Month: June 2019

On schools, institutional racism & everyday violence

This is not an academic piece.

But it is a necessary piece. Like most emotionally heavy writing, it needed that impulse and perhaps a little less head to get ‘on paper’. The threat of anger, sadness or hopelessness can make it difficult for words to come, and to make themselves heard. So I am getting on with it trying to think as little as I can. As a young child, I watched my mother fight many battles. As a mother, I look upon her struggles with incredible sadness. I remember her standing in front of White female teachers, having argument after argument, about their low expectations, proposed stereotypical trajectories for our future and recurrent queries about our intelligence. I will recount in this piece, a few of these experiences and other related anecdotes covering both the French and UK context, without much analysis.

When I was five my mother fought the primary school who would not allow me to start school. This is the first battle I remember. Being born in February and missing the official cut off point for admission by a week or so, the decision as to whether I could start or not; was at the discretion of the school and, while for White children starting school a little early was rarely an issue, the school took umbrage that my mother thought her child was sufficiently intellectually developed to start.

My entry was barred. A rare occurrence. My mother challenged the school. Mainly out of principle as she knew she and I were being treated differently. The school dug their heels in and, decided that the only way to prove I was sufficiently intelligent or ‘cognitively ready’, was to test my IQ. I was subjected to a battery of tests by a team of psychologists. Then, they wrote their report. The school’s own appointed psychologists had found I had a much higher ‘intelligence’ than average and was in fact advanced for my age. Reluctantly, I was allowed in.

Fast forward, as a teen, within a philosophy class, I questioned Descartes’ dualism, you will understand, quite a sacrilegious thing to do as a Black girl. The teacher responded by calling me a monkey who was incapable of thinking and was, instead looking at the finger of Descartes, as Descartes was pointing to the sun.

Between the age of 14-16 I had a history and geography teacher who taught us about the important job France did in civilising and enlightening Africa, as part of this module on colonialism. The course was so whitewashed, uncritical and steeped in nostalgia, it was violent. In the end, students of colour were authorised, off the record, not to attend this class. A compromise to avoid the disturbance of our questions and critical eyes or, to having to rethink the curriculum.

Throughout my teens I watched my mother continue to battle with teachers who were still unconvinced that my seven sisters and I had the intellectual capacity to study at university, let alone study what we wanted to study. None of us were destined for intellectual pursuits. It was best that we considered non-academic subjects, like most Black kids around. My mother was delusional apparently, and had unrealistic expectations. My baby sister’s physics teacher was so set against her studying physics he refused to support her university application. That’s sister number seven. To sister number two, who wanted to study economics, it was recommended that she studied management. I was discouraged from studying psychology…

Those are only a few examples. Remember none of us had what it took to go to university.  Despite all ‘odds’ and our limited intellectual capabilities, I count amongst my sisters one physicist, two economists, one accountant and wow…a psychologist. Seven out of eight of us did go to university, most of us obtained postgraduate qualifications. 

I studied English at La Sorbonne in Paris straight after my baccalaureate. As part of an American civilisation class, we were taught that the US was the number one economic power in the world due to its high national IQ, but that as a nation it was still being held back because of the low IQ of African Americans.

Fast forward again, a few years later and now a migrant to the U.K , I became a mother. And it was time to form my own race memories in school, as a parent.

When my first son was about five, he was racially abused in school. Children would call him monkey and do monkey chants. He came home upset. I contacted the school, who had not told me about the incidents. They did not appear to see any racism and no action was taken. A week or so later I was summoned into school because of an extremely serious incident. I was informed my son had been racist. He had said he wanted to marry a Muslim girl when he grew-up. This was so deeply offensive and so disturbing; I was informed the local authority needed to be informed of this hate incident. I told the school the meeting and bogus (counter) accusation amounted to victimisation under the Equality Act. No further action was taken.

Between the ages of four to six my daughter remained in the same infant school. Several times a week her father would pick her up. Very rarely was he not asked by anxiety filled voices who he was or what he wanted, when he went to collect her. The teachers would run out of smiles, banter and recognition for this dark-skinned Black man with dreadlocks, it appears. He was almost systematically feared and unrecognised. It became an experiment we would do, watch how teachers would engage with different parents. It was (colour) striking.

When she was six my daughter came home upset and asked me to re-do her hair. She had two ponytails (Afro puffs to be precise) and two cornrows at the front and two at the back of her head. She was alarmed and anxious. ‘The teacher said my hair is too big, I can’t wear a hat and I need to change it or I won’t be in the school play’ she declared. I said I would not change her hairstyle and that her hair was perfectly fine.

The following day her father took her to school and explained to the teacher her comments were out of line, that she needed to be included and further, showed her how to put her puffs in a single ponytail to fit her hat. In the afternoon I picked her up and one of her braids had been cut. She had not realised. Only the teacher had touched her hair. I contacted the school; they had no idea of course. They confirmed children had had no access to scissors. I insinuated this may have been an act of malicious retaliation, the headteacher was outraged since she herself had ‘mixed-race’ grandchildren which thus clarified no racism could take place in her school.

Last year I collected my girl from school she had tear tracks all over her face. I asked the teacher what had happened she said, ‘someone had teased her, and she never quite got over it’. I questionned my daughter, sensing something significant had taken place once we were away from the teacher. She said a white boy had been telling her all Black people deserved to die, making faces at her all day. She had told the teacher. I waited three days playing the devil’s advocate for the school. No teacher ever called to explain what had happened or, that they would be taking the incident all the way to the local authority. Eventually the White mother of the offending child, whom I was in good terms with, called me distressed and ‘ashamed’ to apologise. I comforted her, that is a story for another day. She had been contacted. We had not.

Last week, my middle son maths’ teacher called and complained my son had not done six pieces of work and, he was urging me to ask him to take his studies more seriously. I talked to my son. I was angry. We take homework seriously. He did the work that night, the pieces of work were in fact exercises which formed part of the same homework sheet. The following day he returned home and said mum, ‘you know the teacher who says I had not completed six pieces of work, I spoke to my friend he had not completed over 100, why did the teacher not call his mother’? I said to him perhaps the teacher cared more about his education. I did not really believe this.

Two months ago my girl came home upset saying she did not think her teacher liked her.

I asked her what made her think that. She had noticed the teacher spoke to the White children with a kinder voice and, did not spend much time with the Black children. I took my courage in both hands and arranged a meeting with the school. I explained to the teacher my daughter’s experience. She turned red and defensive. She did not believe this was the case of course, she was taken aback that I would take my daughter’s words so seriously. I asked wether she had heard of unconscious bias. She seemed unclear how this might apply to her. We left the meeting with no clear sense of direction other than, ‘she would look into it’. It’s been several weeks. I have not heard anything. The only difference is my girl being increasingly unhappy and, noticing her teacher responding differently to her. We take solace in the fact that in a few weeks she will change class, and I hope for a more clued up teacher. I do not hold my breath.

This shit is exhausting.

This shit is distressing.

Macpherson defined institutional racism as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”. He further added, that it can be seen in “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people”.

Attitudes. Processes. Behaviour. Prejudice. Ignorance. Thoughtlessness. Stereotyping. 

Structural racism encompasses the complex ways in which the dominance, superiority and privileges of White groups are built into, maintained and protected by all structures in society. 

Schools are structurally and institutionally racist and they are continuing, by and large to get away with it, without the kind of scrutiny that the police attracts.

But not every act of violence draws blood. Not all harm is immediately visible.

Schools remain for way too many of us sites of trauma, often intergenerational whiteness related trauma. This truth may challenge teachers’ benevolent and nurturing self-concept, but it must be contained, if we are going to move forward.

Again, this was not an academic piece. And the above is not an exhaustive list, I have only recounted those instances which came to mind. There are hundreds more.

The present post was written without much structure or theory. What it carries nevertheless is shit loads of experience and with that exhaustion and bits of despair. In truth, I am sick of the infantilisation of schools and, of their presumed benevolence that protects their everyday, normalised discriminatory practices and, their systemised anti-Blackness. 

No other institutions on this land could get away with the micro and macro violence schools subject Black children and their parents to. And that is before we have even delved into inequalities of access, discipline and attainment. Another story for another day…However, anyone would be a fool to consider such inequalities in isolation from the lived experience described above.

There is absolutely nothing more heart-breaking than leaving your child at the gate of a school knowing they will be subjected to racism.

Actually that is not true. There is something more heart-breaking. Leaving your child at a gate of a school knowing they will be subjected to racism and, fearing that if you challenge the school you will be subjected to racism. And more importantly, that your child may well suffer further discrimination.

But yet, here we are. In 2019.

Thank you for reading

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