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Just listen.... please!

Updated: Sep 17, 2022

I came across a brilliant article by Sofie Bergland from the Norwegian Study Centre and, this article by Sofie who is with the University of York, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, looks at the discourse or the lack of it on race and racism in teacher training and education in Britain and Norway & its impact on students. Here's a link to the article.

It's been evident for quite a while now that our education system is long overdue for an overhaul - at least it has been to those who are under-represented and who seemingly don't exist in Britain's historical landscape. Britain just came to be, somehow, because she was entitled to vast riches that cascaded down from above or somewhere else... who knows...right? The lack of acknowledgement around Britain's colonial history and its implicit erasure of identities is at the heart of imparting education that is whitewashed. This is a monumental problem as it only encourages more racism and oppression to prevail in society. The critical lens is unused and the voices of BAME groups, marginalised and vulnerable communities have been left bereft in white ideological landscapes where we are all equal and racism isn't talked about. The word 'white' is considered to be racist and of course Scotland doesn't consider itself to be all...Scotland has just internalised racism, along with the rest of Britain, to the point that racist behaviours, certain phrases, 'conversations' and systems in place are commonplace. 

When I talk about racism and our racist experiences in general, it makes many people on my personal social media pages uncomfortable. There is an unease sheathed in silence in not addressing or acknowledging what has been said. Situations and reflections that challenge us are discomfiting but offer loads of room for ruminations. There seems to be a general malaise coupled with extreme denial in reflecting what Scotland can do better to support its migrant community. The sentence "where are you from" on observing one's skin colour is one such internalised racist behaviour since it focuses on othering. 

Sofie highlights the following in her article “The pain of not addressing racism is all the more dangerous particularly in educational spheres where the minds, subjectivities and futures of minoritized youth are influenced (Solomon et al. 2006)" and the outcome of an observational study by Svendsen (2013) about Norwegian classrooms in relation to ‘race-talk’, brought five issues into light when deliberating this topic. The aim of the study was to highlight how racialised topics were discussed between students and teachers. A vast majority of the teachers were White Norwegians. The study concludes that through “denial of ‘race’…racism is enacted in the classroom (Svendsen 2013)."


The last line is quite similar to one of my emails to the head teacher of a Gaelic school that my son attended for less than six months. I pulled him out as he was racially bullied and isolated on the playground during his time there, with no support from staff. It led to him becoming depressed, aggressive, desolate and extremely anxious. I stated that being silent in the face of bullying, not acknowledging it and blaming the victim results in the collective perpetuation of said oppression. There was a lack of acknowledgement, lots of victim-blaming, absolute denial, feigned ignorance, a stupendous lack of interest by the teachers concerned, an assessment / report that supposedly followed GIRFEC but painted my son like he was a juvenile delinquent, didn't take his views into consideration, denial around any bullying due to the teachers not having apparently observed it and an unwillingness on the part of the head teacher to acknowledge the existence of bullying in the school, let alone racism. The teachers and head involved also didn't seem to possess the bandwidth to listen or assist one child within a system whose identity and, hence, needs were different. This, to me, highlighted the lack of training around bias, diversity and bullying, since the report also included a lot of gaslighting and we then wonder why children's mental health is at risk in this country.    

My son, who was then six years old, developed anxiety, wheezing and severe migraines. He also talked about not wanting to live anymore and suffered from night terrors right through his time in school and until another few months after we pulled him out to home educate him. The very thought of going back to school the next day after a hiatus of three days resulted in an anxiety attack so bad that he stopped breathing and almost turned blue in the face. He gasped for breath and pleaded with me not to send him back to school as he couldn't stand to be bullied anymore. This incident, coupled with a few other reasons, was instrumental in our decision to home educate him. 

My son said, upon reflection, that he lost faith in the adults around him as they were unwilling to acknowledge what he went through and just decided to blame him. This goes back to the lack of interest amongst those teachers I have tried to engage with around racism, that usually stems from white privilege and, in my opinion, the lack of any sort of exposure to race, racism and forms of oppression during teacher training. 

We have raised our older one's experiences of being bullied, experiencing racism and talking to the kids about these incidents and forms of oppression, with the head and particular teachers involved. However, there seems to be a general belief from top-down that acknowledging the existence of bullying would drag the name of the school through muck.  This failure to address racism and the lack of training to acknowledge and cater to the presence of different identities in classrooms, is pivotal to the problems experienced by BAME children and folk in education. 

Naomi Gessesse writes in her article what it's like being black in the Scottish Gaelic community,

'But there is an insidious side to white ignorance; when your caregivers don’t know what racism really looks like, how can they support you?'

This has certainly been our experience in Scotland. We need to have open conversations around ideas and words that are often bandied about in media with negative connotations such as 'migration', 'immigration', 'asylum-seekers', 'diversity', 'inclusion', 'Muslims' and 'Islam', for example, and what these terms actually mean. Children who learn conditioned behaviours from the adults in their lives are bound to plagiarise and mimic these behaviours and use them as a form of acceptance to seek a threshold into a larger facet of society. The lack of addressal in this school and other schools is definitely a problem for children of colour/ from BAME communities and this again circles back to teacher training.

The articles above are a must-read for all, and, especially for

  • a. those in denial about racism in Britain

  • b. those who simplify racism down to disliking an individual based on the colour of their skin.

What, how and why we learn anything is axiomatic in shaping the way we think and perceive the world around us.

There have been innumerable times when I have been asked by white friends and acquaintances to justify and defend our racist experiences. I was asked to define, quantify, and combat existing definitions just to prove that I, my family, or those I had worked with, had experienced injustices at school, work or while living. It also came back to the 'not all white people are racist' and 'there are white people who experience where's the privilege?' Once these conversations were had, everyone wanted to have a friendly conversation about something else and decided that all of these conversations solidified our friendships. It made them feel good knowing they had engaged in conversations around a 'difficult topic', as opposed to acknowledging that they had conversed about something that was difficult and very discomfiting for them to hear whilst getting defensive or judgemental. What was not taken into account was that the friendship was defined on THEIR terms. This is the power imbalance that epitomises racial biases and structures in place, that is so internalised, on full display - I will ask you questions, berate and dismiss your pain but then you will oblige me/us because I/ we have asked you to. There is a lack of empathy and sensitivity when having such conversations. Sadly, the responses and reactions from teachers when confronted with their biases or during discussions around race and racism are no different. I use the term 'discussions' loosely as it is usually the other party getting severely defensive, being unwilling to acknowledge an issue raised or using some sort of power play to shut us down.  Intersectionality is a whole different ball-game that I cannot even go into just now.  There is such a dismal lack of understanding around this issue across the spectrum - be it healthcare, education and what not!

Some of my white friends are unable to see the power and control they possess when they are dismissive or non-empathetic to issues around race. They use terms like racism interchangeably with prejudice and discrimination they have experienced and expect me/ BAME people to be okay with it. What they don't understand is the pain, embarrassment, sheer emotional and mental fatigue & wretchedness that accompany the whole dialogue and every experience of having to process it or explain and justify it.

I am not talking about open, mutually respectful conversations around race, racism and structural oppression. I absolutely love these and there are but a handful of white friends with whom I am able to have these. I am referring to pointed conversations around not understanding that it is not okay to dress up in black costumes and thinking blackface is acceptable and fun, for example, because it's what they have done or their grandparents did. I am talking about having to check my response to someone who asks me how I am doing or how my day has been. I have to then think if that person is capable of understanding what my day was like if my kids and I had been followed in a shop just because..., if racial slurs were hurled at my husband, if my older child comes back from school and talks about her day and is pained by her classmates' and teachers' ignorance, all the support that went into helping our son process and continue to process the utter bullshit he went through at school, my rage, frustration and pain. All of these are constant and don't stop but tend to ebb and flow. It is about understanding that I have the right to feel deeply hurt by my friends' and community's sad inability to reflect upon their questions, lack of sensitivity and openness to listening. By putting me in a position where they believe they are 'learning from me', when my experiences and dialogues around race aren't appealing to their perspectives, they decide to combat it with defensiveness. This goes back to 'white privilege' and the confusions and contradictions around the definitions of racism, which need to be deconstructed.

Decolonising the existing curriculum, especially with the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland being open to interpretation, would be the way to go. The work of Pran Patel and The Anti-Racist Educator in this area is crucial and requires allyship and support from educators, parents and citizens all over Britain.

I continue to be appalled by the number of times white folk around me - be it ex-colleagues, people I know or those in power - continue to assume that it's my responsibility alone to raise injustices I perceive in education or elsewhere. This is a reminder that I do so constantly in my professional life as well, and I am often met with silence from the school, 'educators' and other parties involved. It's up to each and every one of us to understand racism and how it impacts education, just like we need to understand inequalities and how they impact society collectively.

The children in the Gaelic school that my older child attends, don't learn about colonisation and its impacts, slave trade, apartheid, indigenous peoples and their right to their land. If the Gaelic speakers aren't white, how welcomed are they by other Gaelic speakers and how understood are their roots, culture and history under the guise of 'inclusion'? There is a systemic message that is constantly sent to non-white children that they don't belong here. So who is this system of education catering to and how are we actually preparing our children for the 'real world'? My older one asked me at the beginning of the school year who she could talk to when she has a problem. She said, "None of the teachers look like me. So I don't know if they would understand when I talk about racism or something someone has said as I am unsure if they have had any sort of training or possess any awareness." This was not only heartbreaking for me to hear as a mum, but it is certainly also the truth around the lack of representation in education and the Gaelic medium.  

I don't subscribe to the argument that it's all good if it doesn't affect us personally. That is fundamentally reductive to equality and measures to achieve social justice. I understand why some folk don't feel able to speak their truth when they feel disenfranchised, are particularly vulnerable and have been conditioned through years of oppression to ignore and try to 'fit in'. Being asked why we raise an issue in school (true story) when other kids of colour or their parents haven't reported any incidents is a grave marker of two crucial issues:

  • a. Ignorance around how inequalities work

  • b. Implicit bias and ingrained biases within teachers and their lack of unpacking around deep-rooted prejudices.

The lack of strength in numbers around reporting racism doesn't mean racism doesn't exist. It is extremely hard for many BAME parents to raise an issue around any form of inequality within schools or even elsewhere, if any sort of prior feedback hasn't been dealt with empathetically and compassionately. There is certainly an element of self-preservation and privilege amongst some parents from middle class minority ethnic backgrounds and many white parents we have met. 'What doesn't affect us is not my problem' seems to be the constant message communicated when issues around inequalities are raised or shared.  We are really grateful that our children talk to us and analyse issues from different perspectives. We know that some of their friends don't feel comfortable raising these issues, for so many reasons, which is a huge part of the issue around education in a 'post-colonial' world.

The sad truth is colonialism and colonial mindsets still very much exist here in Britain. These are deeply entrenched in our system of education and are very much prevalent, even in Scotland,  much as we would like to believe otherwise.

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