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Manifestations of Racism in Scottish Education Part 1: #AcademiaSoWhite and Overt/Covert Racism

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

Five years ago, I embarked on a part-time Masters in Education Studies and, at long last, a few months ago, I submitted my final assignment. For my dissertation, I chose to analyse the ways in which Scottish education policy promotes anti-racist education. And, although that topic may sound rather dry, I was surprised to discover how some education policies are actually implicated in white supremacy by allowing racist outcomes to persist in education.

By white supremacy, I borrowed Critical Race Theorist David Gillborn's definition in his analysis of English education policy and enactment of white supremacy (2005). Drawing on hooks (1989) and Ansley’s (1997) conceptions of white supremacy as a covert power structure, rather than just overt discrimination, Gillborn defines it as:

"a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily re-enacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings." (2005: 491)

In this sense, white supremacy in education could manifest itself in various ways, from the absence of people of colour in leadership positions to the existence of covert racism embedded in the curriculum. None of such manifestations have to result from ill-intentioned individuals, rather they would be a result of collective privileging of whiteness. And the existence of white privilege in the UK has been proven by Kalwant Bhopal's research on education and employment (2018). According to her, “whiteness” does not refer merely to a person's skin colour:

"Whiteness is not just an individual identity, it is one that is embedded in different institutions – such as schools, universities and the media – as being the predominant identity. In such white spaces, whiteness and white Western practices are the norm and those which do not comply with these are seen as outsiders and others." (2018: 25)

As I really enjoyed working on this MEd research, seeing it come to an end left a feeling of bitter-sweetness. Part of me wanted to continue this type of academic research on anti-racist education and I thought about pursuing it at a PhD level. However, I also have my reservations about academia as it is an environment that tends to be reserved for the most privileged.

Knowledge in academia is generally disseminated through journals that people can only access as students or academics, unless you pay significant access fee. 'Valuable' knowledge - a majority of which is designed to reflect dominant Eurocentric, white narratives - is meant to trickle down into every day practice. The problem is, this trickle effect often seems too slow, especially when anti-racist discourse tends to be silenced in that environment of white supremacy. At a time of explicit racial violence, when so many problematic politicians are gaining new levels of power, anti-racist knowledge, pedagogy and practice need to be made accessible for people more urgently. That's why, for now at least, I would rather invest more time and energy in working collectively from the grassroots and developing The Anti-Racist Educator as an accessible platform for all (including myself) to learn from, than undertake another five-year part-time course. With that in mind, it won't stop me from engaging with research, developing my own work independently and admiring those academics and students of colour whose existence in academia is a form of resistance (see Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action).

Looking back at my 70-page dissertation, I have attempted to make more accessible the section which describes the multiple manifestations of racism in Scottish education. At a time when many are still offended to hear that their nation is racist, I hope this breakdown of racism builds stronger bridges of understanding and, thus, resistance. Although I am sure there are other ways of exploring and defining the racist outcomes of Scottish education, this first part of my blog post examines overt racism and covert racism. Part 2 of this post will discuss alienation, racist curriculum, racist teachers and institutional racism.

1. Overt Racism

This is the first thing people tend to think about when it comes to racism. Overt racism is what is typically classified as a ‘racist incident’ and it tends to be anything that has to do with racist hate speech and hate crime. It’s the type of racism where the perpetrator’s intentions to cause harm are obvious and unquestionable. Between 2011 and 2016, there have been just under 3000 reported racist incidents in Scottish schools. While the Scottish government claims that these numbers have dropped in recent years, we have yet to see evidence to support this. In England, there was a surge of racist incidents that were serious enough to lead to school exclusion between 2016 – 2017 and there is reason to believe that a lot of it has to do with the ‘hostile environment’ created by Theresa May and the emboldening prejudice and bigotry caused by the Brexit vote. In any case, we shouldn’t simply be relying on reported racist incidents to determine how many of them actually take place because racist incidents are under-reported for a number reasons:

  • Schools may be covering up racist incidents to protect their reputation and look better during inspections. The Anti-Racist Educator uncovered such a case in Scotland when we interviewed a parent who had asked the parent council of the school for support in reporting a racist incident, but the parent council silenced her for fear of ruining the school's reputation.

  • Pupils are rarely given an opportunity or the tools to confidently speak about race. As educators of colour who are rare and under-represented in the teaching profession, we know how scary it can be to call out racism when your colleagues and peers may all turn against you. Add the power imbalance between a pupil and teacher, and it isn't surprising that some pupils would not know where to find a safe space to discuss their experiences of racism. The 2019 Intercultural Youth Scotland (IYS) report on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) pupils' experiences in Scottish schools revealed that

almost one in three female respondents (29.5%) strongly disagreed with the statement ‘If I experienced a racist incident at my school, I would feel able to tell my teacher’. A smaller proportion of male respondents expressed strong disagreement (16.7%).

As educators, it is our duty to create those spaces and empower pupils with the right tools for those conversations.

  • If you (or your family and peers) were previously disappointed by the way a racist incident was dealt with, you will be less likely to trust the school and report it. If you are not informed of the outcomes of that report, it might not feel worth the amount of emotional labour it took you to report it in the first place. This was shown in the IYS 2019 report as

over half of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘Teachers at my school were knowledgeable about the processes they were required to follow if a racist incident happened at school’.
  • You might not even trust that the incident you witnessed or experienced is worth reporting either. When overt racism is becoming increasingly normalised and justified by people in positions of power, it can cause you to question whether what you experienced is really as bad as you thought it was. This is known as gas-lighting: when you question your own memory and judgement because people in power are sowing seeds of doubt. The IYS 2019 report revealed that BAME pupils did not always trust their own judgements because of such collective gas-lighting.

At trade union meetings and SAMEE events, I have heard many teachers of colour in Scotland relate their experiences of overt racism in schools: from racist graffiti on pupils’ desks to pupils acting like monkeys every time the black teacher enters the room. Arshad et al. observed that the majority of the Black, Minority Ethnic (BME) young people they interviewed had experienced name-calling, harassment and bullying (2004). In Dean’s research in Edinburgh schools, 15% of the Muslim pupils interviewed had encountered physical Islamophobia, such as getting a hijab ripped off, and 55% had encountered verbal Islamophobia, including getting called names, being told to “go back to their country” or being asked if they had a bomb in their bag (2017).

Occasionally, there are racist incidents that are so extreme that they shock everyone into reconsidering the state of racism in education. In order to ensure that these counter-narratives are not silenced and forgotten, here are a couple of significant ones:

  • Stephen Lawrence's murder which, thanks to his parents' endless resilience and courage, resulted in a public inquiry that defined institutional racism and openly warned us of the role and complicity of schools in allowing racism to persist.

  • The murder of the Scottish-Pakistani schoolboy, Imran Khan, by four white youths in 1998 in Glasgow.

  • The Syrian refugee, Shabaz Ali, stabbed in Edinburgh streets by a white Scottish teenager in May 2018.

  • Another Syrian refugee, Jamal, who was brutally attacked and filmed by white teenagers on school grounds in November 2018 in Huddersfield and whose younger sister later suffered a similar attack at school.

Even though some of these examples come from England, it would be naïve to think that Scotland exists in a vacuum, considering the shared responsibility in historical white supremacist endeavours of colonialism and slavery and the non-devolved racialised features of British governance: immigration and counter-terrorism.

2. Covert Racism

Covert racism, also known as racial micro-aggressions (Sue, 2010), refers to a more subtle form of interpersonal racism such as stereotyping, alienation, misrecognition and invalidation. Sometimes referred to as everyday racism, research has shown that it is a common, daily experience for pupils of colour (Arshad et al., 2004; Hopkins et al., 2015). One of the interviewed BME pupils illustrates covert racism amongst young people:

“Just small things like you can’t go anywhere without somebody making a comment or looking at you. Example was when my friends said, ‘That’s the worst school you could ever go to, ’cos it’s all black’. I was surprised, I was shocked that they say that to me.” (Arshad et al., 2004: 113)

More recently, research confirmed that a significant number of pupils in Scottish education experience “everyday racism and micro-aggressions, misrecognition and invalidation, undermining of cross-cultural skills and undervaluing of language skills” (Arshad et al., 2016). Much of the IYS 2019 report would confirm this problem persists today. Covert racism has a lot to do with alienation and the implicit racism of teachers and the curriculum, therefore it will be explored further in Part 2.

Look out for Part 2 of this post to find out more about the other manifestations of racism in Scottish education: alienation, racist teachers, racist curriculum and institutional racism.


- Ansley, F. L. (1997) “White supremacy (and what we should do about it)” in R. Delgado & J. Stefancic (Eds) Critical white studies: looking behind the mirror. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 592–595.

- Arshad, R., Almeida Diniz, F., Kelly, E., O’Hara, P. Sharp, S. & Syed, R. (2004). Minority Ethnic Pupils’ Experiences in Scotland. Edinburgh: Centre for Education for Race Equality in Scotland.

- Bhopal, K. (2018). White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society. Bristol: Policy Press.

- Dean, S. (2017). Islamophobia in Edinburgh Schools. Edinburgh: Scotland Against Criminalising Communities.

- Gillborn, D. (2005). “Education policy as an act of white supremacy: whiteness, critical race theory and education reform,” Journal of Education Policy, 20:4, 485-505.

- Hopkins, P., Botterill, K., Sanghera, G. & Arshad, R. (2017). “Encountering Misrecognition: Being Mistaken for a Muslim,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 0:0, 1–15

- hooks, b. (1989) Talking back: thinking feminist. Thinking black. Boston: South End Press.

- Johnson, A., Joseph-Salisbury, R. & Kamunge, B. (eds) The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence. London: Zed Books Ltd

- Puwar, N. (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

- Sue, D. W. (2010). Micro-aggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

- Young, C. (2016). Changing the Race Paradigm. Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights.



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