Racist Schools and Drastic Measures

by Jendella Benson

When I was fourteen I was suspended from school for two days for calling a teacher racist.

In my defence: she was racist.

In her classroom there were two tables sat side-by-side, and each one sat eight students. One table had six Asian girls, one black girl (me) and one white girl, the other table had seven white girls and one Asian girl. Our table would constantly be getting in trouble for talking too much and laughing too loud and were often instructed to work in silence. When the other table would burst into raucous laughter, the teacher would storm over and threaten us again.

“But, miss, it wasn’t us!” one of us would often respond, and promptly be given a detention or sent outside. Once, if I remember correctly, one of the white girls from the other table actually owned up to being the disruptive giggler, but her admission was ignored while one of us took the punishment.

So that was why I thought she was racist. And as it turns out my teenage outburst has been vindicated, because a study in America has confirmed that white teachers often have implicit bias towards their darker-skinned students, and this starts with children as early as pre-school.

Even before reading this report, I had seriously been considering homeschooling my son due to my own experiences in a predominantly white grammar school, as well as the second-hand tales of friends and family. One particularly nasty encounter with a fellow parent in the comment section of a popular parenting website on this very topic also left me wondering if I could put my son into mainstream schooling with a clear conscience, knowing the kinds of micro- and not-so-micro-aggressions he will face from an young age. My parental instinct is to shelter and protect.

In America homeschooling has often been the preserve of the religious right, but in recent years more and more black families are choosing to homeschool their children due to concerns about racism and bias in schools. When my parents felt our local school was failing us, my brother and I were taken out of school for a year and taught at home, and while I’m not sure of the exact numbers of “BAME” homeschoolers in the UK, I personally know of five black families who have homeschooled or are currently homeschooling their children.

On one hand it can feel quite drastic to withdraw your child from mainstream education. But when I think about the time I was put in internal isolation for two days – this time for “intimidating” a teacher when I told her that my friend was still reading the newspaper that she was about to throw into the bin or the time during citizenship class, when a teacher commented that the non-white population of the UK was lower than she thought because “it does feel like they’re taking over!”, removing my child from such a quietly hostile environment feels like the only sensible thing to do. Why place the burden of that kind of daily interaction on a small child? Why not just let our children be children, free of the disorientating prejudice that tarnished our own childhoods?

Professor Walter Gilliam, who led the recent Yale study into bias, told The Guardian that he would advise parents of black children to go out of their way to befriend and get to know their children’s teachers, saying that it would be unlikely for a child to be suspended if the teacher knew and liked the parents. But why should I have to ‘beg friend’ with my child’s teacher to ensure that he gets fair treatment in the classroom?

Call me an idealist, but I don’t think the revolution will come by me compensating for another person’s bias or teaching my child to do the same. As well-meaning as Professor Gilliam’s advice is, we need a lot less well-meaning white people telling black people the best way to live with racism and bias, and more open acknowledgement that racism is a problem for white people to solve amongst themselves.

The thought of revisiting my own classroom experience with racial bias through my son’s education exhausts me even now, but thankfully I have a few years to go before I have to make a decision about his schooling. I do still wonder if the best way to address institutionalised racism is by withdrawing non-white children from mainstream education, but I want my child to be in a safe learning environment, not a battlefield. Sadly until white educators are serious about addressing issues of implicit bias and prejudice in their ranks, a battlefield is exactly what the classroom looks like to me.

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Media Diversified Headshots 142Jendella Benson is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in London. She writes about issues of faith, race, identity, feminism and the arts for various publications online and offline, and is also an occasional public speaker and workshop facilitator. She tweets regularly from @JENDELLA and more of her work can be found at www.jendella.co.uk.

You’re Doing It Wrong is a bi-monthly column by Jendella Benson on parenting, relationships, and the kaleidoscope of small victories, anxiety and unsolicited advice that is modern family life.

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8 replies

  1. I’m not familiar with American institutions, but I’ve studied in Portugal and as one of the few black kids in class I definitely could feel that there were injustices here and there, though I could not have possibly call it racism or anything like that, I was too innocent yet. I’m not sure that homeschooling is the best option, but then again, are the schools safe? Is that a healthy environment for a black kid to be in? How will the child build their self esteem without positive experiences? I don’t know.. It’s a very delicate topic.

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  2. From the study quoted: “teachers having access to background information resulted in increased severity ratings when the teacher was of a race different than the child (Black teacher with White child or White teacher with Black child)”

    My brother was taught in a majority Black school at a young age, and suffered the same treatment. I absolutely am not content with either status quo, but your assertion implying that this is a “white problem” is inaccurate and damaging.

    As another paper highlights, implicit bias is pervasive, and can be observed even among those charged with combating it: http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/

    Given these observations, it’s hard to think of an effective and rational approach, but given the immediacy of the problem I’d say ‘beg friending’ might not be such a bad idea – after all, that’s how communities are formed and sustained.

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    • I’m not suggesting that it is simply a “white problem”, but for so long the burden of living with, challenging and compensating for other people’s bias and racism so often is left to people of colour. When the majority of the teachers and educators are white in the education system are currently white, I think it’s fair to ask them to address the bias they ingest and replicate.

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      • “And as it turns out my teenage outburst has been vindicated, because a study in America has confirmed that white teachers often have implicit bias towards their darker-skinned students, and this starts with children as early as pre-school.” – this is what I was talking about.

        The study actually mentions that all races exhibit Implicit Bias, but your wording re-frames that in a way which readers will assume is something that only whites do.

        Yes is a society dominated by one race or another, you will find greater incident of bias one way, but this equally applies in countries representing other divisions, be it religion or language. The question remains how to deal with it, since the phenomenon is exhibited almost universally and on an individual basis.

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  3. I completely understand why you wish to protect your son from the damaging result of covert and overt racism in the classroom. Even now, almost fifty years later I can remember how my older cousin was singled out for punishment for the slightest misbehaviour.
    My concern is that the black community is not supported in challenging racism constructively; your son will have to deal with racism in all institutions and it may be helpful to start earlier rather than later.

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    • I’m not suggesting that it is simply a “white problem”, but for so long the burden of living with, challenging and compensating for other people’s bias and racism so often is left to people of colour. When the majority of the teachers and educators are white in the education system are currently white, I think it’s fair to ask them to address the bias they ingest and replicate.

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    • This is obviously something that he will encounter on some level, but I don’t think the school system is an appropriate environment to have to deal with those hostilities. In order for children to effectively learn and progress they need a supportive and welcoming environment, and going from my own experience, being unfairly excluded from lessons for minor infractions that were overlooked in my white classmates did not help me learn any better or make me a more confident person.

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