For the past few weeks, being an anti-racist in Britain has been nothing short of exhausting. It seems like at every turn there is another authority figure ready to doubt the existence of racism, shoot down any valid accusations of it, and use anti-racism instrumentally to further their own ends. In this environment of resurgent, emboldened, and structurally supported racism it is vital that educators respond and maintain a principled anti-racism which recognises that racism is, more and more, being deemed acceptable.
How is racism changing? As we know from various scholars, it is an ever-changing structure that morphs to fit the needs of the time to persist. As we can see from popular culture and recent events in electoral politics, racism is becoming evermore acceptable with the concomitant anti-racism being seen as more of a problem. This steady slide into greater polarisation has been led by a prime minister with a chequered record of making racist comments and a party that doesn’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to tackling racism (think Go Home vans, Hostile Environment, PREVENT, stoking anti-immigration rhetoric, Grenfell). Their convincing victory has emboldened rafts of far-right figures with talk of “taking back control” and ridding the country of everything that doesn’t celebrate a nativist and triumphalist picture of Britain that says it is, quite simply, better than everywhere else. People of colour fear for safety and voice thoughts of leaving. The defeated Labour party has a part to play, too; racism in the party hasn’t been dealt with effectively, and now there are calls to recapture “traditional Labour voters” – i.e. white voters who feel immigration has “gone too far” and want someone to take back control. These moves in Westminster find echoes across contemporary culture, whether that be the either toothless or openly supportive media of racism, op-eds by Melanie Phillips calling Islamophobia “bogus” (and being published for it), Gary Neville being shutdown in the name of “balance” when speaking passionately about the problems of racism in society and football, and “It’s okay to be white” stickers being put up in Perth, Scotland.
However, in the midst of what feels like relentless waves of racist hate sweeping and seeping evermore into our daily lives, Stormzy’s recent comments and their responses have especially stuck with me. He has said that Boris Johnson is a “bad man”, his election has made racism in this country worse, and that racism is an inseparable part of life in Britain. These are standpoints that whole communities across the country would find little to quarrel with, namely people of colour and others who have suffered under a gruelling and unforgiving past decade of austerity. Commonplace but definitely brave positions, especially with being vulnerable to the worst racist reactions as a result. In response, he has been told that by the Home Secretary that he is “100% wrong” (in response to a misrepresentation in the media of an interview Stormzy did) and Britain is a uniquely welcoming place to be (supported by one map where the UK stands out in green amongst a continent of relative intolerance – we are, and have always been, the enlightened ones), and others have said that he comes from a broken home and should shut up and be grateful for what Britain has given him. A black man daren’t criticise the edifice around him, or face calls to be sent “back home”. It is entirely dispiriting but unfortunately not surprising. Stormzy has not wavered in the face of the British press misrepresenting and demonising him, with a side helping of far-right figures telling him to respect what this country has done for him. It is white victimisation at its finest, and gives extra ammunition to this crowd becoming evermore convinced that reverse racism is real and the most urgent issue facing this country is hate against white people.
This is not “polite” racism that people tend to think Britain as having, in comparison to the American and continental variants that some believe to be more virulent and in your face. The truth is that racism in Britain has always worked on the structural and interpersonal levels, and that interpersonal racism is becoming more okay in the current political climate. We have come to the point where it is easier to say something racist than call it out for what it is. Perhaps that has always been the case.
Educators must be a part of facing down and tackling these new realities. At a personal level I think about what I can do as a primary teacher in my day-to-day when talking with, teaching, and learning from my colleagues and students. A few things come to mind immediately:
The first thing I think of lies within the realm of the pragmatic and essential: showing people around you that you care about what is happening, and that you can be of support. Learners are acutely aware of what is happening in politics and wider society, whether they be in primary or higher education. People of all ages are affected by the comments and events occurring outwith their daily experiences, and can feel their reverberations in their immediate contexts in the form of interpersonal racism. As educators, we must proactively respond and offer ourselves as sources of support. Listening to concerns and addressing racism with authority should be normal. As can be seen in the previous examples of post-election racism, people of colour are being made to feel less secure of their place in this country and that it is always contingent upon an unerring pledge of loyalty to it. This is also not to say that we are solely the givers of support – we can also be the recipients. This can come from colleagues and students. We can acknowledge the vulnerabilities and worries of others, and assure them of their worth. Remind that the predominant political narratives have been constructed and that there are no inevitabilities. Encourage critical literacy across the curriculum, especially when it comes to dissecting media messages and political rhetoric.
Not sitting on the fence
When it comes to questions of racism, we must provide spaces where students can articulate experiences and responses to it without fear of reprise or minimisation. Classrooms must be one of the places where students feel able to engage in these discussions. Teachers also need to dispense with any excess focus on “balance” that has, in many ways, led us to the current mire. When it comes to xenophobia for example, we cannot continue to pretend that there are two equally valid sides to the argument. This does not have to amount to putting up big painted banners around a school saying, for example, “Boris Johnson is a bad man” or “Britain is 100% racist” (even though they may resonate with many of us), but instead requires teachers to recognise what is being left out of discussions which can uphold harmful power structures. Discussing Brexit can illustrate this point. Would it be intellectually and morally justifiable to acknowledge that Leave won without mentioning the proven lies of the Leave campaign, the fact that a portion of the campaign relied on social media subterfuge, and that appeals to white concerns over Turkey EU membership were all decisive in its victory? Of course, we should mention various grievances held by Leave voters – like the feeling of being “left behind” – but we must also ask why poor BME voters did not vote Leave. Ignoring these salient facts does a disservice to our students and helps uphold contemporary racism. Learners are capable and appreciate this kind of vital nuance in their learning, no matter what subject they are studying. It is getting harder and harder to say that Britain is structurally racist, but this backlash makes giving learners a judicious amount of data and information essential. We should also consider making our own inevitable personal biases more explicit. In our learning communities, might those we are responsible for deserve to know where we stand?
The use of protest is something that has always been intimately linked with educators and students across societies. Look at the waves of strikes by teachers across the States for better pay, climate strikes by students across the world, public demonstrations by students in London against racist exclusions policies – these are all strategies proven to capture the attention of communities outside of educational establishments as well as cultivate new solidarities within them. With racism becoming an evermore existential threat towards racialised minorities, the need to take such direct is likely to become more urgent to, quite simply, save lives whether in form of protection against racial harassment, bullying, or involvement in the immigration system. Protests against the deportation of classmates in France last year provides an example of when people in education can collectively make demands for the futures they deserve.
This is just a general set of thoughts in the face of the far-right being in power in Westminster. Additional analyses and opinions on the more local Scottish context are needed, especially with the prospect of independence becoming more imaginable. The basic need is to continue to say that racism in the UK is neither exceptional nor linked with any one segment of society, but rather perfectly normal and part-and-parcel of how it is structured from the bottom-up. This is the mundane reality we must keep shining the light upon.