Racism

Islamophobia does exist – and it’s in our staffrooms

How can we teach children so-called British values while we persist in our denial that some of our colleagues hold bigoted views, asks one anonymous school worker

How can we teach children so-called British values while we persist in our denial that some of our colleagues hold bigoted views, asks one anonymous school worker

20 Nov 2021, 5:00

For their State of Hate report this year, Hope Not Hate found that 26 per cent of British people hold negative attitudes towards Muslims. Is it reasonable to expect school staff to be much different from the rest of the population? My experience tells me it isn’t, and that a generalised denial of the issue stops us from making progress.

Over my nine years working in secondary education my experience as a visibly Muslim woman of colour included being: singled out for negative treatment, repeatedly told I should be grateful to have a job (even though I was overqualified), and dismissed as either too aggressive or not assertive enough in the face of hostility from colleagues.

My children were even used during an INSET day speech as an example of the school’s success in promoting social mobility, even though my husband and I have high levels of education and a good income.

So first and foremost, schools should have policies in place to deal with workplace hostility, ensuring its victims are not cast as perpetrators, and then enact them. If you’re unsure how to get that right, then seek input from those who have suffered it.

Cast your mind back to March 2019. Protests at Birmingham’s Parkfield School were in full flow, inflaming anger among teachers. I walked into the staffroom and overheard a conversation. Driven to speak out against homophobia, my colleagues had descended into Islamophobia. Muslims, I heard them agree, are endemically homophobic.

Had I been asked, I would have said that Islam discourages hate and that Muslim migrants worldwide adapt to the societal norms of their adopted countries. If they’d been interested in going beyond the headlines, I would have pointed out that it wasn’t only Muslims who were concerned about the new RSE content. Had they sought my opinion, I would have said that there was no excuse for making staff feel threatened. And if I hadn’t been marginalised, I would have reassured them that all the British Muslims I knew felt exactly as I did.

Here I was, the only Muslim on staff,

knowingly excluded from a discussion about me

Yet here I was, the only Muslim on staff, knowingly excluded from a discussion about me. That’s why policies aren’t enough. To ensure staff don’t fall foul of them, they need training and support. There is also a wealth of CPD available that explains the law around free speech and how to safely lead conversations. Not only will teachers be better able to support students when distressing situations arise in school or in the media, but they will be better equipped to talk to each other and avoid offence.

Subsequently, my experience only worsened. Already feeling victimised, I then heard a young teacher loudly declare that Islamophobia could not exist because Muslims make a choice to be Muslim. Even the assistant headteacher in charge of equality and diversity, previously active in the conversation, went silent. No one challenged it.

I choked trying to find the words to defend my existence and my faith. I couldn’t believe that this is what I needed to do after the murder of 51 Muslims in New Zealand the previous week. Looking around the room, no one met my gaze. I left, shaken and wounded, to seek refuge in my office.

This is a matter of culture. Embedding professional courtesy must start at the top. Otherwise, disrespect is normalised and vulnerable staff are left without real opportunities to speak out.

For my part, my attempts to address this incident with SLT were rebuffed for two years. When I finally did, their response was to issue a general email stating that staff should not be discussing others’ protected characteristics. There was no concern that some of those responsible for teaching and modelling tolerance and respect to our students held bigoted views.

So in the end it comes down to modelling a commitment to antiracism from the top. This could feel daunting at first, but nowhere near as daunting as silently suffering racism because you feel the senior team won’t have your back.

Because one thing is certain: denial is not serving anyone.



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