Racism

Why I’m asking white teachers to start talking about race

We won’t tackle the deep inequalities that still keep educators of colour out of leadership until white teachers and leaders face up to race, writes Viv Grant

We won’t tackle the deep inequalities that still keep educators of colour out of leadership until white teachers and leaders face up to race, writes Viv Grant

26 Mar 2023, 4:00

Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. It’s a stirring quote, but when it comes to school leadership teams reflecting the full talent and capabilities of our diverse society, the arc bends slowly.

In 2002, the National College for School Leadership published research by Dr Jan McKenley and Dr Gloria Gordon called Challenge Plus. The study looked at the experiences of educational professionals of colour and the additional barriers they faced on their journey towards school leadership.

DfE analysis shows things have improved somewhat. Between 2010 and 2020, the proportion of headteachers of colour has increased from 5 to 7 per cent in primaries and from 7 to 9 per cent in secondaries. But this is still far short of where we need to be. To create greater levels of race equity, we need a more fundamental look at the place of race in our schools, and it needs to start with intensely personal conversations, not just for teachers of colour but for white educators too.

For too long, teachers of colour have felt compelled to adapt to fit into a workplace dominated by white school leaders. When I became one of the youngest headteachers in the country to turn around a failing primary in the late 90s, I became adept at conducting myself in ways that meant I surpassed the prejudices of my predominantly white colleagues. I was acutely aware of black female stereotypes that still exist today – how a speech pattern, tone or gesture could be interpreted negatively.

Consequently, I became hyper-vigilant in majority-white settings, with a heightened ability to read disguised expressions of shock and derision when white folk realised I was the headteacher. As much as I loved headship, there was a hidden cost I could only reveal to a few: the pain of contending with the racism that, back then, the system wanted to pretend did not exist. Young black headteachers I speak to today face very similar challenges, like being overlooked for promotion and parents not believing you’re the headteacher.

As much as I loved headship, there was a hidden cost

Up until now, it’s been down to leaders of colour to take on the additional challenge of overcoming these hurdles. We do this by not always bringing our full selves into the workplace, which is personally exhausting, and worse, perpetuates the view that racism is no longer a major issue, allowing white colleagues to avoid engaging with their own stories of race.

After the death of George Floyd, I made two changes. One was to show more of my true self as a black woman, to be vulnerable and to talk more – more openly and more honestly – about how racism has impacted my life and career. The other was to lean into uncomfortable spaces, particularly white-majority spaces, and encourage more white educators to talk about their experiences of race.

Race is not something that just belongs to people of colour. This must be acknowledged and understood in order to finally change the hierarchies of race in our schools. Consider these uncomfortable questions: What did race mean to you growing up? How has that shaped how you engage with race as an educator? What are you aware of when you talk about race? What do your thoughts and feelings tell you about how you have been socialised to engage/not engage with the subject?

It is natural to feel defensive when first encountering these questions. But a lack of diversity in school leadership really matters, not least because it reinforces inequality and inequity in the minds of our children. Currently, staffrooms discussions around anti-racism focus on what we are against; We need to move these on to setting out what we are for.

School leadership is and always will be a challenge, but now as 20 years ago it remains ‘challenge plus’ for leaders of colour. This truth is as much for white educators to address as it is for teachers of colour. Because the arc of the moral universe will only bend more steeply if we all make it a priority – and that starts with facing up to some difficult conversations.

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