By Asif Chishti
“In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” Angela Y. Davis
If we want to create a more equal society, where everyone is valued, then we need to take action. Surely this is especially the case for teachers?
It is not enough for a teacher to be silently disapproving of racist attitudes in the classroom, or in the staffroom for that matter. Silence equals acquiescence. Most teachers understand that, and yet many lack the confidence to challenge racism when it occurs, or even to go near the topic of race. That is one seriously unhealthy state of affairs. How can you tackle racism without discussing race?
There are a host of reasons why this unease occurs. Often people, especially white people, will avoid the subject entirely, thereby eliminating any opportunity for offence to be taken. It can be perceived as a minefield with potential to detonate ill-feeling and destroy relationships.
This is problematic enough when we are talking about ‘regular citizens’. It becomes all the more concerning when it comes to teachers. We as teachers have a duty to be anti-racist and to challenge racism in the classroom.
So how does a teacher go about being actively anti-racist?
The keystone of awareness is an acknowledging the fact that racism exists. This may seem like stating the obvious, but, sadly, there is often a cosy consensus that “we’re not like that here”. As teachers, we must resolve to guard against this.
As teachers, we often regard ourselves as a profession which has social justice at its heart and thinking within this bubble has the risk of complacency. Racism is something bad people do. We’re teachers. We’re the good guys. It’s precisely because of our role that teachers are uniquely placed to bring about change in the elimination of racism.
Cultural and racial awareness are crucial because they provide a foundation for action. It helps no-one when teachers are too scared to talk about race and feel they are being chased off the topic. How can that be healthy? Having a degree of knowledge about race is the first step in the discussion that is needed in so many Scottish classrooms. It also allows practitioners to debunk the myths that frequently come up in discussion about race. It allows teachers to reflect on their practice, on whether they are inadvertently reinforcing negative stereotypes.
Teachers who arm themselves with the facts are also more able to diffuse those unhelpful narratives that can surface when discussing race, e.g. the pupil who insists “all lives matter” or the colleague who contends “anti-racism doesn’t need to be a priority here because we aren’t in a diverse school anyway”. Such attitudes detract from the actual discrimination that people of colour face and risk failing to prepare young people for their future life in the real world.
It won’t surprise anyone that, from the Trade Unionist point of view, solidarity is a tenet of the faith. It would not surprise you that I would encourage anyone who wants to be an anti-racist activist to become involved in the work of the unions.
Unions protect and advance our rights to dignity and respect in our workplaces. Unions challenge the power structures in society which foster division amongst workers. Unions are integral to broader struggles for equal rights and opportunities.
Trade union members know that when we stand and organise together, we are stronger. Trade union movements across the world have a long history of taking solidarity action and coordinating efforts alongside wider social movements and struggles. In the world of work, the impact of inequality is clearly visible, for example, in relation to equal pay, inaccessible workplaces, the glass ceiling and the sticky floor. Due to societal inequalities, our members’ rights are affected and impacted differently by workplace policies, financial cuts and the bargaining strategies we choose to employ.
Whilst solidarity might conjure images of marches and placard waving (which, don’t get me wrong, I love), it can also manifest itself in more everyday actions. I’m sad to say that often when I’ve been party to discussion about racism in schools, the reaction of many colleagues has been “well, that’s never been my experience.” Solidarity can often mean just listening to the lived experience of racism.
Listening is the key. We don’t need to validate. We don’t need to fix the situation. We don’t need to become defensive. But we do need to listen.
Naturally, there is a desire to incorporate lived experience within the teaching profession itself. Several other contributors to this blog have noted the lack of diversity in our profession. Clearly this must be addressed. But a note of caution. We cannot simply wait for the cavalry to arrive, and nor should BME teachers bear the burden that they should be ones who do the ‘equality stuff’ in schools – to be “bomb disposal experts”. Allyship plays a vital role in anti-racist education: therefore there is a role for all of us.
The most obvious way in which teachers can take action is to challenge racist attitudes when they arise in the classroom or the staffroom. Yet often teachers say they don’t feel confident in doing this. The EIS has Equality Reps across Scotland who can help to advise on this, but I often reassure colleagues that the “challenge” in itself is half the battle won. I don’t feel like I have failed if I don’t persuade someone that they are wrong, or if I don’t “beat” them in an argument. I will only have failed if I let racist attitudes go unchallenged.
Featuring the voices and contributions of people from a range of backgrounds in lessons is a simple place to start. Talking about race in the classroom is pivotal. That’s why we have been campaigning for resource and support for teachers as they strive to attain anti-racist education in Scotland. In each and every classroom, it is not enough to be non-racist. We as individual human beings and trained professionals must be anti-racist. Don’t be complacent. Raise your voices, so that we are indeed ‘the good guys’.
Asif Chishti is Principal Teacher of Modern Languages at Dunfermline High School, and is an alumnus of Moray House School of Education. He has spent the majority of his teaching career in Fife, but also worked at an international school in Malaysia for three years. Before entering teaching, he was in intern in the Scottish Executive Education Department working on equality policy. At that time, the three main work streams were funding the milestone MEPESS report of 2004, publishing guidance on education provision for Gypsy Traveller children, and initiating policy on anti-sectarianism. He is an activist in the EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union, serving on its national Council, its Equality Committee and chairing its Anti-racist Sub-committee. He is an Equality Rep and President of the EIS Fife Local Association.