Teachwell | Stories My Mother Told Me and What I Learnt About Teachers (Part Two)
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Stories My Mother Told Me and What I Learnt About Teachers (Part Two)

flickr photo by m_shipp22 https://flickr.com/photos/mshipp/11900538294 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license
flickr photo by m_shipp22 https://flickr.com/photos/mshipp/11900538294 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Black and White – Racism Unites?

One of the most astonishing and fascinating interactions I would occasionally observe was how well the racists on both sides understood the others mentality. Their world views were similarly constructed, just the content and stereotypes differed. Now in a country where the majority of people are white British, racists from other backgrounds are not going to be able to have the impact on their lives that white British racists can have on theirs. There is no doubt about that.

This doesn’t excuse being racist oneself. Because if you support the idea that it is acceptable, you also support the fact that it is acceptable for society to be racist in the first place. You support the world view that race is THE most important thing about a person, including yourself. It’s a belief that one group alone can be in charge, have power, to gain the privileges and do the discriminating. An acceptance of the racial survival of the fittest.

In the school, both types of racism had its outlets.

  • Black children were treated differently by individual white members of staff.
  • Standards were lower, and I have to say the excuses came from both sides.
  • Black British Caribbean parents were more likely to be referred to social services and less likely to be supported.
  • Racist parents accusing either group of teachers (whether they were racist or not) of racism if they chastised their child. The majority of parents wanted stronger discipline and were ignored. This was one of the reasons why some parents (correctly it has to be said) identified some teachers as racist – regardless of the teachers’ ethnicity.
  • Year group teams were usually of only one background – i.e. one year group would have just white teachers and another black teachers or a mix of black and ethnic minority teachers. This was from the SLT who were trying to be PC but at the same time probably figured it avoided conflict.
  • White members of staff (provided they were British) had CPD meetings where they chose the courses they wanted, the rest of us never even saw the courses folder. So the one time I got accused of playing the race card was hilarious because there were as many foreign white teachers who signed the letter of complaint as black or Asian teachers. But then this is where the politics of race comes in. I wasn’t accusing them of anything at that point, it was only when SLT tried to stop the two meetings, tried to insinuate they were not legal and then refused to answer the very simple question. (On what basis/criteria were teachers selected to go on courses or indeed allowed to choose a course themselves?) that I understood how deep-rooted the prejudice was.
  • One year, a storyteller was hired for Black History Month – who told the story of how beautiful black people were all happy and then angry white Portuguese (yes that would be the ethnic minority in the school) people came over and made them slaves. Then they started to have babies, and that’s where Chinese and Indian people came from. Great stuff. The white British NQT sat not knowing what to do just listened and then left. Not before she had insisted on a high five with the children who knew the story behind the Notting Hill Carnival. It was only when my black British colleague went in with her year 2 class (she stopped the session as soon as ‘angry white Portuguese’ was uttered) and alerted SLT, did they realise that this person was unsuitable for the task at hand.
  • This was the same member of SLT, who told my two black British colleagues and me that we had to move our comparative history topic (Nightingale and Seacole) to the second half term to be studied during Black History Month. We refused. I love people who are trying to be PC  tell me what my attitude on these matters should be because that is not patronising at all.
  • The Year 1 teacher from a black British background (who very much saw herself there to teach black children) put on an assembly of the Rosa Park’s story complete with a white child playing the racist bus driver. These children were 5 and trusted her. No, I don’t think it’s ok. No, I don’t think what ‘white’ people have done justifies assigning children the role of a racist. Anyone who has taught young children knows that they adore you. It is one thing to play a baddie; it’s another to play a racist. It’s called betraying a person’s trust. If you derive pleasure from something like this, then I don’t think you are suitable to teach any more than a member of the BNP quite frankly.

Black History Month

My opposition to Black History Month grew due to a lot of disturbing incidents at school and the way it seemed to promote conflict. The same story over and over – black people vs. white people, occasionally you get other non-white people vs. white people, but essentially that is what it comes down to. I remember a member of staff stating that it was acceptable, and that white people should feel sorry about the past. When I asked what that had to do with the children we taught, she just sort of shrugged it off. They too were white and needed to understand that they should feel bad about the things that white people have done.

I appreciate the fact that there might be other schools that teach less conflict or study it in a less biased, white-bashing way, but I find that the fact that many schools don’t doesn’t surprise me. I wouldn’t use some of the materials either because they are racist in themselves and the way they depict white people as some sort of racist, homogenous mass. Mostly because it doesn’t seem to deal with Britain at all or in the minds of young people is attempting to compare this country with apartheid South Africa or the USA in the 1950s/1960s.

Which is one of the reasons why one of my black British Caribbean colleagues told me she didn’t teach it – we were together in two different year groups (including Year 2 when we demonstrated our insensitivity during BHM). We taught about Maori’s the first year and then we had already planned what we considered a broad curriculum so didn’t bother. Not everyone was happy about the idea, which I found out later, but then we were not going to be listened to in a climate like that.

This is worthy of its own post and will get one soon.

 Brainwashed

When I asked some of my colleagues about putting some of the units on the curriculum straight both black and white members of staff made their excuses. It was too controversial, white people would never allow it, it wasn’t worth discussing as the other side did not want to know.

Which left me feeling a bit flummoxed as I had been taught what they considered to be ‘black history’ topics at school on the curriculum. We had covered the Aborigines and Colonialism in primary and the Civil Rights Movement and Apartheid in secondary. Like most people, I had assumed that my experience was that of other people but no, no-one else had been taught in this way themselves. My teachers did just present the reality of the history in so far as they knew it. I don’t recall any of it being one-sided at all. However, equally I don’t remember it being some sort of white apologist version either. Still it’s pretty mind-boggling to find out that you were taught at school on the curriculum with no fuss or fanfare was considered to be too controversial to replicate in the school you were teaching almost 30 years later. 

Nearly all my teachers were white British, and there was never any point at which I had felt that I was treated badly or differently to anyone else. Equally, I did not see my teachers who were from ethnic minority backgrounds treat children differently. Got praised and told off for the same things.

No discrimination at all. Not because of my colour, ethnicity or gender. Nada. Sorry really boring. Child goes to school; child gets taught well by teachers she adores and child moves on to next school, then college, then university, then another university.

The reactions I got from people from ethnic minority backgrounds were just – oh they brainwashed you into thinking you weren’t discriminated against!! But then I do think seeing the world through the prism of race does lead to paranoia and conspiracy theories. These were people who did not talk to each other the way they would do with a member of their group and admitted this. I was informed that I should be guarded when speaking to or interacting with the average white person because they would use any weakness or vulnerability against me as standard. The few people who did understand seemed to have had similar experiences to my own and, therefore, could not fit into this simple them and us, black and white world that existed. 

So, in the end, I came back home, in search of some sanity, and because I didn’t want to end up racist myself. It took time to shake it off, but things always were different in Leicester. I knew that when I left for Dublin but to have had those experiences in my country was something else. It was a bit like travelling through the twilight zone and ending up somewhere that did not resemble the Britain I knew. Naive, brainwashed, enlightened, tolerant, ignorant – whatever positives or negatives people want to throw at me. I don’t want to change my white British friends, teachers, neighbours and aunt into my white British friends, teachers, neighbours, and aunt. Who would?

I learnt valuable lessons and the fact is that the problems we face in our society are due to members of all ethnic groups. That greater moral responsibility falls to white British people, given that they are the majority may be true,  but equally, people from different ethnic minority backgrounds have a responsibility too. For a start, we could stop supporting ridiculous extremists who use hashtags like #whyismycurriculumwhite and talk about white supremacy. This is Britain, not the USA. We need to think about our problems and solutions not live out the conflicts of past generations to fight anew. There is no battle here other than the one we choose to create.



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