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
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
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