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Anti-racist education is a failure

Linda Bellos spells it out in black and white

For anybody who knows my track record it may seem surprising that I should attack anti-racism in education, but I have in fact done so for many years. I do not attack it on principle, I attack the practice of it.

Anti-racism in education could mean many things. It could for example mean that history, music, literature, art and science include references to ancient African civilisation, as they do to Greek and Roman civilisation. It could mean evaluating the enslavement and colonisation of Africa and the Caribbean by Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It could mean the study of Asian culture and civilisation, pre and postcolonial. Such an approach would inform and support both European young people and ethnic minority young people. But such an approach is seen as problematic because it requires that teachers fundamentally reorient their thinking about British society and what they themselves have taken as given.

What purports to be anti-racist education involves things that can be done easily and quickly-bolt-on solutions, such as tacking on a bit of slave studies here, a bit of the Koran there. Most obviously it has focused on language, seeking to discourage or even jump on racist expressions. While I understand that the use of racist words and phrases by students should be discouraged, the means by which it is done is as important to black students as it is to white ones.

It is relatively easy to take issue with the use of the word nigger, but far harder to deal with real racial harassment which has been going on in British schools and which has largely been ignored. If anti-racism is so important why have so few teachers done anything about the rising tide of exclusions of black students? These are practical matters affecting black students, and they are within the power of education authorities, school governors and teachers. But anti-racism seems to have been largely silent about these things.

More worrying, however, is that in the name of anti-racism some teachers have argued that black students should not be expected to achieve their full potential because they are disadvantaged. For reasons best known to themselves they argue that it is not necessary for black children to learn Shakespeare or Chaucer because these writers are part of European culture.

This latter argument is the most pernicious; Shakespeare and Chaucer have become universal cultural contributors. Yes they are two white men, but that does not mean that all children, black or white, should not be familiar with their work. Young black children growing up in Britain need to be as aware of the common cultural references as white children. This does not mean that there should be no inclusion of African writers, especially good writers. But this should be for the benefit of all children, not just the black ones.

The expectations of black children, particularly those of African origin, have been limited by stereotype in the name

of anti-racism. I have heard too many stories from black parents about being told by teachers that they are being over-ambitious for their children. I have heard teachers tell me that Hackney or Lambeth, as just two examples, are poor boroughs and that a high percentage of children come from single-parent households or that English is not the first language spoken within the family, as though this was a reason or excuse for low expectations. The material circumstances in which children live and grow up have significant bearing on their education, but it should not be used as a pretext to reinforce the disadvantages they already experience. Too often anti-racism has meant accepting that being black is in and of itself a disadvantage.

Why does this happen? Chiefly because the people in charge of devising and implementing anti- racist policies are not themselves black. They are no doubt well intentioned, but the effect of their practice is to patronise black children and their parents.

They do not consult or listen; if they did so they would know that the overwhelming majority of black parents have high expectations of, and aspirations for, their children. They also defer to teachers, having themselves been brought up to value and respect education and teachers. It is no coincidence that an increasing number of working class black parents are sending their children to fee-paying schools or returning them to the Caribbean to ensure that they get a good education. African and Caribbean parents expect discipline within schools and they want and expect formal learning, but because of deference may not raise these issues with an individual teacher in the state system.

There is no substitute for a good education, one that equips a young person to understand the world, relate to it and achieve their full potential. Anti-racist education has regrettably come to mean that hollow excuses are put forward to justify black children not having the opportunity to do so. There should be no either/or about this issue. It is not anti- racism v traditional class-ridden education as currently posed, or grammar schools and selection v liberal child-centred and structureless schools.

Anti-racism may not be a useful term to reflect the real changes that need to occur to the entire education system in Britain to ensure that the contribution of black (read African and African Caribbean) culture and heritage play an inclusive part in the curriculum. Bolt-on cheap and easy gestures are not what are required to ensure that a further generation of black children are not confined to under-education and underachievement. More Shakespeare and James Baldwin on the other hand might be, as would ensuring that the people who are meant to be the beneficiaries of these policies actually played the leading role in devising and implementing them.

Linda Bellos is a writer and political activist

Should Shakespeare's Othello be taught to white children only?

Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

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