Anti-racism in schools - a call to arms

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by Kristina Hedges,
Education Worker, Wales

Show Racism the Red Card is the UK's leading anti-racism educational charity, delivering training to over 50,000 people a year. We use the high-profile status of sport and sports stars to offer up relatable role models to help tackle racism in society. We are funded by a variety of bodies, including the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments, local authorities and trade unions among other partners. Many schools use their own budgets to fund our workshops. Our annual fund-raising event: Wear Red Day, which takes place in the autumn term, also provides valuable resources for our work.

The charity believes that education is key to tackling racism and other forms of discrimination and it’s therefore important that our work complements the school curriculum. Our education workers visit schools to deliver workshops where we discuss the meaning and history of racism and use a variety of engaging and fun activities to explore stereotypes and prejudices. The sessions are designed to allow young people the space to discuss openly their own assumptions and feelings and to think critically about the topic of racism and discrimination. We also offer training sessions to school staff, covering the content of our workshops along with sessions about recognising and responding to racism and recording and reporting racist incidents.

Here in Wales, like the rest of the UK, we have seen a disturbing increase in racist incidents in schools. Between the beginning of September 2018 and the end of January 2019, we have had 21 enquiries from schools, local authorities or parents reporting racist incidents: a 40% increase on last year. This, sadly, is no surprise, given the widely reported rise in hate crime throughout the country in recent times. In 2016, SRtRC Wales carried out small-scale research amongst school pupils and teachers to gauge the situation in our schools. The research report: Racism and anti-racism in the Welsh education system can be downloaded from https://www.theredcard.org/publications/. The survey found that 94% pupils stated that racism occurs between pupils in their school; two thirds of teachers are aware of pupils suffering racism in their school; 97% pupils had heard negative comments about Muslims in school; 92% trainee teachers felt that Muslim girls wearing religious dress do not feel safe from discrimination. We also found that 84% teachers surveyed had not received any training on how to teach anti-racism and 70% feel there is not enough time in school to teach anti-racism.

As a direct result of this research, SRtRC Wales sought and gained funding from Big Lottery Wales to provide workshops focused specifically on islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism to a number of schools in deprived areas of Wales. Since beginning this project in 2017, we have delivered 328 workshops in 162 schools. When asked about their confidence to talk about immigration or Islam (depending on the workshop focus), 48% more pupils rated their confidence as good or excellent following the workshop than before it. 99% teachers felt that the workshops improved young people’s awareness about the issue.

As an education worker delivering these sessions, I have noticed some interesting gaps in our young people’s knowledge and understanding. Some are disappointing but unsurprising, such as widespread confusion around immigration. Most young people (and adults?) mistakenly believe that most immigrants are refugees or asylum seekers; poor people in need of help (or demanding benefits, depending on which media outlet you follow), rather than workers relocating for their job and students moving to study. Many young people answered ‘no’ to the question “Is Mohamad Salah (or insert your favourite Premier League player here) an immigrant?” revealing the widely held assumption that rich people don’t count on immigration statistics. Our workshops are a beginning, and can start a discussion, using statistics and facts about immigration and exploding some myths about refugees and asylum seekers. We present a first view of the benefits of immigration, but there needs to be extensive follow-up on the part of schools to embed understanding effectively and thereby foster a more informed and inclusive ethos.

Negative views about Muslims and Islam are commonplace, with racist tropes and stereotypes strongly held. Indeed, a recently published report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hate Crime cites how such views and actions associated with them can affect people’s behaviour: “many…young Muslims altered their behaviour and daily routines to avoid bringing attention to themselves. The result was the carrying out of ‘practices of self-surveillance’ as a means of presenting themselves as acceptable to non-Muslims. ‘Self-surveillance’ included changing their clothing, men hiding facial hair, and the restricting of what they said publicly, particularly related to foreign policy.” One can imagine then that Muslim children will feel under similar pressure to carry out ‘self-surveillance’ in school. Presenting positive images of Islam, Muslims and the GRT (Gypsy Roma Traveller) communities enables young people to see through the stereotypes. It’s so important to present positives – many schools present a very clear message that Islamophobia and other forms of racism are wrong, but if this is not supported by positive images that show targets as ordinary members of society, we’re not teaching our young people why it is wrong and allowing our young people from minority ethnic backgrounds to feel pride in their identity and heritage.

Whilst disappointing, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic attitudes are not surprising, given the prevailing climate of racism in society and our workshops are designed to cover and challenge these kinds of misunderstandings and received attitudes. Schools can support by actively seeking positive images and role-models to use consistently to challenge these prevailing ideas.

When discussing what racism is, we break it down into 4 areas: skin colour, religion*, nationality and culture. This last category enables us to broach the very prevalent negative attitudes that exist towards Gypsy, Roma or Traveller people, which could be seen as the forgotten or socially acceptable form of racism. Extremely negative attitudes to GRT communities are commonplace and quite strongly clung to by young people when challenged. Even in schools with GRT pupils, negative stereotypes are prevalent, and nourished by images portrayed on TV and in media coverage. Small wonder then, that many GRT pupils’ experience of school is not a happy one.

[*Whilst discrimination based on religion is often held to be a separate form of discrimination from racism, the racialisation of Islam and Muslims is clear. Including religious discrimination in our description of racism is key to enabling young people to question all forms of racism.]

These kinds of problems are the ones I expected to face when I began this job. More interesting though, are the gaps in knowledge and understanding exhibited by young people that point to curriculum failings in Wales, which I’m pretty sure will be the same in England and the other UK nations, where Britain’s role in slavery, and racism in Britain in the 20th Century are largely ignored. Most young people are aware of slavery in the USA and the civil rights movement, citing Rosa Parks’ story and Martin Luther King’s speeches. Yet very few are aware of Britain’s role in the slave trade, or that more Africans were enslaved to provide workers for the plantations in the Caribbean than in the USA (and the largest number to Brazil and other South American countries). Where is the curriculum coverage of the numerous slave revolts in the Caribbean, which made slavery there so untenable in Britain that they hastened its abolition? Why does our curriculum not teach British BAME history, such as the successful Bristol bus boycott in 1963 against the colour bar policy of the Bristol bus company, a protest which in large part led to the first Race Relations Act of 1965? How come our young people know about the KKK but not the National Front or British National Party? Where are the stories of Muslim soldiers fighting in the trenches in WW1 or Gurkha heroes of WW2?

Some coverage of Mary Seacole during Black History Month does not compensate for the glaring lack of coverage of general BAME British history or the history of UK multi-culturalism. Indeed there has been some recent outrage at a published school textbook which cites Polish immigration as a problem, likely to cause a decline in wages, a supposition proved by many studies to be unfounded.

It seems our curricula are designed to whitewash Britain’s role in the history of racism, from the slave trade onwards. It’s more comfortable to teach that racism happened in the USA and South Africa than face up to the realities of life for the Windrush generation and those who followed.

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Welsh education is currently undergoing a wholesale curriculum review. If it is to be serious in its stated aim to produce ethically informed citizens, these are areas of our shared history that we must address.