Sometimes it feels like the world genuinely believes that racism is something that doesn’t *really* exist. Or if it ever did, it is something that you find in the pages of a history book.
But it’s not true, is it?
Over coffee the other day, my friends and I spoke in disbelief about the fact that anti-semitism actually exists. It was almost as if we couldn’t comprehend that people still hold beliefs about Jewish people that come from ancient and medieval ages. Disbelief that the politicians we look to might also hold those beliefs. The ridiculousness of it had us laughing. But for one of my friends, it wasn’t even remotely funny. She’s Jewish.
I shouldn’t be surprised. In teaching, you only need to scratch the surface of any school environment to hear and see things that make a snowflake like me clutch my chest in horror.
You want to hear?
“I don’t want to study RS. I don’t want to learn about ninja warriors and postboxes.” Child, it turns out, was referencing Muslim women.
“How am I racist? My mother uses those words all the time. Even my dad says they are ninja warriors.” Child, on explanation that terms used might be offensive.
“There are too many Paki shops in X.” Child, referencing local area.
“He looks like the underside of a shoe.” Child, referencing a black peer.
“His house smells like black people.” Child, referencing a black person’s home.
“I’m not being racist by using the ‘n’ word. I’ve got a black pass.” Child, explaining that he can use the ‘n’ word because he has asked his black friend for a ‘pass’ to use it.
“I called him a terrorist. Because he has a name that terrorists have.” Child, speaking about a Muslim peer.
It goes on. These are recent. From different sources, but recent. And yes, children misunderstand and say things they shouldn’t because they don’t know any different, but if we fail to challenge comments like these, what’s next?
Negative perceptions about race are so embedded in our society that the dialogue about race in schools has to be open and frank.
So, what do we do?
1. Don’t shy away from calling out racism and sanctioning. Children and the adults in their lives need to know what the red lines are.
2. Explain the impact of the terminology. It helps if you have BAME staff to reference (and I know lots of schools outside major urban centres don’t).
3. Pre-empt racism by referencing BAME history and culture in the curriculum. If no one knows anything about Islam other than what’s in the mainstream media, racism will proliferate.
4. Visibly value difference. Embed openness and equity into the culture of the school.
5. Address common misconceptions – actively deconstruct racist phrases or ideas. Don’t be timid.
Timidity and tiptoeing around the issue doesn’t change societies. Only head on discussion can do that. Let me know how it goes.
Chuka Umunna’s assertion that migrants need to learn English to avoid living parallel lives is most disconcerting. I heard this assertion over two years ago from less savoury quarters and was moved to comment on it at length. I won’t repeat what I said, as tempting as it is, you can read that for yourselves. When Sajid Javid proffered a similar point in 2014, I was embarrassed to see a man from an ethnic minority background with his feet firmly under the desk waving a stop sign to immigrants following in the same path as Javid’s family. It is not the first time I had heard a person of colour saying that new immigrants to the nation must meet a standard that they themselves had not been set, and it won’t be the last time either.
What irks me this time is that it is Labour minister making the assertion and it irks me on several levels. Let me explain. I am painfully aware, as a Labour voter, of the pressure the party is under to be something new, to reincarnate under a messianic leader and to be a credible opposition to a government that has had very little contest in the time it has taken to sort out who’s in charge at Labour HQ. But is this where the Labour Party is going? Did someone send a memo that said Nigel Farage is doing okay with voters in the north and I think we should put out statements that sort of sound like him?
One of the problems with Chuka Umunna’s declaration is that he is a bit late to the party. The Casey Review was commissioned over a year ago by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary, with a remit to investigate integration and opportunity in isolated and deprived communities. The review was released in December 2016. In its 199 pages, it outlined the reasons why learning English if you are new to the country is a good idea. It outlined clearly and with a sense of compassion that life is much harder for immigrants that do not speak English. No one can argue with that.
Take this and the fact that government policy on requirements for immigrants to speak English to be able to gain citizenship or leave to remain seems to be fairly clear – and I am left wondering: why bring this up now, Mr Umunna? Visit www.gov.uk and check the pages on immigration. It’s there. There’s a 15-page list of where you can take the tests to prove your English proficiency before or after you arrive.
So who is Chuka Umunna talking about? What kind of migrant? Refugees? The government have declared they are exempt from the requirement. Transient economic migrants? How do you enforce compulsory classes on a transient population? Established communities living parallel lives, then. I would argue that it would be even harder – and more expensive – to enforce language classes on high-ethnic minority concentration areas such as Bradford. Not because I think people would be unwilling. Immigrants do want to be able to communicate. But there isn’t a solution to that until somebody coughs up the money it would take to cover it. And who is going to explain that to austerity Britain, already chomping at the bit, that tax payers’ money is being spent on funding for immigrant language classes? I would volunteer, but I’m too busy trying to work out how to provide a quality education to students while the Conservative government merrily chips away at the finances.
Crucially, how do you make it happen when two years ago funding for ESOL delivery was slashed – in fact, when funding for ESOL has halved since 2009? I doff my hat to Sajid Javid for finding £20 million for ESOL for Muslim women, who are less likely to learn to speak English than other newcomers. But it doesn’t fix the gaping hole in ESOL funding. It’s still staring at us, while we stare at already marginalised communities and demand that they learn to speak properly.
That’s why Chuka Umunna’s lack of clarity makes me uneasy. That and the fervent desire to hear a leader say something refreshing and new about the society in which we all live and work. Focusing on immigrants speaking English, without a clear funding plan and without having considered the current government’s stance on this, seems a little pointless. Dear Labour Party: give me more than rehashed UKIP fodder, with a side of Conservative Javid.
Originally published as ‘It Costs Money to Teach Immigrants English, Mr Umunna’ on Huffington Post UK
In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”
Why did you come into teaching? I’m guessing this is a question that teachers across the country will be asking themselves whilst clutching at the last of the Christmas chocolates and knocking back the last of the Christmas wine. Indeed, I’m sitting here, eyeing the half-completed pile of marking, making optimistic plans to eat less and exercise more, regretting that last tub of Heroes and wondering where the hell my school shoes are – and I know this week, I will ask myself that question at 5.45 every morning…and possibly for the next three months at least. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will be less and less grateful to be employed as the week wears on.
But it is an important question. When we rock up to the university/training training programme, new folder and notepaper in hand, ready to learn about Vygotsky and Freire, we have all chosen to do so in the knowledge that the old adage about teaching is just not true. At least I hope we realise that ‘if you can’t, teach’ is an insidious misrepresentation of the worst kind. Some of us absolutely love our subjects and want to be employed using the knowledge we have gained in our education. Some of us do it because teaching is a craft to be mastered. Some of us because it is the least altruistic profession, in the same way giving a birthday gift might not really about the joy of giving to another person; it is simply the desire to feel that warm glow that says ‘I’m a good person’. To borrow a phrase I am rapidly coming to dislike, teaching might be for some folk a Jedi-level ‘virtue signal’.
So why do I do it?
I was once fresh-faced and enthusiastic, I thought I wanted to teach because I loved my subject and I wanted others to love it too. But it turns out that wasn’t entirely it. So here it is, on a blustery Sunday evening. The reason why I do it.
When I started teaching, I was given a Year 7 English class. They were also my tutor group. In that entirely mixed ability class, I met Vikesh* and I realised that I had absolutely no understanding as to how to teach him anything. Vikesh had been born with microcephaly; alongside having a distinctively small cranial cavity, he had the cognitive ability of a six year old boy. On top of that, he didn’t speak English. It was a lucky coincidence that we spoke the same home language and Vikesh didn’t judge me for having a six year old’s linguistic ability in Gujerati. I panicked. I became frustrated. What was I supposed to do with this boy? I had thirty other students and I wanted to teach. I couldn’t because he couldn’t learn like the others.
You’ll be reading this thinking that he should have been in a special school. I agree. But he wasn’t. He was there, with me in that classroom and I had to do something. My LSA – one of the best people I have ever met – embarked on a programme that meant that he would have some meaningful education. We learned letters. We learned sounds. We learned verbal communication. We played cricket in the aisle of the classroom when he achieved something small. The other students didn’t get any less of my time. It’s just that Vikesh got me in the blank spaces in my lesson when the others were scribbling away furiously. It as the most tired I had ever been in my life but I was finding something. In the midst of the madness of learning how to teach, I learned why I teach.
Because Vikesh – like so many students with additional needs – didn’t choose to be there. Society put him there. There was no provision for a child of his needs within a reasonable distance from his home and his parents knew he had to learn to be around people. I’m pretty certain that as much as he learned the basics, the children around him learned just as much about humanity and acceptance. He wasn’t to be pitied. He was a member of our community. And just like society is legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act, I was obliged to make reasonable adjustments to my teaching. The discussion about what constitutes ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a valid one and it needs to be had. But exclusion on the grounds of special education need is much more problematic.
When we separate the act of teaching from its intended or unintended effects, we ignore that fact that whether we like it or not – for whatever reason we came into teaching in the first place – we change someone’s world. And we can either show the love and acceptance that comes with that, or we can move people into boxes. To teach is to change someone’s world, in a million ways, in a million moments.
If I believed that Vikesh should have been in a special school, or that Jenn* (blind, autistic, impaired mobility) or Henry* (a descendant of Dickens with Aspergers) should have a school for themselves, I would worry about the line. Where is the line in separating out students with additional needs? Who stays in a mainstream school? Vikesh is an extreme case, but if we start to categorise who we can and can’t teach, that way trouble lies.
This brings me to the other reason. The fundamental belief that teachers, not politicians, are the engineers of society they want to live in. I don’t want to live in a society that places people in neat little boxes so that I can get on with it. By believing that teaching is more that a knowledge-delivery system, we subscribe to William Temple‘s school of thought:
‘Are you going to treat a man as he is or as he might be? Morality requires that you should treat him as he might be, as he has it in him to become…Raising what he is to what he might be is the work of education.’
As I put in the years at inner-city schools, I came to know that exclusion in any form is wrong – either in segregation according to educational need or as a method of managing behaviour. And the statistics on exclusion and SEN make for horrible reading. The brilliant and well-informed blog, Ed Yourself, points out:
The single biggest reason for permanent exclusion from school is “persistent disruptive behaviour” and two thirds of pupils who are permanently excluded have some degree of special educational needs, with 1 in 10 having a statement.
Let’s throw race into the mix just to see what happens when we start to see children as categories and not people…
Combine some of the greatest risk-factors for exclusion and you have this: a black boy, with SEN and claiming free school meals is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white girl with no additional needs, who does not claim free school meals (Institute of Race Relations).
Add to that the fact that exclusions are on the rise in academies and free schools due to a lack of legislative clarity on the mandate to use alternative provision in educational establishments that are guided by their funding agreement and not the Education Act – we have a bigger problem than we think in how we deal with students who do not fit the ideal.
Add that to the study that outlines the correlation between permanent exclusion and crime and you have a problem that exists not in the classroom, disrupting your teaching of a poetry anthology, but in your streets, in your prisons, in your morgues.
I don’t have the answers to the challenges of teaching students with all sorts of different needs because I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers. What I do know is that these children – the dyslexic, the dyspraxic, the rich, the poor, the able and not so able – are in our care. And we have a duty to make sure that we make reasonable adjustments to ensure that they achieve their potential. Because that is what changes worlds.
When I get up tomorrow, as hard as it might be to prop my eyelids open with the burnt-oust matchsticks of a great Christmas, I will remember that my job is to teach. And that ‘teaching’ means more that being in the room, delivering content.
Speak to me in a week and you may find less fighting spirit in me, but for now, before I go and find those shoes, this is it.
This arm is my arm, it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
The pain. Ah, the pain when the world swings to the right and the unholy alliance of Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins acts as a clarion call for majority groups for whom free speech is being censored, minority groups are in the back yard and something about “robust, healthy debate”. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The concept of the safe space was born in a different time, I know this. Borne of early LGBT and feminist movements, the safe space became a comforting hub for people who had suffered at the hands of those who at best disagreed with LGBT or feminist lifestyles, and at worst, had been attacked, publicly abused or physically assaulted by those who wished to see alternate lifestyles eradicated. Over time, the safe space has been used extensively on university campuses to protect the vulnerable. High profile cases of speakers being turned away because they might offend mean that the safe space has been ridiculed as a politically-correct mechanism to censor viewpoints and to bring down free speech. Safe spaces create marshmallow students who fail to learn what it means to exist in a big, bad world.
This is all very hard on a girl that is known colloquially as ‘Red Bennie’ – a girl that attended one of the most left-wing universities in the country and grew into an adult learning about liberation groups and safe spaces. I was fascinated. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by debate and thought about identity and society. My goodness, it takes my breath away how lovely it was being young and fired up – and safe enough to be amongst those who had opinions about what was right and good and fair.
I supported the ‘No Platform For Fascists’ policy at Warwick Students’ Union. Who did we prevent from appearing? Far-right speakers from all walks of life – people who we believed didn’t care for the debate, only the publicity. People who had a track record of saying awful things and we said no to that on our space. Not because we don’t want a debate, not because we were scared of it or offended, but because we shared a common belief. We disapproved. And that was our choice. But we didn’t just decide, we debated. We thought.
There is a brilliant article on Al-Jazeera America on the issue of safe spaces on college campuses – you can find it here. In the meantime, one sentence really rings out as true for me: “But what all these critiques get wrong is that they assume “safe” means homogeneous in thought. The reality is that these safe spaces are actually brimming with debate; for many minority students, they are the first place where anyone has ever let them speak about their experiences.”
But for me, the safe space was not about censorship, it was about protection. It was about providing a different space to the one outside the walls where people swinging their fists didn’t care who they were smacking.
And I knew I wasn’t even someone who needed that safe space the most. I learned very quickly that a woman who has been raped might not want to debate whether the length of her skirt determined her fate. I learned that the trans student who was assaulted on his way home didn’t want to debate whether he was really a man or a woman. I understood that the black student who put up up with people touching her hair “just to see what it feels like” didn’t want to listen to the validity of the term ‘micro-aggression’. I know that the Muslim student spat at on the bus might not want to listen to a speaker from Britain First in the interests of healthy debate.
It is all too easy for people who have never faced any of these things to paint safe spaces as mollycoddling bubbles in which students are not allowed to debate difficult things because it might hurt their feelings, or worse, offend them. If you feel the need to mock the concept of or complain about safe spaces, I don’t want to generalise, but chances are, you’ve never felt the need for one.
Who are these students, preventing college campuses being a healthy platform for debate? How dare they create an environment in which they study without the white noise of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia? Those who decry safe spaces as being cotton wool for the masses forget one really quite important thing. The LGBT community, the BAME community, the trans community – women – we all know about the problems in the big wide world. We spend half our lives trying to find ways to shield ourselves from the views imposed on us by the media, by what people deem cultural truisms with any grounding in fact.
Universities are home to many students. Believe it or not, sometimes university is the only escape young people have from difficult backgrounds and difficult histories. It is a space that rescues as well as educates. And remember, education is something university students choose – that’s what makes it brilliant. And some students choose not to engage with things that upset them whilst navigating their educational paths. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t make them any less of a physicist, or computer scientist, or psychology student. When university is home – making that space an open forum for all can feel uncomfortable when you know all too well what the world thinks of you already.
Let’s not forget what free speech can be. In my time at university, I was well aware of free speech as a right and I was well aware of people who exercised that right without concern for the impact on others. I went on a flyering campaign against the BNP in Tipton Green, a boarded-up shadow of a small town where the BNP were promising to reopen the Library, to bring jobs back to the former industrial town and all sorts of other things. I engaged in debate with a builder who had particularly strong views on immigration. When I asked him what his solution was, he replied: “I don’t have one really, I think it would be best if we just lined them up by the sea and shot them down.”
He was quite pleasant while he said it. He then said he wasn’t a racist because his girlfriend was black. So I went back to my safe space.
I made a decision early in my career about what school should be for my students. So my classroom is a safe space. It isn’t one in the traditional sense – everyone is allowed to be there, but micro-aggressions, assumptions and triggers are discussed, defined, questioned. Do I shut down some discussions? Yes, because if they go on to cause someone distress, my classroom is not the place for that. The world is hard enough without me being a lightning rod for the school of hard knocks.
I live in hope that by seeing university students make the decisions they do, my own students will be witness to a model of debate – where to discuss and vote on the presence of controversial figures in our circles is right and good and fair. If the answer is no, that person cannot speak for these reasons, then let my students see that their right to swing their fists ends when they hit someone else’s nose.
I want to laugh a little when I hear majority groups belittling safe spaces. And then I want to smash things a little bit. I always calm down eventually.
Because let’s not forget that safe spaces for majority groups also exist and have existed for many years. What is a gentleman’s club if not a safe space for the white, heterosexual male? What is the boardroom throughout history? What is parliament before the vote was extended to women?
You’ve had your safe spaces, now let us have ours.
“I loathe feminism: the sisterhood, from Germaine Greer to Harriet Harman, have a lot to answer for in my view. They carry much responsibility for hindering women from achieving their full potential; theirs are the shrieking siren voices telling women and girls they cannot succeed, as somebody – men, or “the system” – will stop them. That’s a load of rubbish. We women are not victims, as I keep telling university students. We are not martyrs. We are the majority. The only thing that’s holding you back is your belief in yourself.”
The Telegraph article written by Edwina Currie a week ago should have come with a trigger warning. Addressing the Oxford Union, Currie lambasted feminism in the way only a woman who has reached the peak of her privilege can: by making that oh-so-familiar ‘feminism isn’t needed, because I did alright’ statement. In the article, which can be read in its entirety here (trigger warning!), Currie went on to describe how she battled her way through knock backs and trials, citing her resilience and her self-confidence as the reason she succeeded. In fact, in a glorious act of victim-blaming, she asserted that women themselves are their own worst enemy and the reason for the pay gap and sexism.
Instead of boiling with rage at her lack of solidarity, I started to question my own thought processes. Was gender inequality a thing of the past? Had I blinked and missed someone waving a purple flag to indicate the end of the millennia-long gender war that we’ve all been fighting? Were women free now to go back to the kitchen and make dinner?
Forgive me. I mock.
For me, October has been a month of remembering the reality of the need for women’s activism. I attended and presented at the WomenEd Unconference – a remarkable event. Those who were there saw that it was a celebration of women in education. I have largely ignored the inevitable comments on why we have to have a women’s conference because they spark in me a desire to smack my head against a table. I’ve been hearing those same comments – if we had a men’s conference, there’d be uproar/just a small vocal minority who don’t represent the silent majority – since I became aware of identity politics in my early twenties. If I had a penny for every time I have heard ‘women should stop complaining about equality, it’s all fine now – especially as I haven’t experienced any problems’, I’d buy a really expensive bra and burn it.
I do wonder where this dismissal of the need for feminism and women’s activism comes from. Just seeing the criticisms made of the WomenEd Unconference made me realise that it actually was needed and that we hadn’t come that far in seeing women’s voices as important and valid.
In all walks of life, in the developing world and the western world, women take second place even though they make up half of the world’s population. While we may not be ‘chattel’ in the way we were by legal definition until the 1960s, this doesn’t mean we should close our eyes to inequality. There are now different inequalities to address and it takes a ‘vocal minority’ to do just that. Moreover, the point of feminism lies not in its self-interest, but in its very belief that activism is on behalf of others – whether that support or activism is requested or otherwise. So I’m sorry if you don’t want me to stand up for women. I’m going to do it anyway. Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist, stated: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The biggest and most worrying trend is that the majority of the criticism I have seen of women’s activism has come from other women. In this month of learning to celebrate women’s activism, I watched Suffragette and was horrified to see how late universal suffrage was declared in some countries. I re-learned my love of the word ‘solidarity’ in seeing how the female characters leaned on and supported each other during the worst of their experiences in fighting for the vote. Solidarity is a beautiful word and one that women, in particular, don’t use or practice often enough. There is something quease-inducing when I read comments on Twitter and Facebook on identity politics and watch women seeking approval from men they deem to be powerful – I don’t see reasoned argument. I see sycophants simpering. I recall reading this in a History source at school:
“The real reason why women ought not to have the political franchise is the very simple reason that they are not men, and that according to a well-known dictum, even an act of Parliament can not make them men. Men govern the world, and, so far as it is possible to foresee, they must always govern it.” Mrs Humphrey Ward, The Literary Digest, 1908
I worry because this ‘I don’t get why we need women’s activism’ smacks of a lack of self and world awareness; it smacks of a mistaken belief that women talking about women’s equality is actually about them hating men. Or criticising men. Or blaming men. I’ll say it again. Feminism is not about men. To think so fundamentally misses the point of it. It’s a criticism levelled at women who dare to talk about what it means to be a woman in education or politics or law or in any field dominated by men. And we are well aware of how relative the term difficulty is, to both the past and to societies different from our own.
While it might be fruitless to try and engage with those who believe women are equal now that they have the vote (I mean, what else might be needed?), here I go. In 1970, Foucault outlined the movement away from the enactment of power from a visible and physical phenomenon manifested in the punishment of the human body. He used the example of a regicide being tortured. The effect was to punish the criminal and to discipline society. Post-enlightenment, western Europe moved away from torture – the physical control of bodies – and moved towards a more subtle enactment of power – that of incarceration, the erasing of identity through conformity and uniformity, and the use of the gaze to control.
What does this have to do with women and equality? It’s exactly the same process. Women had to fight oppression that was open, clear and could be pinned to suffrage, equal legal rights in marriage, divorce and childcare, abortion, contraception. Those were obvious forms of oppression. In true Foucauldian style, oppression is not a visible force 99% of the time. It is the structures of power, in the representation of women in the media, in the subconscious message. The best introduction to this ‘disciplining’ of women comes in the brilliant documentary, Miss Representation. In the first five minutes, the narrator shows you the barrage of images that women are subjects of and subjected to in a post-feminist age. And we don’t even realise. Because inequality now in the UK isn’t about the vote, or legal rights, or control over our bodies – it is something much more subtle than that. Don’t believe me? Type in ‘female teacher’ into Google and see what comes up. Type in ‘male teacher’ and compare.
I’m in Japan at the moment, visiting schools and learning about the education system here. I like the values, the ethos and the cleanliness of the schools. But I haven’t met a single woman in a position of responsibility yet. I know what I’m grateful for in the UK, but that’s not a reason for me – or other women passionate about celebrating women in education – to ‘pipe down’. It’s just not going to happen.