“Black people can’t swim” – Primary 6 teacher to the children in his class.
“Following a question from a pupil as to why all the athletes were black, the teacher gave his class factual information in relation to the body density of black people and white people and an explanation of the physiology of people. The example he provided was in relation to swimming and being in water. Having reviewed the information available to me, I am satisfied that all the information provided as part of the discussion was factual and I do not consider a racist remark was made and, therefore, I do not uphold your complaint.” – Depute Chief Executive in Resources and People Management.
These two quotations reflect a racist incident and the subsequent response that Ann received after she made a complaint back in 2016. Her harrowing counter-narrative reveals the extensive web of silencing, gas-lighting, intimidation and institutional racism, all of which are impacting the lives of young children and their families still to this day.
Let’s begin with Ann’s family. Ann has two daughters of mixed heritage, white Scottish and Yoruba: Tola is now 11 and Wumni is 9 (their names have been changed to protect their identities). They both take swimming classes and – it should really go without saying – they can and do swim. Back in 2016, a guardian of a girl in the same primary school as Tola and Wumni revealed to Ann that her teacher said “black people can’t swim” in front of his class and the guardian. After school, Ann's friend's daughter came up to her and asked Ann if the statement was true because, to the child, it seemed like an odd thing to say. The following day, a parent of another child in the same class also approached Ann because their child had also confirmed the racist remark made by the teacher. According to them, the teacher’s remark was made in passing when a girl was discussing her swimming lessons with friends.
Unfortunately, I would not be surprised if a teacher made a racist remark like that, out of the blue, considering the number of racist comments my peers and I have heard in some school staffrooms. Studies have revealed that there can sometimes be a racist culture in staffrooms in some Scottish schools, although it tends to be behind closed doors (Arshad et al., 2004; Scottish Government, 2018). Sure, we could give this teacher the benefit of the doubt. He might not necessarily have believed that stereotype; it might have been an inappropriate joke that he later regretted uttering in front of his class. Racial prejudice is learned by all of us who have been socialised in the West, as a result of centuries of colonisation and slavery underpinned by white supremacist ideologies and eugenics. We all have a lot of unlearning to do – some more than others. In fact, defenders of “unconscious” bias might happily hold hands in a circle with Prince Harry and Liam Neeson, proudly singing “everybody’s a little bit racist!” Jokes aside, while implicit bias is real, it should not be used as a smokescreen, nor an excuse for inaction, complacence and unaccountability. When it comes to racism, intentions should not matter more than the harm caused. I would hope that most educators deemed fit to teach by the General Teaching Council for Scotland would “consciously” know that “black people can’t swim” is a dangerous stereotype and that saying it to a class causes harm.
The Harm of such Stereotypes:
The teacher’s remark amounts to racial macro-aggression and hate speech. So what harm was caused? Tola and Wumni were not in the classroom (at the time they were in P4 and P1) but one of the girls present was of Scottish and Zimbabwean descent. For this girl of colour, such racist remarks could amplify the alienation, marginalisation, self-doubt and even self-hatred she might feel as a result of being a minority in a white space. As people of colour, it is inevitable for us to internalise racism to some extent and, in its more extreme forms, it can cause significant damage to our mental health and self-esteem (the impact of racism on children's mental health is explored later in this post). Saying that black people can’t swim in front of a black girl triggers the development of a fixed mind-set about her inherent capabilities based on the colour of her skin. Overcoming such a fixed mind-set can be incredibly difficult, especially since negative stereotypes about black people have been so pervasive over time.
Even if there were only white children in the classroom, the impact of the teacher’s comment would have been just as harmful: young, impressionable minds learning by example, straight from their teacher’s mouth, in an educational environment, that it is socially-acceptable to believe and say that “black people can’t swim.” Young people who might easily repeat such comments in front of black people, become the perpetrators of symbolic racial violence and get into trouble for spreading hate speech. It could impede on their chances of studying, working and living cohesively in an increasingly multicultural society. In the future, these white young people might risk being isolated, resentful, disciplined, arrested, or even radicalised by white supremacists like Tommy Robinson, for being anti-social (i.e. spreading racist hate) with their future peers, colleagues and/or clients. Hopefully, one teacher’s racist comment won’t have marked them to this point, but an accumulation of racist messages over time from multiple sources (from family, friends and the media) can add up. Anti-racist education should really be seen as beneficial for both white people and people of colour because it is necessary for nurturing well-rounded human beings.
How to Fix the Problem:
Now let’s suppose that this teacher just had a bad day and regretted what he said (it happens even to the best of us). The right thing for him to do would be to swallow his pride, apologise to his class for his remark, explain what makes it harmful and restore justice by checking with the pupils of colour how he can make amends. Using our 10 steps to create the right conditions for productive racial dialogue in the classroom would ensure healthy discussions. A follow-up lesson on stereotypes and the harms they cause would be helpful.
Even better, I would have liked to see a follow-up lesson on growth mind-sets with a short story or film, teaching the children that anyone can achieve their goals if they work hard and put their minds to it. Growth mind-sets are incredibly powerful for young girls and children of colour who often bear the brunt of stereotypes that cause them to doubt or underestimate their inherent capabilities. We don’t want race and gender to be obstacles limiting our young people’s minds; there are already enough structural barriers in society as it is. Finally, the teacher should have taken a good look at his curriculum with a racial lens and sought to counter racist biases by diversifying/decolonising it with empowering and multiple representations of people of colour.
OK, so mistakes happen and amends can be made. Yet, when Ann complained to the head teacher, she was not presented with the type of amends I listed above. A thorough investigation could have led to some sort of intervention and perhaps more time and resources would have been allocated for meaningful anti-racist training. Instead, after a long wait, Ann received a letter containing the local authority’s response which revealed a great deal of racial illiteracy, a concerning return of race science and a strong presence of institutional racism.
First of all, the letter indicates conflicting descriptions of the racist incident. The guardian who was present at the time claimed that the racist remark was an interruption made upon hearing girls discuss swimming lessons - an interjection made without explanation or qualification - before walking away from their circle of conversation. After the investigation, the head teacher and the subsequent response letter claimed that the context was a class discussion regarding a BBC Newsround sporting item prompted after one of the children had asked why the athletes were all black.
Ann swiftly picked up on the conflicting descriptions and argued that the detail of the incident was manipulated to undermine her concern that the racist comment was unexplained and unqualified. In her open letter to the council in question, Ann also pointed out that:
“The initial investigation involved the head teacher, the class teacher and some of the children from the class involved on the account of the information I had given them as detailed above. The (local authority) Education Board’s investigation, as conducted by the Service Manager - Education and a colleague who took note of the discussion, only interviewed the class teacher and did not request any information from the children or their guardians. It is difficult for me to see how this would not result in a bias in favour of the class teacher.”
In any case, it does seem like quite a big leap to start off with “all athletes are black” to then end on “black people can’t swim” in the span of one classroom discussion guided by a qualified teacher. Even the lead up to the comment "black people can't swim" remains out of place as the alleged conclusion in the council's scenario is that "this does not stop black people from swimming." The gaps in the alleged context should cause reason for further investigation.
Using Scientific Racism to Deny Racist Allegations:
Second and most worrying of all, is the use of scientific racism to defend the teacher in question. The official letter states that biological differences in body density between races is “factual information.” Let us be clear – race is a social construct, with zero biological foundation, and it relies solely on the way people are perceived based on physical appearances (skin colour, hair texture, facial traits, etc). Not internal biological differences.
Unfortunately, there still exists "science" which defends race. Starting off as eugenics, it reinvented itself as scientific racism, or race biology, and it continues to find a safe haven in academia (see the white supremacist, peer-reviewed journal: Mankind Quarterly). Such "science" it is not neutral – it is created by predominantly white people with implicit, if not explicit, assumptions of white superiority.
Angela Saini’s recent publication, Superior: The Return of Race Science, reveals that race scientists and ethnic nationalists manipulate our sense of ethnic identity to create a picture of biologically essential people. They exploit stereotypes such as “black people can’t swim” to make us believe that identity is biological, even though Saini insists that identity is actually social and cultural. For example, South Asian people are often considered to be more prone to hypertension – this is not a biological determination based on your skin colour and people’s perception of you as South Asian. It is a cultural phenomenon which is linked to South Asian cuisine and eating too much salt. Another example would be the way black people in the US are considered to be more prone to sickle cell anemia. Saini explains that it is a genetic and geographical inheritance emerging from West Africa (sickle cell anemia provided some resistance to malaria). It should really go without saying that sickle cell anemia exists outside of Africa where people don’t have black skin and many black-skinned people outwith West Africa do not have this condition. This condition looks racialised simply because, in the US, white people are predominantly of European descent and black people are predominantly of West African descent as a result of a history of slavery and colonisation. Similarly in the US, infant mortality is higher for black Americans not because of a biological disadvantage, but because of structural racism which runs along socioeconomic lines. Geographical, historical, cultural and socioeconomic differences affect our physiology - not race.
The council’s letter claimed to defend a physiology (the scientific study of the mechanisms at work within a living system) of black people but it was really defending a physiognomy (the practice of assessing a person’s character based on their outward appearance) of black people. Needless to say, physiognomy and race biology are nothing more than pseudoscience; they are just as "factual" as Flat-Earthers' beliefs. Thus, the council’s response signals concerning levels of racial illiteracy and ignorance, possibly in an attempt to protect a school and a teacher’s reputation.
The Revelation of Institutional Racism:
Finally, the multi-layered manifestation of institutional racism is what causes yet more reason for concern. From the council's failure to understand how racism operates, to the poorly-conceived defence of scientific racism to deny racist allegations, to the subsequent silencing and intimidation of Ann and her family in an effort to protect a school's reputation - this case has institutional racism written all over it.
It is clear that the investigation was carried out in an unprofessional manner, and its conclusion, which Ann noted took much longer than usual to receive, was inadequate and unsatisfactory. Institutional racism works hard to protect those in power and to silence those affected by its systemic oppression. According to her, this particular teacher had quite the reputation in the school for making inflammatory comments and for being protected by the head teacher. The Scottish-Zimbabwean girl who was in the classroom at the time of the racist incident was removed from the school one week later. When Ann asked the girl’s parents if they would like to make a complaint, they were reluctant because they feared it would cause animosity towards them.
As Ann took it on upon herself to make the complaint, she soon realised that the parents were right to be cautious. Ann received a lot of hostility from the community and from the parent council. Her youngest daughter, Wumni, was being bullied by children in school. Children taunted her with claims that “brown people are smelly/ugly/dirty/stupid” and, instead of protecting her, teachers labelled her as "over-sensitive" (gas-lighting her by denying her experience of racism, essentially another form of racial violence). The powerful impact of such a racist school culture on her mental health is clear: at the age of 5, Wumni tried to whiten her skin with toothpaste and, at the age of 6, she tried to stab herself. Close to a break-down, Ann contacted social services. She claims that they weren’t really interested in helping and they simply told her she was coping fine.
The tone then changed when, on the advice of UNICEF, Ann reported the teacher in question to the police. A social worker soon turned up at her door saying that they had concerns for her children’s welfare and they were considering removing her children from her care. The social worker advised Ann to desist her pursuit for justice and let it go. This type of silencing and intimidation resonates far too well with the experiences of Stephen Lawrence’s family who were spied on by the Metropolitan Police in an attempt to cover up their inadequate service to the black family whose son died of a racist muder. The ten-year inquiry eventually led to the Macpherson report (1999) which set in stone a definition of institutional racism and triggered the Race Relations Amendment Act in 2000.
When parents began to physically threaten Wumni (who was 7 at the time), the police and the school would still not take it seriously. The Chief Inspector visited Ann and asked her what her definition of racism was. Ann quoted the Macpherson report to explain that a racist incident is “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any person.” The council’s letter revealed a failure to address racism in that manner as it concluded that because the Depute Chief Executive “did not consider a racist remark was made,” they did not uphold Ann’s complaint. The Macpherson report also defines institutional racism as:
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. It persists because of the failure of the organisation openly and adequately to recognise and address its existence and causes by policy, example and leadership.”
In this case, the presence and persistence of institutional racism is undeniable. The parent council initially refused to do anything about the racist incident because they didn’t want to be known as “the racist school.” When Ann finally persuaded them to have a meeting, the Head of Education at that council was invited. Ann was only informed of this invitation the day before. During the meeting, when Ann was asked to define racism, she was silenced by the Head of Education because they claimed she was relying on hypothetical examples. However, Ann was just quoting the Macpherson report and the poet Scott Wood:
“The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people's expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn't care if you are a white person who likes Black people; it's still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don't look like you” (Scott Wood)
When Ann then challenged them by asking them to explain how black people are physiologically different, the Head of Education refused to respond. In front of all those who were present, Ann concluded that this was a practical demonstration of institutional racism perpetuated through organisations and agencies. Not only did the Scottish-Zimbabwean family leave the school because of the school’s failure to address a teacher’s racism, Ann and her family soon left the school as well after the mother of one of Wumni's bullies joked about physically threatening Wumni in front of the after-school manager at the school gates.
Scottish education hit a new low when a council managed to get away with the use of scientific racism to deny a racist allegation. Admittedly, it would be naive to assume that education is immune to institutional racism; permanent structures of accountability to support anti-racism are clearly missing. It is hard to tell how many other cases like this exist today in Scotland due to the insidious and silencing nature of racism, as revealed in this post. In detailing much of the bad and the ugly in education, the purpose of this post is not to be pessimistic about Scottish education. This post comes from the acknowledgement that we cannot productively be anti-racist without critically exploring behaviours, processes and systems of racism to dismantle them. More needs to be done and I hope that this post will shake people up into action. Complacence is complicity.
Of course, there is some good out there too. Many would agree that there is much worth celebrating in Scottish education, such as the promising revival of anti-racism on the agenda with the report on Teaching in a Diverse Scotland (2018). Whether this revival in policy becomes a revival in implementation remains to be seen. Many, like Ann, do show strength and resilience in their commitment to social justice. Ann, a white Scottish mother of biracial children, is the perfect example of a white ally – someone who is ready to risk their privilege, their reputation and their comfort in the name of racial justice. If we want Scottish education to become a system of anti-racist education, we are going to need the same commitment she has shown at all levels. Let there be many more Anns in Scottish education.
Ann's Twitter and link to the letter: https://twitter.com/aweeshoe/status/1156244335307960325
Arshad, R., Almeida Diniz, F., Kelly, E., O’Hara, P. Sharp, S. & Syed, R. (2004). Minority Ethnic Pupils’ Experiences in Scotland (https://www2.gov.scot/resource/doc/920/0033758.pdf)
Macpherson, W. (1999) Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-stephen-lawrence-inquiry)
Saina, A. (2019) Superior: The Return of Race Science (https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/07/10/416496218/is-race-science-making-a-comeback)
Scottish Government (2018). Teaching in a Diverse Scotland: Increasing and Retaining Minority Ethnic Teachers (https://www.gov.scot/publications/teaching-diverse-scotland-increasing-retaining-minority-ethnic-teachers-scotlands-schools/)