In October, the women and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch made a dramatic intervention in the House of Commons during a session commemorating Black History Month. Schools, she said, that teach students about certain ideas from “critical race theory” as “fact” were breaking the law: “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt.”
The minister’s words came not too long after guidance for schools in England was published that said schools “should not use resources produced by organisations that … promote victim narratives that are harmful to British society”. It’s safe to say that these two developments, which seemed designed to have a chilling effect on discussing the uncomfortable truths of racism in Britain, have made fellow teachers and myself worried about what we can and can’t say. And the day after Badenoch’s speech, I was due to take a PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) lesson about racism.
Most of the students in my class are white, so before we even started the lesson, I knew that the racial status of whiteness in a white-majority society was going to come up. I felt unsure as to my role – I hadn’t had time yet to absorb Badenoch’s statement – but the intelligence and inquisitiveness of my students led the way. “Can you be racist towards white people, because I told my friend that you can’t?”, asked one. Others began sharing their experiences. A black student talked about how their family members had been stopped by the police in town. Two non-white students explained how a teacher got them mixed up for a year. There was no point during the lesson when any of the white students shared experiences of racism. Isn’t that discrepancy in their experiences an example of “white privilege” in action?
Schools are complex ecosystems. You might be dealing with more than 1,000 students and several hundred staff members. It became evident to me that there were many members of staff who didn’t know or maybe even care about the issues raised during Black History Month. I know that one member of staff said, “All lives matter” at one point, while another drew a false equivalence between Black Lives Matter and the BNP. This highlights both the importance of educating staff about race, as well as the fact that schools are contested spaces for social issues.
Now we are faced with the dilemma of how to teach vitally important concepts without breaking government guidance. Colleagues often have the same worrying scenario in mind: they try to have a nuanced conversation about “whiteness” or the legacy of white supremacy, and a student goes home and tells their parents that they’re learning about how racism is their fault. The government says it is against teaching certain ideas, as if they were “accepted facts”. But no concept in the social sciences is uncontested and surely Badenoch knows this, so the real consequences of her words is probably going to be a chilling effect. I am also unsure specifically what constitutes “critical race theory” or “victim narratives”, from the government’s point of view, and so feel apprehensive about the content of some lessons in the coming weeks.
I don’t want to be complicit in papering over the realities of racism by avoiding these topics for fear of repercussions from senior staff and the wider community, but I also don’t want to put my job at risk. As teachers, we have a responsibility and duty to our students to provide them with comprehensive support and guidance to give them the best chances when they leave school. Race issues and racism are extremely prevalent in our students’ lives, and children are going to have questions. “But why, Miss?” and “Yeah, but how do you know, Sir?” pop up frequently in all lessons. Am I meant to discourage a conversation about stop and search when the only teenager in the room to have experienced this is black and their white peers want to understand why?
There needs to be more resources and training to equip teachers to deliver good teaching on diversity-based topics – I know I am not the only teacher who feels that. I want to see diversity training made a compulsory part of teacher-training programmes; it should be given a similar priority as safeguarding training. Rather than shutting down these conversations and topics, educators should be better equipped to explore these issues in the classroom without fear or ignorance. Creating a climate in which teachers feel it’s safer to avoid these topics of conversation doesn’t make these questions go away – it will force students to go elsewhere in search of answers.
• The author teaches in a secondary school in England