Anti-racist education in Scotland's classrooms should not be feared – Nuzhat Uthmani
“That’s not a chip on my shoulder, it’s your foot on my neck.” Malcolm X’s words in 1962 have a prophetic feel today.
The statement was made to emphasise the oppression faced by Black Americans nearly 60 years ago, yet highlights just how little has changed in terms of social and racial justice.
The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 after the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed vigilante in Florida, but gained momentum on a global scale following the horrific death of George Floyd in Minnesota in May this year after a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.
Many Black people have lost their lives as a result of such abuse and inequality, dating back hundreds of years. It’s easy to sit on this side of the pond and shake your head at all those American problems, but let’s not deny these same problems exist in our communities.
From the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 to the unjust killing of Sheku Bayou while in police custody in Kirkcaldy in 2015, Black British people have lost their lives in circumstances in which they should not.
Inequality takes many forms, but my personal and professional interest as a teacher is in race equality and global citizenship and developing diversity within the curriculum to help address the dominance of one view over another. The most effective learning that can come of this whole situation is to reflect on how to overcome the inequalities faced by society in general. If we can’t act to address these today, there is little hope of eradicating them when all Covid-19’s challenges are a distant memory.
Rising racial tensions
As an educator, I have wondered why, after so many years of teaching about racism, it has not resulted in more diverse thinking within our society. From the 1976 Race Relations Act to the 2010 Equalities Act, why is our teaching workforce still so under-representative of BAME members? Why is the reporting of racial bullying or incidents within schools so poorly monitored? Why is our school curriculum so Eurocentric and devoid of knowledge about global communities?
Recently, a children’s rights charity, Together, compiled a report for the United Nations documenting the discrimination, bullying and stereotyping that children from BAME backgrounds face, including from schools who are unaware of the challenges they face.
Schools have, however, come a long way. We value multiculturalism through marking a variety of religious festivals. We teach about a variety of religious beliefs and encourage the inclusion of events such as Black History Month. But what happens after that month? What we are missing is the inclusion of equality – equality in representation, equality in our resources, equality in our contributions, equality in the teaching of global history.
A recent UK poll found 55 per cent of respondents believed there had been a rise in racial tensions this year. We could be short-sighted and lay blame on BLM protests and the increase in conversations around Britain’s place in the historic slave trade. Ultimately Black and ethnic minority citizens are now feeling more empowered than ever to stand up for what is right and refuse to tolerate systemic racism being brushed under the carpet just because the truth is uncomfortable.
Tackling inequality benefits all
It is therefore reprehensible that not only has the UK government dismissed the need for anti-racist education, by calling BLM a purely political movement, but has also defunded its equality and diversity programmes. It has left my English colleagues pulling out what’s left of their hair at the end of 2020. I am grateful that in Scotland, both our curriculum and professional teaching standards encourage the need to develop critical thinkers and teach our pupils different schools of thought.
Yet, it’s not enough. Within Scotland there are many who see these calls for diversity as unnecessary and counter-productive. These misunderstandings must be overcome, we must explain that tackling inequality benefits all. When slavery was abolished despite opposition from the privileged class, it did not result in ‘reverse slavery’ with white people becoming enslaved. Instead, the result was a move towards a just society. In the same vein, anti-racist education is not a form of “reverse racism”, far from it, it is a pathway to empower our learners.
When you come to my classroom, the advocacy towards anti-racism, social justice and global citizenship is not plastered in banners across all the walls, but instead is embedded in the stories we share, the voices and languages we include, and in the history that we learn.
Humans have always migrated
For me, anti-racist education is not about scrapping the traditional topics, but a move to teaching them in a more innovative way. Racism exists due to the sense of privilege and superiority one group may feel over the other. This superiority has come to be categorised by skin colour, culture, religion and nationality. Instead of viewing these factors as negatives, my teaching is turning the concept of discrimination on its head by highlighting these as assets, opportunities for me as an educator and for my pupils as learners.
We consider the origins of maths and science, passed down from the ancient Greeks and Persians to the modern world. We learn that humans have always migrated around the world, taking strength from our shared cultures and history. The stories we share showcase the perspectives, trials and tribulations of people from all backgrounds. We question how our actions and decisions impact others around the world and how what we do affects global communities.
Offering my pupils a wider range of perspectives to consider alongside a variety of experiences will not only build knowledge and understanding but, I hope, also foster a sense of respect for all and tolerance that will help our young people develop into adults who keep fighting for social justice. What is there to be afraid of?
Nuzhat Uthmani is a primary teacher, an EIS BAME representative and founder of Global Citizenship Education
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