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Manifestations of Racism Part 2: Alienation, Racist Curriculum and Racist Teachers

If you haven't already read it, check out Part 1 of the manifestations of racism in Scottish education based on my MEd dissertation. It outlines whiteness, white supremacy, overt racism and covert racism.

3. Alienation

Puwar's work on Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place has shown that feelings of alienation are very common for academics of colour in white institutions (2004). Therefore, it shouldn't be surprising that it equally occurs when pupils of colour experience feelings of “not belonging” as a result of their skin colour, language, accent, country of origin, religion and/or cultural background. Especially for pupils of colour going to schools where they are a very small minority, it is common for them to be perceived as “outsiders” even if they were born in Scotland (Arshad et al., 2004). The alienation can be so severe for some pupils that they sometimes fear going to school. In her study of Islamophobia in Edinburgh schools, Dean reported that 21% of Muslim pupils had felt fearful of going to school because of their religious identity. For these pupils, these feelings increased especially after negative portrayals of Muslims in the media. Pupils explained getting dirty looks or being avoided as a result of their visibility as Muslims (2017). This was equally explored in one of our blog posts on the school as a "hostile" environment, in which Nighet asserts that moral panics in policy, practice and the media contribute to the othering of pupils of colour.

Furthermore, alienation happens when Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) pupils are misrecognised, as Hopkins et al. explain that teachers assuming a pupil is Muslim because of their skin colour is a common occurrence for Sikhs, Hindus, South Asians and even for some black and Caribbean young people (2017). In a 2015 study on Polish pupils in Scotland, “Spaces of not belonging,” Moskal reveals that many children from migrant families have to give up their families’ cultural and linguistic identities in order to fully integrate. Moskal argues that Scottish education policies are not truly inclusive and multicultural as they deny the right to self-identify and belong within the Curriculum for Excellence’s concept of citizenship. Habib equally critiques the Prevent counter-terrorism policy for forcing ideologies of assimilation and diminishing the significance of diverse identities (2018: 213). As anti-racist educators, we need to be thinking more critically about the way we (explicitly and implicitly) teach belonging and identity in our curriculum. For example, my reflections on the Islamic Human Rights Commission's Counter-Islamophobia toolkit breaks down useful ways of including diverse Muslim identities in education to ensure inclusion. In addition, applying a critical literacy approach, as outlined by Navan's post, is a positive step forward as it encourages us and our pupils to consider whose perspective is missing in the texts we teach, while empowering us to reconstruct more inclusive texts.

4. Racist Curriculum

While racism in schools is often believed to stem from other pupils, pupils of colour revealed that teachers also displayed covert racism in their lessons. One interviewed pupil recounts their experience:

“It was geography and we were studying third world development and the second the teacher said ‘Third world, including Africa’ everyone was just, like, slowly looking straight at me and I just felt kind of awkward ’cos I didn’t know what was going on. And then I realised what she had said. She was making a poster and had the devil and an angel and she had this white girl with fruit and a black family from Africa, so people think of it as hell.” (Arshad et al. 2004: 114)

The presence of covert racism in Scottish education can easily appear in the curriculum. In Dean’s study, 65% of Muslim pupils felt negative when teachers discussed terrorism in class, explaining that it made them feel awkward, worried, scared and angry – possibly as a result of the racially biased nature of the discussion (2017). In Arshad et al.’s interviews, most parents of pupils of colour believed that covert racism in the curriculum was a greater problem than racist incidents. The ethnocentrism of the Scottish curriculum was often deemed problematic as it fostered negative messages (that are often magnified by the media) about pupils’ identities and home countries. One of the parents explained the impact this had on their child:

“one of my daughters [was] saying she wishes she was white ... that is hurting, disappointing for me because I don’t want her to be like that, I want her to be proud of her colour, proud of her culture. The school played a big role in that.” (Arshad et al., 2004)

Concerns of their children’s self-image ranged widely, “from children demonstrating a general lack of interest and disinclination to associate with their home culture, to wishing their colour away and, at the most serious end of the spectrum, inflicting serious physical harm on themselves” (Arshad et al., 2004). Such attempts to whiten one's skin are unfortunately not uncommon as shown in our coverage of a case of institutional racism, in which a primary school child was caught trying to whiten her skin with toothpaste. Being a visible minority in a white space is psychologically taxing (Fanon, 1952) and covert racism within the curriculum has serious impacts on the mental health, self-image and confidence of pupils of colour – a racist outcome that is rarely addressed in education policies.

Our role as anti-racist educators is to think more critically about the multiple (hidden) ways that racism seeps into our curriculum. If you don't see it, you can't challenge it. I always find that Salman Rushdie's words, in his 1991 essay about racism, are a powerful reminder of how white supremacy is deeply ingrained in our society and that we should treat it as such today:

“In short, if we want to understand British racism – and without understanding no improvement is possible – it’s impossible to even begin to grasp the nature of the beast unless we accept its historical roots. Four hundred years of conquest and looting, four centuries of being told that you are superior to the Fuzzy-Wuzzies and the wogs, leave their stain. This stain has seeped into every part of culture, the language and daily life; and nothing much has been done to wash it out.” (1991: 130)

Ask yourself, where are those stains in your curriculum? If you don't see the stains yet, which diverse perspectives might help you spot them? Sometimes reflecting on our own personal experiences of education provides some practice at spotting those racist stains. Decolonising the curriculum is not a tokenistic, fixed lesson plan; it is a radical shift away from the knowledge and practices valued by white supremacy. Often an unsurmountable task to complete, it is definitely a skill that takes time to acquire.

Over the past five years, efforts to decolonise the curriculum, especially in higher education, have become widespread and they provide ample ground for inspiration: from the #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa, which influenced the more recent #LiteratureMustFall festival in Birmingham, to the #WhyIsMyCurriculumWhite campaign founded in the University College London. In an article published by gal-dem, Noha Abou El Magd explains that:

"The white curriculum enables processes such as misrecognition, whereby the ability and potential to succeed academically are only imagined in a ‘white’, eurocentric manner that conforms to a certain way of thinking and behaving." (2016)

In other words, your ability, talent and potential are less likely to be acknowledged and spotted unless you adhere to white, eurocentric standards. Not only does that create barriers for success, it adds to the feelings of alienation, inadequacy and mental ill-health as aforementioned. While the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence does provide, to some extent, more flexibility for decolonisation than other education systems, it all depends on how it is practised. In a future post, I will be drawing on my own experiences of attempting to decolonise the curriculum as an English teacher in Scotland and I hope this will provide some useful examples of how this can be done.

5. Racist Teachers

Implicit bias exists in all human beings; none of us are immune to it. Even a child as young as 3 will develop racial biases regardless of the level of their parents' prejudice (Tatum, 2017). Therefore, it is to be expected that most, if not all, teachers will hold racist biases. Regardless of whether we have good or bad intentions - we all have unlearning to do. It isn't uncommon at all for pupils of colour, their parents and some teachers to notice the general prejudice, ignorance and racial illiteracy amongst teaching staff. Some teachers, especially BME teachers, report that they witnessed racist remarks in the staffroom, along with a lack of awareness of the insensitivity of those remarks amongst their colleagues (Arshad et al. 2004; NASUWT, 2016; EIS, 2018). Let's not forget the primary school teacher who said "black people can't swim" to children in his class and the teachers who joked about the "ISIS bride" in the staffroom. These racist attitudes are equally revealed in some teachers’ low expectations and harsher treatment of BME pupils (Arshad et al., 2004). It is also worth noting that the 2019 report on BAME pupils' experiences in Scottish schools found that even if teachers tried to be less racist, ignorance and lack of cultural responsiveness were widespread:

Seven in ten Mixed respondents (70.0%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘Teachers and staff at my school did not understand my culture, heritage or background’. This was a greater proportion than among African/Black respondents (48.9%). In fact, over one quarter of Mixed respondents (26.7%) expressed strong agreement with this statement.

Sure, we can't expect all teachers to know everything about every culture around the world. But it's important to keep learning, especially when those cultures are living in some of the pupils in your school. We should be showing genuine interest, curiosity and a desire to build stronger relationships that are race conscious and culturally-responsive, not colour-blind. And if teachers are unable to see the potential of pupils of colour, it will be harder for pupils to thrive with the added barrier of a racist curriculum that does not work in their favour. If you don't see your pupils, you can't teach them properly.

Over the past decade, anti-racist scholars have warned against the dangers of magnifying those racist attitudes through the controversial counter-terrorism strategy Prevent. A British policy implemented in many schools across Scotland, Prevent tasks teachers to report “views which fall short of supporting violence and are within the law, but which reject and undermine our shared values” (2009). Educators are left to assess what our “shared values” are, risking amplifying the alienation of pupils of colour and their diverse identities.

Enforcement of national “shared values” leads to more racism towards Muslims and pupils of colour (Mansfield, 2017; Ferguson & Richardson, 2017; Habib, 2018). The racist consequences of implementing this policy are well documented: Miah detailed the increased hostility created by non-Muslim pupils and teaching staff (2013); Ameli et al. (2015), Dean (2017) and Mills (2018) conveyed the widespread nature of racism in schools; and the Scottish Association Against Criminalising Communities reported the increase of Prevent referrals in Scotland, an experience that is incredibly traumatic for pupils and their families (2019).

By all means, countering extremism is important for the safety and security of a nation, however, it needs to be done in a critical manner that takes into account endemic racism in Scotland. In a previous post, Hashim outlined the existence of anti-Muslim racism in Scotland and it's a bleak picture. Teachers who have not received anti-racist training, who display racial illiteracy and racist attitudes, should not be responsible for such a high-stakes task. Finally, research has shown that when white teachers do not question their whiteness and are unaware of their role in systems of privilege and power, their teaching inadvertently reinforces racism (Picower, 2009). Such failure to address systems of privilege and power at such a wide level is a result of, and a tool of, white supremacy and institutional racism (to be covered in Part 3).

Look out for Part 3 of this post to find out more about the most complex, structural manifestation of racism in Scottish education: institutional racism.


- Abou El Magd, N. (2016). Tokenism in Teaching: Why Is My Curriculum White? gal-dem

- 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.

- Arshad, R. (2018). “‘Race’ Equality in Scottish Education” in Bryce, T.G.K., Humes, W., Gillies, D., Kennedy, A., Davidson, J., Hamilton, T. & Smith, I. (fifth edition) Scottish Education. Edinburgh, 1015 – 1028.

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

- Ferguson, R., Ali, A. & Richardson, B. (2017). Prevent: Why We Should Dissent. Stand Up to Racism and Muslim Engagement and Development.

- Fanon, F. (1952). Black Skin, White Masks. Penguin Classics

- Habib, S. (2018). “Fundamental British Values: Moving towards Anti-Racist and Multicultural Education?” in Johnson, A., Joseph-Salisbury, R. & Kamunge, B. (eds) The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence (London: Zed Books Ltd), 209 – 222.

- 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

- Mansfield, M. (2017) “Introduction” in Prevent: Why We Should Dissent (ed. Ferguson, R., Ali, A. & Richardson, B.). Stand Up to Racism and Muslim Engagement and Development.

- Miah, S. (2013). “Prevent’ing Education” in The State of Race (ed. Kapoor, N., Kalra, S. & Rhodes, J.). Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

- Moskal, M. (2015). “Spaces of Not Belonging: Inclusive Nationalism and Education in Scotland,” Scottish Geographical Journal. 132:1, 85-102

- Picower, B. (2009). “The unexamined Whiteness of teaching: how White teachers maintain and enact dominant racial ideologies”. Race Ethnicity and Education. 12(2): 197-215.

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

- Rushdie, S. (1991). Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981 – 1991. Vintage.

- Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (2019). Sharp Increase in Prevent Referrals in Scotland.

- Tatum, B. (2017). Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

- The Anti-Racist Educator, Navan (2019). Can You See A Social Issue? (Re-)Looking at Everyday Texts.

- The Anti-Racist Educator, Mélina (2019). Reflections on the Counter-Islamophobia Toolkit.

- The Anti-Racist Educator, Nighet (2019). The School as a "Hostile" Environment.

- The Anti-Racist Educator, Hashim (2019). Anti-Muslim Racism.

- The Anti-Racist Educator, Anonymous (2019). The Dehumanisation of our Young Muslim People.


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