We need to get over the taboo of talking about race

Until we make it acceptable to discuss race, the crucial conversations required to drive change will simply never happen, says Ndidi Okezie.

One of the barriers a black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) person stepping into a leadership position faces is that they are not taking on the weight of leadership purely for themselves – which we know is challenging enough – but the weight of being a trailblazer for their race and background. That is an entirely different responsibility to get your head around.

There doesn’t seem to be a centralised national group leading the call for change in the way that WomenEd is leading the issue of gender in education leadership. In fact, race continues to be a far less-developed and “taboo” topic of conversation.

Recent discussions at WomenEd revealed that many people are reticent to talk about race, for fear of saying the wrong thing, or being labelled racist.

Others simply think it’s impolite to bring it up.

But the very omission of the topic is an offence itself. One of my biggest frustrations is that often when I am asked to sit on diversity panels, I am invited and interviewed only in my capacity as a woman.

The very omission of the topic is an offence

I’ve sat through so many thorough, rich and engaging conversations about diversity in which nobody brings up race and it’s left for me to raise it. The fact I am the one left to ask if anyone has noticed I’m also black and in the minority, makes me feel even more isolated.

The lack of ethnic minorities in senior leadership roles is a serious issue; however, before identifying solutions and fixing the problem, we need to create safer spaces for real conversations about the issue. If you go back a couple of decades, I’m sure it was equally taboo to bring up gender. That has changed, thanks to the plethora of opportunities and forums where the conversation takes place. We need to give racial diversity that same journey.

To find out, as I have recently, that people hold back from speaking about race for fear of offending any ethnic minorities in the room, has been a real eye-opener for me; a revelation that has strangely provided some degree of comfort. The sense of isolation that can come from being “the only black person” or “the only black woman” in a room is common for me and so I am hungry for these conversations to take place. It is encouraging that non-BAME leaders also want to discuss it.

The truth is we don’t have enough data or analysis of experiences to really know what the barriers are.

Who are the BAME people in education? We know the numbers are low, but who are the ones currently there? How many ethnic minority middle leaders do we even have in the system? Who is the pipeline, and where are they getting stuck?

The lack of a strong network, or visible role models, also prevents young and aspiring leaders of BAME backgrounds from putting themselves forward for leadership roles.

A group of Teach First ambassadors (alumni of the Teach First leadership development programme) has decided to address this lack of representation in education leadership head-on. They are launching a #TfAmbassadors BAME Network and hosting their first event, a town hall conversation, on Wednesday November 16 at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Knights Academy in Bromley, Kent. All are welcome.

It definitely feels like a shift in this space is happening. Along with the BAME Network that Teach First ambassadors are setting up, the idea of setting up a BAMEed network akin to WomenEd has been fomenting for some time and plans to crystallise those efforts are beginning to take place within that community.

Two things need to happen next. First, we need to organise, centralise and get hold of some reliable stats to start trying to work out why BAME people are under-represented in education leadership. But alongside that, we ALL need to be bold enough to simply discuss this issue more. And to facilitate that, we must recognise that safe spaces for these conversation need to be created, making sure people know it’s OK to be the one to raise the issue.


Ndidi Okezie is executive director of delivery at Teach First

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    • Discussing disadvantaged students is not the same as discussing staffing. I was assumed to be a ‘dinnerlady’ on duty although I am an assisstant headteacher why was that? Why is it that in schools that i have taught in middle leaders more or less represent the populations they teach but senior leaders do not? Whynis there over representation in minorities in low paid associate roles? These questions have to be addressed and tackled

  1. Agree with many of the points above, but as a bame employee within teach first I really feel the organsisation can’t be proud of itself here. teach first does a great job with the diversity of its teaching recruits, but this masks the fact that within the organization itself it’s far behind the curve. In fact it would be refreshing to see ms Okezie at least give a nod to thisfact. Despite management admitting that there is a staff diversity issue over a year ago and releasing troubling numbers internally to illustrate this, little to nothing effective has been done totry and improve things. worryingly we get told that progress has been made but haven’t seen numbers, and certainly there has been no cultural change. it still isn’t a great place
    for bame people to work, and it is incredibly common here to be the only bame person in a room, and more often than not, for bame persons to also be low ranking. Talking about race is still awkward, and going against the party line frowned upon, especially for minorities. So while tf deserves praise for its teacher recruitment diversity work, theres a hypocrisy that means that even though there is a strong push to have bame teachers working in classrooms, this isn’t a priority within the charity. You can’tcreate real change through double standards.

  2. Louisa St B-B Morgan

    Ndidi, I read your article with great intensity and applause. I’m sitting here in the TUC’s Black Workers’ Conference (06/04/17) and listening to the motions – Tackling underemployment among BAME workers and Under-representation of BME groups – I regret to say nothing’s changed. It no longer matters how well-qualified (or over-qualified as is often hear), white employers will continue to discriminate against the BAME community in every way they can. And that’s why I gave up teaching.