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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  1. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    Critically honest account lamenting what in fact is a virulent and insidious form of child abuse – false entitlement and intersectional racial discrimination which children are subjected to.
    ‘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”. It 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”.’

  2. Thankyou for you article its so sad to see this happening and its sad that most councils have put racial equality in the back of the line. The problem is other institutions think they can abuse black parents and children and get away with it. What I do whenever I experience institutional racism is by complaining your email can do a lot of work if you CC the local MP, Ofsted local press. I will not let things slide it is important that black people must get in the habit of complaining they should not let it slide. I have even complained about Mumsnet for enticing racial hatred contacting local MP and and getting a response. The worst thing you could do as a BAME is to stay silent and put up with crap. I applied to be a member of my school governor so that I can shape the school so that they can include voices of diverse people.

    1. Thank you for sharing tips and for reading, I hope some will find your suggestions helpful.
      Sometimes though, you just want to get on. If I was writing a letter to my MP each time one of my child experiences racism, I could not hold down a job. My hope is that the onus is no longer put on exhausted & often traumatised Black parents to address racism and complain, this adds to the trauma & damages us.

  3. This is all too familiar. Like you, I have a story for almost everyday my son spent in middle school. We allowed him to take a “wellness day” whenever it became too much. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  4. Thank you for sharing. These stories resonate with my own lived experiences going to school in the seventies to those of my children at school in the nineties. I had to educate my children and equip them with a tool kit on how to take matters further themselves once they all got to University because over the years it was disgraceful that my frequent presence in their schools and colleges was largely to address matters of inequality and unfairness. I had to teach and guide them on how to confront racism! Now that they are all in work, I encourage them to take a ‘wellness’ day or two when the toxicity in the workplace gets too much.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing. I really appreciate. There’s been little change from the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s, almost 2020. It can be hard to retain a sense of hope. I try because doing so is resistance and…the alternative is despair. Something many of us can’t afford.

  5. I recently attended a seminar about unconscious bias. Although we all have biases, the behavior of these teachers is abhorrent and unjustifiable. To treat children this way sickens me and I’m sorry for your past and present experiences. I’ve experienced the same growing up and continue to deal with racism in the workplace. My mother always used to say, “things will never be right until God makes it right” and as I get older I truly believe this. Racism is illogical and is the most prevalent ideal throughout the world. I’m grateful that Jehovah God love’s us all and is not partial (Acts 10:34). What they’re doing to your family is egregious and they will have to answer to God for it (Colossians 3:25). May God provide you the strength to keep fighting for equality until God’s Kingdom takes care of it once and for all (Revelation 21:3,4).

  6. We have experienced the same in my 2nd son’s school where he was called black poo and in my older’s school, the teachers do not believe in the children or believe that they deserve the right to an education.

  7. I think you will find most black people have been through the same thing. It has made me stronger, but as you say it is a work out. Both of my sons have gone to university but they have even in this day, been thwarted at every stage. Having worked in the education sector, I know there is still a problem. But the issue is when you tackle these things on your own it is almost impossible to be taken seriously. Gay is why I am bringing people together. I would be interested to discuss more with you.

    1. Dear Richard,
      Thank you for taking the time to respond. Actually racism really makes no one stronger. It shorten lives. Disables. Causes mental health issues. Fragment communities and families. We’re socialised to see glory and to derive a sense of identity in that overcoming narrative. I’m no longer certain this serves us. I’m not sure how you define strong but as a black woman I have a contentious relationship with the word. I agree with the point about support & networks as protective factors, but even then, there is only so much violence human bodies can take. Alone or in groups. I salute your efforts, we need more of us to bring people together. And would welcome further info on your work.

  8. Is there/will there be soon a French version of this blog post? I am teaching an undergraduate class on educational inequality this fall and I think this could really work as a key reading.

  9. This is an important piece. As a black woman in the US, with Nigerian American children, I know this anti-blackness well. This resonated with me to my core. It feels funny to say thank you for this, but nevertheless, thank you for this.

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