Pupils in Scotland Call for Change: It's Time for an Anti-Racist, Decolonised Curriculum
Guest blog post: After the death of George Floyd last year, senior pupils in a Scottish school approached a teacher to start an anti-racist school club. One year later, thanks to the club’s success and the pupils’ passion and wisdom, three senior pupils were invited to present at the school’s curriculum review meeting for Heads of Department before the summer holidays. These are the speeches they wrote all by themselves. Every educator would benefit from reading them.
Content warning: young people discussing challenging experiences of racism affecting their wellbeing.
The first time I really realised that people made assumptions about me based off the colour of my skin was in primary 4 when a teacher tried to force me to eat beef, even though I’m Sikh and not allowed. My year group was last for lunch that day and there wasn’t much else left. I told the teacher that I couldn’t eat it because I’m Sikh but she just kept shouting at me that it’s halal and that I could, taking no notice of me explaining that Islam and Sikhism are different.
Misrecognition is a huge issue that I’ve faced throughout all of primary and secondary school. I’m asked constantly whether I’m Muslim, by strangers but also by teachers and I’m called the P-word on the street and in school. Since primary school, I’ve been asked every year why I’m not off for Eid and I’m asked regularly whether I speak English – an example being when, during Enrichment, an instructor asked me, while speaking slowly to me, emphasising each word, whether I could speak English. All of this is a result of the underrepresentation of Sikh culture in particular and people of colour in general.
The way we’d like to highlight why anti-racism is important in the curriculum is through the timeline of the school experience. The story of a pupil moving from year to year and class to class can show us why it matters to us personally, and why we need it.
Before that, however, there is a prologue. Every student who comes to school will have a preconceived notion of race. Maybe I’d seen the way Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are portrayed in the media, seen the same old stereotypes reiterated, the same old fears capitalized upon, the same old flames fanned. From drug use, to sport, to royalty to terrorism, the ancient depiction of certain colours and creeds as barbaric and backwards, as savage, stupid, inept, and ugly carried on today.
Every student who comes to school will have a preconceived notion of race.
We would carry this view in with us in class, and crucially, our lessons would not change it. All the heroes in all the classes would be white, the pioneers of knowledge, innovation and talent and therefore talent itself would not look like me, would not be of my culture. In Art we would see pale faces and their styles. In Music, we would hear of and examine Western culture, a lot of which was borrowed from much darker skin tones. This is the principal reason students here often ask me what Indians or Africans have contributed to Science, to the sum of human knowledge; like me, they have never seen colour associated with intelligence.
All the heroes in all the classes would be white, the pioneers of knowledge, innovation and talent and therefore talent itself would not look like me, would not be of my culture.
As the world-renowned Edward Said put it in his book Orientalism:
“On the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other there are Arab-Orientals; the former are (…) rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things. The current state of the media shows us that the idea that white is right, has not fully disappeared.”
More worryingly, this image, these issues of misrepresentation and underrepresentation, have serious effects on students today.
I will be initially listing a few curricular examples of what is good regarding discussions around racism and race globally in our school, and what could be improved.
Through subjects like English we can move beyond the current dearth of texts by writers of colour in the English curriculum – displayed by the insistent focus on Shakespeare and old Scottish literature - and bring diverse and new voices into our learning. What we ask isn’t the removal of European and British ‘classics’, but the inclusion of different perspectives and cultures, and emphasising the value of these.
In History we can grapple with the injustices of the past and how they continue to impact our present, to disrupt the continuum of the system of racism. For example, the Islamic Empire topic gives us an incredible and nuanced insight into an often-ignored history, which our Muslim pupils can contribute their own knowledge to, without a white, European, racist or colonialist slant, reminding pupils that people of colour and the ‘Global South’ has a full and rich history on its own.
In Geography, learning about rainfall patterns and the many different landscapes of the African continent reminds us that there are 54 diverse and different countries in Africa, all with diverse and different experiences – not simply a desert land of mud-huts, poverty, and emaciated Black children.
In Economics, learning about the deep flaws in international trade and aid helps us think critically about development, or lack thereof, tying this to colonialism and continued discriminatory practices by international organisations such as the IMF and World Bank.
In Modern Studies, learning about global politics in a nuanced and country-specific way, not just as a general ‘rule’ for entire regions.
Our education should move us past the Orientalist view of the Middle East as a desertified, religiously-frenzied, oppressed region of warzones and failed states. Past the belief that South Asia and South America are filled with slums and dust, or drug-cartels and rainforest tribes. Learning far beyond the stereotype of the entire Global South as intrinsically and unvaryingly poor, diseased, starving, uneducated or corrupt, conflict-ridden, and despotic. Importantly, dismantling the implicit accepted understanding that only a European, Western influence can help this.
Learning far beyond the stereotype of the entire Global South as intrinsically and unvaryingly poor, diseased, starving, uneducated or corrupt, conflict-ridden, and despotic. Importantly, dismantling the implicit accepted understanding that only a European, Western influence can help this.
The Arts can help us learn about music from different parts of the world and the experiences and cultures that inspire this. Paintings can bring us knowledge about the systems and prejudices of the societies of the past. The sciences can teach us about the global contributions that created the knowledge we all have today, the many people of colour who brought about the discoveries and investigations we all use.
So, in closing, why do we need anti-racism in our curriculum? And why is non-racism not enough? Non-racism is a baby step to a broader goal of removing racist biases from our learning, and it is important to move past this step: ‘not seeing colour’ means not seeing the biases we create, not seeing the experiences and obstacles our pupils of colour must go through, and not seeing the fact we are selling ourselves short of a full, representative, and discursive education. Anti-racism means questioning why we focus on the Massacre at Cawnpore, but not the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre and loss of life during Partition; why we learn about desertification in Sudan, but not the anti-government protests; why we read Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry but don't talk about the relevance it has today. And enacting anti-racism starts with meetings like this, and the solutions we come up with together.
When I first came to this school, I could probably count the number of Black and Brown people I had spoken to on my hand – and within me there were a lot of latent prejudices and general ignorances: I probably thought racism didn’t exist anymore and didn’t know what colonialism was. And I know most white Scots – including, if I may say, all of you in front of me - have these kind of unchallenged views, too. The reason I joined the Anti-Racist Club and wrote this speech is because I don’t want other people like me to take the best part of 5 years to understand the problems this ignorance creates. I also know these are busy, difficult times. However, this is the time to start this – in such a diverse school, and increasingly so at that, anti-racism shouldn’t be self-taught with the help of friends, it should be an integral and continual part of our experience and curriculum. While we leave and want to make the school proud, we hope strongly that the school will make us proud, too.
anti-racism shouldn’t be self-taught with the help of friends, it should be an integral and continual part of our experience and curriculum.
As a pupil grows up, moving from the arts to the social sciences, and witnessing this same image, except on the international scale. Learning about the poor standards of living in countries like Sudan and Kenya, seeing those advertisements of emaciated Black children being fed and watered by white hands. You’d forgive me and the rest of my class for believing in what Rudyard Kipling called ‘the White Man’s Burden;’ going off and civilizing all those stupid, poor, helpless Black folk.
You’d forgive me and the rest of my class for believing in what Rudyard Kipling called ‘the White Man’s Burden;’ going off and civilizing all those stupid, poor, helpless Black folk.
Here, the hypothetical pupil can show us what we can call induced amnesia and selective remembrance, when certain aspects of the world’s story are prioritized over others. This is what the difference between diversity and inclusion is; we need to do more than merely involve diverse characters in our classes, we need to show them from their own light, from their own perspective.
The sum of all information pertaining to people of colour which we would be taught is, essentially, that former colonies are poorer today, and that they’re called the ‘Third World’. That slavery, once upon a time, ended, and that Dr King had a dream which peacefully and effectively ended racism in America. What would be left out is, firstly, is the true extent of the horrors of the British Empire, and what Kwame Nkrumah called the neo-colonial; the extension of racism in various other ways, and this is why coloniality persists today, and this is why decoloniality and anti-racism are needed today. Such concepts in their full detail go beyond the 10 minutes we have to speak, but, in a sentence; the world stopped being unapologetically racist, and started being unapologetically economically unjust, and because of the world’s history, it ended up still being racist, albeit perhaps implicitly.
the world stopped being unapologetically racist, and started being unapologetically economically unjust, and because of the world’s history, it ended up still being racist, albeit perhaps implicitly.
This induced amnesia results in a very worrying misconception; that racism is a thing of the past, and a thing for Americans and South Africans, not for British people. This ignores, however, the overwhelming evidence of British racial disparities. To say the least of British foreign policy for which, in the post-war period, race has been a hugely determinant factor. For those of you who are interested learning more about that, I would recommend the writing Adam Elliott Cooper of Oxford, on the 1948 British Nationality Act, and the White Dominion Settlers Laws of the 1960’s. That’s why people like my grandfather, who fought for the British while the Queen’s cousins bombed him, would be considered an ‘immigrant’ while Canadians and Australians are considered ‘expats.’
The problem, however, is that for the average student here from the start, if little [pupil 3’s name] had started school here, I would not know any of that. For those of you who don’t know, I came here in S4 from Sudan, in which revolution was brewing. When it came to it, my mum and I had a week’s long chat about the decision. In the end, I had to choose between being a amidst a violent revolution, or being a minority, which always baffles me, because it seems like such an easy choice to make, but I can tell you it isn’t.
It was then that I learned about Empire, and about British Jim Crow, about British Race Riots, and about micro-aggressions, and everything in between. For racism works in more than one way, and before we get to slavery and Nazism we have bias-motivated violence, like police brutality and before that we have non-violent discrimination like in housing, and before that we have individual acts of prejudice like bullying and ridicule, and before we get to that we have bias. Stereotyping, refusal to say people’s names, insensitive remarks.
Simply put, my mother - who by the way, like many bilingual people and parents of colour, was patronized at my first parents’ evening here, despite being a well-educated woman - taught me this: there is deep pain woven into the fibres of the union jack, and if I came here I’d have to face up to that. The red of that flag is, to some degree, that of blood, soaked straight from the black and brown bodies upon which Empire was built, the same bodies which today are crushed beneath its rubble, laying forgotten and decrepit at the bottom of the global totem pole to this day.
Simply put, my mother - who by the way, like many bilingual people and parents of colour, was patronized at my first parents’ evening here, despite being a well-educated woman - taught me this: there is deep pain woven into the fibres of the union jack, and if I came here I’d have to face up to that.
But if I’d been here since day one, I wouldn’t have understood that, to any degree. I’d have thought my only role in the human story was as the very lucky beneficiary of British generosity, as I once could have been a slave, or a revolutionary, but never anything more. I’d have been taught to, at best, sanitise imperial conquest, and at worst, idolise its worst murderers, and to ignore the deeper, extant remains of their actions today.
For the final chapter then, of the pupil experience story. S5 and S6, when we have, in theory, the very most independence. For argument’s sake, let’s say I chose to study this, to study coloniality. Even having read as much as I could, even having understood as much as I can, after months of research on Foucault and Derrida and Deconstructionism and the racialized self-concept, and everything else, I would not be much better off for it.
Because, and you can take my word for this, understanding the reasons for racism now, at this late stage, of my own accord, is not enough to dispel its effects. The clouds of internalized inferiority are brewing the mental skies of pupils today, and the longer the storm runs, the harder the repair will be. All the jokes, all the abuse, all the misrecognition, it will all add up, resulting in a state of mental health which will last a lifetime without medical intervention by a therapist.
My point is I have tried to understand racism in incredible detail, to the level maximum of which I am capable, and still the nagging voice of inferiority clicks at my heels. I still see people who have said vile, despicable things about me, about my family, my mother and sister, things literally unspeakable in front of all of you, and shudder, and struggle to throw off the idea that on some level there is some truth to what they say. I have studied decoloniality as much as I conceivably can, and I still don’t belong.
I have tried to understand racism in incredible detail, to the level maximum of which I am capable, and still the nagging voice of inferiority clicks at my heels.
So why do we need anti-racism in the curriculum?
I must admit the idea does move me. It speaks, in my opinion, to the nobility of being a teacher, and to the idea that history is not written by the winners so much as it is shaped by ordinary people, like the young students in the Anti-Racist Club, who felt deep down that something had to be done and got to doing it.
The argument in general, however, rests on two central axioms I think we all agree on. The first is that prevention is better than cure. If anyone ever lets me talk to the pastoral system, then I’ll be talking about how to help students overcome existing adversity. The curriculum, however, is early intervention, it is nipping this sinister bias in the bud from early on, it is giving students of colour the room to defend themselves and making it less and less likely that they will need to.
The second is that we all care about those younger years, and the thought of them being bullied for their skin or their faith is I’m sure abhorrent to us all. Curricular change is, for the reasons I’ve described, truly geared towards them more than anything else. The reasons we are speaking to you today are varied, but in essence we’ve seen the vicious isolation and hardship racism can bring to these children, and we are doing what they can to prevent it.
For me, I quite simply know I’d struggle to live with myself if I did nothing. Since leaving Sudan, I have been helpless to its slow, painful decline, to the casualties, and frequent passing of friends and family members, and to the grief which pervaded my community there, while those same friends and family here were mocked, insulted. In short, I felt guilty, for I did nothing.
Here, with this speech and the Anti-Racist Club, for the first time in years, I have had the chance to do good. So you can trust that when I say the primacy of these children cannot be overstated, I am telling the truth. It is no easy thing, to overcome time constraints, to depoliticize the rancorous, polarized area of race. But the point we’re trying to make, the point we think we have made, is that it is for the welfare of these students.
The point is that the status quo is hurting these students. And this, anti-racism, decoloniality, can help save future pupils from the same hardship.
The point is that the status quo is hurting these students. And this, anti-racism, decoloniality, can help save future pupils from the same hardship. Our greatest worry when starting this was one of longevity; that our efforts in the Anti-Racist Club would evaporate as soon as we leave. But in truth, one of my proudest moments I have been as a pupil is seeing the younger children in the Anti-Racist Club bravely telling their experiences, filled with hope that they might one day never have to endure them again. In that, and in my unequivocal belief in your care for these students, I know that we can come closer to that first, and most difficult, ambition of every school for children and young people: to belong.