality is a women’s issue just as many white people think race equality is not their business or that they don’t have a right to have a say in it. The opposite – we must have a say, we must take an interest and in many cases it is precisely by using our white/male privilege we can make issues heard too