I am grateful that the issue of race didn’t affect me until I was 31. Most people are not that fortunate. Ignorance, prejudice, and idiocy yes but not racism. Working in Brixton meant that for the first time I saw ‘race’ as a living/breathing concept, as opposed to a dead, incorrect theory consigned to history.
When I moved back to Leicester 4 years later, I upset my mum by asking her if she had felt that our mainly white British teachers had been racist. I am sorry for having done that. I asked because of all the craziness of the previous few years had made me even doubt myself. She may have made her mistakes but the one thing she had got right for us was our education.
‘I didn’t think they were racist because they never treated you any differently’ was her reply. Indeed, that’s how I, my siblings and my old school friends remember it. Even now, when parents and pupils talk of my Primary School Head Teacher, Mrs Abbott, it is with a certain reverence. That she managed to win to the support and trust of all the different ethnic groups in her school was not, as I had assumed, the norm. But, all power to her, too many are failing all these decades on.
Whose Side Are You on?
I worked for 3 years in Brixton. The world became black and white and one had to pick a side. It wasn’t ok to just get along with everyone as I had always done and become friends on the basis of who you had a good relationship with, who cared, treated you well, etc. Race was on the agenda and it was, whether you liked it or not, agreed or not, THE most important aspect of who you were.
Teachers at the school were mainly white British and Black Caribbean. Yet my interactions with other ethnic minorities in London did not lead me to believe that had the black teachers been British Indian ones instead, that the experience would have been much different. I do not buy the argument that only white people are racist and I will examine that in a bit more detail below. I got a good view of both racists from all sides – it’s ugly no matter who is perpetrating it.
The school population consisted of mostly black British Caribbean children with other groups including a sizeable number white Portuguese children, some British Indian families, some Black African families and the odd white British family and some children from mixed heritage background. It was the most racist place I have ever worked at.
I actually find the all those labels a bit nonsensical but it’s the language of our higgledy, piggledy classification system. I have some sympathy for the need for it and it has been positive in terms of identifying underperforming groups in schools or how much more likely men from those black Caribbean and African backgrounds are likely to be stopped and searched.
Yet it makes me wonder the extent to which we simply reinforce race. While I doubt many people still believe in the concept of biological races, that does not mean that all of those ideas, which were embedded to greater or lesser degree in people across the world, have simply gone away.
We know that we are all part of the human race but we don’t seem to have accepted it fully yet.
The Rest of Us – Hidden Minority/Majority?
Anyway Brixton – I could see the fault lines drawn and so could others. No matter what we felt, these were not going to be erased anytime soon.
This was a school where the majority of staff could not relate to each other except on the basis of race. It was the elephant in the room. It was understood that it could not be talked about openly, instead you closed doors, checked to see who was in the car park if you were having a cigarette or talked about it outside of school.
Let me be clear those who identified themselves most strongly with being white or black/ethnic were the ones most likely to be racist. It was as though there was no other lens through which they could view life. It is these members of staff whose racism that I generalise about.
Each saw the other as not quite human. White members of staff felt the parents assumed they were racist and felt unable to deal with the children’s behaviour. They felt black members of staff also held this view (not that they usually bothered to find out) and undermined them (which some of them did). They bought into the angry, aggressive, black person stereotype. Of course they tried their best to be PC but then I don’t believe the right on PC folk are any less racist. But that is worthy of a post of its own. So it seemed that they could get on with some ethnic minorities as long as they weren’t too well like a member of an ethnic minority. Those teachers were trusted a little more than the black teachers but not much in the end.
Similarly the black members of staff viewed the white members of staff as inherently racist. I was told point blank that all white people were racist by nature, it was in their DNA, that they were not to be trusted as they could not override this instinct within them. They couldn’t help but undermine, discriminate and treat you badly. Cognitive dissonance? Plenty. There were of course white people who, for some reason never explained to me, were not like this, who rejected white culture, married out of their ‘race’ and understood the issues even if they didn’t face the discrimination. These were the selected few allowed into the inner sanctum and given some but not as much trust as those of the same ethnic background.
Writing this now after years have passed by it still strikes me how wholeheartedly both groups adopted the racist mindset and the behaviour that came with it.
Do I think I am any better? No, I am just as capable of it and struggled with maintaining the values that I grew up with. Hence the fact that I moved back home because I could feel that environment, that way of thinking and those prejudices starting to seep in and I could see it wasn’t going to lead me to who I wanted to be.