‘White guilt on its own won’t fix racism’: decolonising Britain’s schools

The medley of jubilant black, brown and white faces cheering the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue has had many rethinking. Discussing even. Britain, a nation not keen on making much of a fuss, is having to talk about slavery. For too long we would rather have dunked our digestives into mugs of tea and not bothered with dredging up our past. But what if we had all learned at school that the history of our great British brew is inseparable from our history of empire? While Brits have been embracing lockdown baking, how many will know our national sweet tooth is the direct result of slave labour on Caribbean sugar cane fields?

At this moment, remaining ignorant about such history looks increasingly indefensible. Overnight, it has become a moral imperative to learn both the good and bad of British history. Meanwhile support for organisations that have long been working on “decolonising the curriculum” has skyrocketed since the killing of George Floyd.

Pran Patel, a consultant on decolonising the curriculum for schools in the UK and beyond, says that over the past two weeks the interest in his work from headteachers has been “crazy”. For Patel, decolonising the curriculum means exposing kids to the richness of knowledge from what he calls the ‘“global curriculum”. Denying children a wider range of subjects and perspectives does them a disservice. So too does a lack of consideration for how material is taught and who is teaching it.

“Our curriculum leaves some of us feeling inferior and others, through no fault of their own, superior,” says Patel. “Nobody wins in that scenario. When we teach literature, we should be teaching Dickens but we should also be talking about Tagore. When we teach poetry, we should absolutely be teaching Shakespeare and his sonnets but also Rumi.”

Signs declaring “White silence is violence” on our streets and social media feeds have forced thousands to act. According to Penny Rabiger, an ex-teacher and member of the Black and Minority Ethnic Educators Network, this “huge collective white guilt” has led to an enormous volume of traffic to the network’s website. A lot of white educators are logging on and asking how they can bring more diversity into their classrooms. How, too, they want to know, do they start having conversations about race and racial inequality with young people? Rabiger hits a cautious note, though, when she says: “White guilt is dangerous. It’s a start but it’s not going to ‘fix’ racism’.” White educators must, she says, continually ask themselves how racial inequality comes to exist and in what ways they perpetuate it. 

When I first speak to Lavinya Stennett, the founder of The Black Curriculum, it is lunchtime but she has only minutes to spare. She is in back-to-back meetings till 6pm. Has she noticed an increase of support over the past two weeks? She gives a tired laugh. In the week before Floyd’s death, her website, which details the implicit racial bias of the curriculum, received nearly 1,500 visits. Last week, the figure jumped to 133,000. On Monday, the social enterprise had 1,500 Twitter followers; three days later, that number had ballooned to 80,000. 

Thousands of teachers and parents are logging on to download its teaching resources. England’s national curriculum, drastically redesigned by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings during the former’s tenure as secretary for education, controversially celebrated the achievements of the empire while downplaying the sordid details of how it was run. This is why, in its latest report, The Black Curriculum is demanding that the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, makes black histories mandatory in the national curriculum. Those deluging them with requests clearly agree.

For Stennet, the increased exposure is “bittersweet”. She is grateful for the support but is also exhausted. She wants to know that the outpouring of goodwill will last beyond the next weeks and months. 

The National Association of Black Supplementary Schools (NABSS) was set up in 2007 by Brother Nia Imara, who says he wanted to challenge a media narrative of black children’s underachievement. In the past two weeks, students have come forward offering to volunteer, donations have risen and parents have been in touch to seek advice about setting up their own schools. 

With the world-weariness of someone who has seen it all before, Imara says: “NABSS received this same euphoria after the 2011 uprising following the Mark Duggan shooting, but, unfortunately, once the anger dies down, the energy to participate in solutions dies down with it.” He hopes that “this time is different, and people can sustain their urge to make a difference”. But, he adds: “Time will tell.”

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