Pavi is an anti-racism consultant, activist, researcher, community engagement facilitator, doula, birth educator, ethical entrepreneur and home educating parent based in Edinburgh. She is one of the co-founders of an online intersectional anti-racism learning resource on Facebook called ‘Scottish Anti-Racism Education’ (SARE) which is a WOC-led space (https://www.facebook.com/groups/saretruith). She is currently consulting with Queen Margaret University on a pioneering Covid impact study that assesses the socio-cultural factors affecting children of colour in Scotland. She is also one of the co-founders and co-directors of the ‘Anti-Racism Early Years Collective’ (AREYC) that is looking at challenging and addressing the barriers impacting racial justice and systemic change within the Early Years in Scotland.
You can follow Pavi and AREYC's work on the following handles on social media: Twitter - @SarmaPavithra; @AREYCScotland; Instagram - @pavisarma2021
This blog post completes a short series on the manifestations of racism in Scottish Education (see Part 1 and Part 2). It is worth noting that the recent review of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) failed to address racism, highlighting a wider pattern of Western countries and organisations side-tracking racism and thus perpetuating institutional and systemic racism.
In my previous blog post entitled ‘Just listen… please’, I shared some of my explorations into systemic racism using the links between education and the lack of teacher training, what this looks like for People of Colour (PoC) and my family’s lived experiences. Identity and erasure of identities is an important and oft-discussed topic in education within Black and Brown communities because policies that exist are inadequate and practices don’t extend towards acknowledging the pain of the lived experiences of Black and Brown people.
Diversity and inclusion are commonly favoured and politicised words that offer the illusion of equality but true equality doesn’t require displacement and redistribution of power – it entails an actual look at the systemic racism that causes this imbalance and profits off its historically unequal power imbalances.
The Children’s Commissioner of Scotland has noted that BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) children, may have been particularly impacted by Covid-19 due to experiencing heightened illnesses, surge of racist incidents and other inequalities affecting their mental health (CYPCS, 2020). Considering current International polices lay emphasis on inclusive practices and pedagogies, the focus on childhood, children’s needs and development within the early years is still executed by framing them within theoretical Western hegemonic lenses (Viruru, 2001). For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) six major diversity themes via its ‘strength through diversity’ project exclude “race” as a category with the OECD stating its preference for using the concept of “ethnicity” and synonymising “race” and ethnicity (OECD, 2020).
So, whom do these policies represent?
Scotland has long held onto feelings of oppression and discrimination from England without understanding the role played by the Scots as oppressors in colonial history. In a bid to distance Scotland from BREXIT and in the run to propel and gain momentum for Scottish independence, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has stated repeatedly that Scotland welcomes and values its immigrant population. However, are immigrants really welcome here and are non-white Scots continuing to face ‘othering’? The answer is still a resounding YES and this goes back to the lack of acknowledgement around Scotland’s role in colonialism, how the Scots benefited from the formation of a union in the first place and a push for the inclusion of these topics within the curriculum for excellence.
There seems to be a profound level of cognitive dissonance present when it comes to Scotland’s role in colonial history and wanting to be seen as the oppressed. The oppressed can be the oppressor too and this is often lost in a whirlpool of defensiveness coated with the privilege of being supported by righteous indignation. Considering education in Scotland is devolved and the Curriculum for excellence (CfE) is open to interpretation, it is very interesting to note that these topics are usually never discussed within classrooms or other learning spheres.
It is important to recognise that Scotland had tried, repeatedly, to colonise South America and the Caribbean but was unsuccessful until the union with England. Shashi Tharoor, in his book ‘Inglorious empire’ writes about the looting of India and how Scots were disproportionately employed within the British empire. He states how they benefited from their participation in the exploits of the East India Company and racked up loaves of bread and fish. Although the Scots represented 9% of the British population, 25% of Scots were employed in India and their combined earnings there collectively helped bring Scotland out of poverty. He surmises that the thriving shipyards, factories and the booming economy was a result of India being ‘the corn-chest for Scotland’ and after Indian independence in 1947 and post, these bonds have noticeably and blatantly weakened.
So imagine my surprise when many Scottish people I’ve met and continue to meet didn’t and don’t know where my native city of Chennai (or formerly known as Madras during British India), is. They are also unaware that the links between Scotland and India due to the empire, resulted in the construction of the St. Andrew’s church in Chennai, which was built in the early 18th century to support the Scottish community living there. However, we are only known for our ‘Madras chicken curry’.
This is akin to a history teacher in England who offered a free online class from a WWII bunker in Liverpool, to interested students during lockdown last year. I could only watch and listen to his whitewashed narratives for five minutes while he proclaimed that Liverpool was a gateway for Britain’s desire to help other countries and ensure countries were supported. I was the only parent in the comments section to challenge this as I shook with apoplectic rage. His version of history didn’t encompass the fact that Liverpool outshone Bristol and London as the slave-trading capital of Britain by 1740.
Black and Brown enslaved bodies were forced to travel across extreme climes, brutality and hardship in exchange for freedom from colonisation that didn’t happen, and they were tightly packaged together within the holds of the ships. When people died from starvation, beatings and extreme weather, their bodies were thrown overboard and / or piled up amidst the stench of faeces, urine, vomit and rotting flesh. In fact, to regulate the number of slaves that a ship could carry, the first British legislation was enacted in 1788 called 'The Regulated Slave Trade Act'. Although Liverpool entered slave trade later than the more prominent slave ports in Britain, it had 131 transatlantic sailing vessels to London’s 22 and Bristol’s 42 in 1792.
The two major trading ports of Glasgow and Greenock and their role in ‘the triangular trade’ and chattel slavery isn’t mentioned in our history books or discussed within the education system. In the 1600s, land owned by The Scots and English in the West Indies and the east coast of America were cleared for tobacco and sugar plantations. The 1707 Act of Union resulted in The Scots joining the English trade routes including ‘the triangular trade’ and ensured that Scotland and England were entwined in their interests in the commodification of those enslaved aka chattel slavery. This meant that goods such as cloth, copper and guns were shipped from Britain to West Africa to be sold or exchanged; captive Africans were bought and taken to the West Indies or America and sold as slaves. The plantations were then worked on by those enslaved, ensuring that raw materials such as sugar, rum, tobacco and cotton were produced and shipped to Britain.
Chattel and indentured slaves (with few rights) were tasked with taking care of the tobacco plantations that were owned by some of the Scots. The slave trade, sugar and tobacco industries burgeoned in the 1700s, thus strengthening the commodification of those enslaved. The combined worth of exports and imports between the West Indies and Scotland amounted to at least £50 million in today’s currency in 1790. Glasgow University only realised last year that it had financially benefited from Scottish slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries to the tune of between £16.7m and £198m in today’s money. The institution has agreed to pay £20 million in reparations via an agreement signed with the University of West Indies, for its historical involvement in the slave trade. This university is the first of its kind to embark on the path to restorative justice.
We need to challenge the whitewashed British narrative and history glorifying the empire, where the empire just came to be and not because Britain profited off the backs of the unmentionable horrors that Black and Brown bodies were subjected to. Educators need to educate themselves and children need to know actual British history and about all the Black and Brown people who fought in wars for the empire and how society is still upholding colonial mindsets and ideologies via structural racism and oppression. Black and Brown history should not be an elective or something that is skimmed over for 30 days in a year, while students are tasked with learning white history the rest of the year, so an education system can claim to be ‘not racist’ while engaging in performative allyship and virtue signalling.
The decolonisation of the curriculum is pivotal to anti-racism work with academics, activists and educators pointing out how racist and exclusionary education has been for a while now. There needs to be a concentrated effort to raise the awareness around the contributions of people of colour. It is equally important that teachers receive support, consistent anti-bias and anti-racism training and resources to facilitate this.
We are often asked where we are from and if we get annoyed or snap back, we are asked ‘why are you here then?’ Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s powerful words “We are here because you were there” ring true and resonate with so many anti-racism activists within Black and Brown communities. He was the director of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), and the founding editor of its journal Race & Class, which has had contributions from many notable and pioneering philosophers and political thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Aijaz Ahmad, Chris Searle, Cedric Robinson, Angela Davis and many others. He was a prolific thinker, far ahead of his time, and grasped the importance of intersectional elements long before this gained traction in the mainstream, thanks to Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s crucial work.
The claim to Scottish exceptionalism around racism has been consistent with fingers pointed towards England and without wanting to take ownership around the systemic shake-up that is required in Scotland. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow came under fire due to a Facebook post published by a student on the 28th of October 2019, detailing grave and traumatic incidents experienced by them and fellow students. Incidents encompassed severe systemic ableism, abortion, mental health, systemic racism, sexism, sexual assault, disparaging remarks about mental illness and mis-gendering trans students and anti-trans bigotry. The students led by Chan Teck Guan Egan and four others, supported by numerous anonymous folks had been fighting for close to a year but to no avail. They persisted in relentlessly fighting for their rights against numerous odds and the bourgeois tactics implemented by the management and academics, despite Chan having graduated from the Conservatoire. The course leader of their program, Prof. Deborah Richardson-Webb, was finally sacked in early July.
The question we need to ask ourselves is if racism is so rampant, what ensures its invisibility amongst whiteness. Why is this so repetitive?
Dr. Remi-Joseph Salisbury, Presidential Fellow in Ethnicity and Inequalities in the University of Manchester, stated the following which holds true across education systems in Britain from the early years to the university level:
'We must always be aware of (and beware of) the historical role that universities have played in the creation and perpetuation of white supremacy, and in the oppression of black and brown people generally.(…) in terms of the contemporary role of university, we should recognise that the education systems operates to exclude so many racially minoritised students and – through various racist mechanisms-often alienates, excludes and marginalises those who do attend.’
Since racism is interpersonal, structural and epistemological, Euro-centric and American hegemony, the digestion of its knowledge production and sharing impacts provision and access to representation. For example - Whose books do we read? Who do academics cite in their research? How are language and vocabulary used and translated when being adopted by white hegemonic cultures and what is their allusion to class? Why are young children and our societies bombarded with white resources that are not representative of its communities or represent people of colour fairly or in a position of control and power?
The intersectional lens and how this affects students of colour from minority ethnic backgrounds isn’t understood within the educational system. Intersectionality is the concurrent or simultaneous interactions between race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, the differently-abled and so on, and have an impact on an individual and their interactions with and within society. How we are viewed in society because of these intersects is crucial as these contribute to systemic power imbalances. Euro-centric academics have argued for the separation of race from various other intersects but Black feminists have rightfully argued for the inclusion of race and its impact on gender, sexual orientation, class, caste, being differently-abled/having disabilities in analyses.
Here’s an example of systemic racism and how it works for BAME folks. I had been engaging in these discussions sporadically with the parent council of my older child’s school, head and deputy heads for 7 years running. I sent out an email to my daughter’s school in June 2020, to find out why they hadn’t addressed the shockwaves resonating through the world due to George Floyd’s murder, the BLM movement, its significance in Scotland and its impact on Black and Brown communities in the school. The head's response is typical of ALL of the institutions and charities I have dealt with in Scotland, complained to and shared our experiences with. It is also unsurprising as the Scottish ex-deputy head of that school had asked me a couple of years ago what Black history month was, when I questioned the reason for the school not creating any awareness around it.
I have inserted cues (original email states names) and left spaces blank so that the names are left out. I have also highlighted one particular bit in the beginning of my email and the reason will become apparent as you peruse through my email. Please note the cherry-picking and complete lack of acknowledgement by the Headteacher.
Thank you for getting in touch with your concerns. I am very sorry to hear that ________ feels so upset; Miss ________ would be happy to talk to her directly about that, if you were agreeable.
The death of George Floyd and the subsequent impact is a very grave matter. I understand that a statement is being prepared by the Council and I plan to share that with the community shortly, along with some resources that the Council Equalities Team have signposted for us to use. We will continue to work with this team, and indeed our professional institutes, such as the EIS, to take forward this important work.
I am writing to say that as a brown South Asian family and a member of the BAME community, it is deeply perturbing and yet another subliminal acknowledgement from (name of the school) that our lives and experiences don't matter. Why hasn't the school acknowledged the death of George Floyd and the impact it has had around the world? Is there any awareness about its relevance in Scotland? Black folks have died here in police custody too and BAME folk experience so much racism in their personal and professional lives. Both my kids certainly have within ________ and the teachers' ignorance and unwillingness to engage has contributed to the racism.
(My daughter) has been really upset by your lack of interest in understanding and acknowledging how George Floyd's death is a representation of BAME lives and the dangers faced by families on a regular basis based on the colour of their skin in Scotland. She has been very upset since her brother was subjected to racial bullying and everyone was so dismissive, when she has seen her brother targeted on the playground. She has experienced enough racism and microaggressions within and outside the school to understand that this isn't going to go away. She has been worried about her Black friends and been thinking about them. What the school has done successfully is perpetuate the behaviours of bullies and white fragility amongst its teachers by not recognising or educating themselves about it.
You expect us to be polite while communicating when talking about our children's mental health, lives and pain while you continue to dismiss, blame and be evasive. I cannot tell you how many times you yourself have asked me what my first language was, HT, when I have repeatedly said that it was English. This is a form of microaggression - being unable to understand that people have different accents due to us coming from a former British colony and asking us to defend our identity and presence here.
I have raised these issues for years when my daughter started at (name of the school), experienced racism and when my son __________ was isolated for his identity, you and your teachers blamed him and no one acknowledged his experiences or even spoke to him about it. His voice and ours didn't matter. There was a denial and an assertion, both via meetings and via your GIRFEC report that it was his fault and he was to blame. He had an anxiety attack the day I wrote to you, HT, to say that he wasn't coming back to school anymore. He didn't want to live anymore and had been talking about it for months and had developed migraine and wheezing. He had night terrors for 9 months. He was six years old and he still today says to me that the teachers were unwilling to understand, decided he was the problem, was lying and didn't care about what he was going through. He was traumatised and you cannot imagine what it's like to watch your children go through so much trauma and at such a young age. Taking him out of that abusive and toxic situation that was created thanks to the environment at school was the best thing that happened to him.
What people don't understand is that racism is systemic and structural and not just based on individual person-to-person incidents. It is prejudice + power. Every time an incident is raised or an issue is brought up to the authorities when we can muster up some emotional labour and strength to protect our kids, there is so much ego at play from educators and those in power. This has been our experience at school too.
It is exhausting for us to be dismissed repeatedly just because the school doesn't want to record instances of racism and bullying. The school is worried about logging sets of complaints with the Council and being perceived as THAT school with problems. However, the impact on the mental health of children of colour attending this school, as well as, the families involved, have been consistently ignored. The school hasn't looked at any of this as a learning opportunity to better themselves.
The problem is when Gaelic teachers and parents conflate Gaelic oppression and racism, they are not only whitewashing their role in colonialism but not understanding their own whiteness & the privilege and protection it accords. The staff and you simply don't have enough awareness, training and an understanding of white privilege and white fragility. I have said so repeatedly and offered to bring in trainers and educators to assist, because I am also an activist, community engagement facilitator, researcher and entrepreneur.
I have offered to come to the school to engage and talk about diversity and racism many times in the past.... as have other parents. The school's lack of recognition around all of these issues and lack of measures in place, has been appalling. I have been told constantly that 'diversity isn't a priority' and this has indeed been communicated via your actions and that of the school's.
Inclusion is the notion that everyone needs to be treated equally based on the assumption that it's a level-playing field for all. Anti-racism specifically acknowledges the white supremacist ideologies that led to colonisation, trans-Atlantic slave trade, Apartheid, the benefits of whiteness and how some people in society will be targeted for the colour of their skin - personally and systemically. It uses examples to educate and raise awareness. The school has neither been inclusive nor anti-racist.
DHT - I have written emails to you with resources around racism and how to engage with students but I haven't received any responses to any of my emails. You and I have talked about _________ being cyber-bullied and about how she doesn't see representation amongst staff and hence, feels uncomfortable talking about her concerns. This silence is complicity and is very telling of how BAME parents are perceived in this school. It also highlights the staff's discomfort and ignorance.
Feedback is seen as a personal attack, as opposed to systemic failures and teachers, heads and other staff being a part of the problem. I talked to John Swinney a few years ago about parental engagement and I have been involved in talking to policy makers and early years' practitioners who invite me to consult on social and racial education. I have spoken to some MSP's and will be talking and engaging with more politicians, especially now, since more people are finally starting to pay attention.
School needs to take responsibility for failing its BAME students, apologise to us as a family for all that you have put us through (you have absolutely no idea what that entails) and wake up. Other Black kids in the school have experienced racism and oppression several times too. All of this is free education and emotional labour & it continues to be exhausting.
These patterns of behaviours and wilful ignorance aren’t new and will continue to carry on unless white people start to vehemently push back to dismantle systemic oppression and we start to decolonise our education system and curriculum.
3. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/diversity-row-after-conservatoire-is-accused-of-ableism-and transphobia-m77wr030m
7. https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/royal-conservatoire-of-scotland-students-accuse-school-of-failing to-act-on-systemic-abuse-claims
10. Independent Children’s Rights Impact Assessment on the Response to Covid-19 in Scotland, 2020; https://cypcs.org.uk/wpcypcs/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/independent-cria.pdf, Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland
11. The International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2020, http://www.oecd.org/education/school/the-international-early-learning-and-child-well-being-study-the-study.htm
Books and Chapters:
1. Inglorious empire by Shashi Tharoor
2. No Problem Here: Racism in Scotland by Neil Davidson (Author, Editor), Minna Liinpaa (Editor), Maureen McBride (Editor), Satnam Virdee
3. Viruru, Radhika. (2001). Early Childhood Education: Postcolonial Perspectives from India, New Delhi: Sage.
1. End systemic racism at Scottish schools - http://chng.it/ntdscjHXD6
2. Teach British children about the realities of British Imperialism and Colonialism - http://chng.it/XhJVgdjXCh
3. Accountability for widespread abuse of students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland - https://secure.avaaz.org/community_petitions/en/Royal_Conservatoire_of_Scotland_ACCOUNTABILITY_FOR_WIDESPREAD_ABUSE_OF_STUDENTS_AT_THE_ROYAL_CONSERVATOIRE_OF_SCOTLAND/?fbclid=IwAR34B5lqMAoyDAH8siiN2m0DODoUSyxXXH36hck9CEnyY